Credit: Christin Hume via Unsplash

Unlearning… dream jobs and “success”

By Emily Hay

In the latest instalment of our unlearning series, Views Editor Emily Hay explores how she figured out what her career goals really were.

Go to school, get good grades to get into university, then work hard and do well there to nab a good job. That’s how they tell us to do life when we’re teenagers. When we get to university, things change a little: suddenly, the emphasis is on getting work experience and extracurriculars to boost your CV alongside maintaining those academic grades. The end goal is always the same though: you want to leave university and walk straight into a stable graduate role in a field you want to make a long-term career for yourself in.

Once you’re in that stable job, with a flashy title and great progression prospects, congratulations – you’ve made it! So what if you’re working 80-hour weeks? You want to get ahead in the industry, don’t you? So what if you find the whole atmosphere soul-crushingly mundane, or exploitative, or anxiety-inducing? You want to be on the housing ladder by 30, don’t you? You want to make your parents proud, don’t you? You want to be successful, don’t you?

This was my internal monologue all the way through my third and fourth years as an undergrad. As someone who’s always been considered “smart,” “gifted,” “talented” – whatever adjective you want to use – I was always told that I was destined for great things. The problem is, those “great things” are pretty much always career-based. They make you base your entire identity around your future career when you’re young, particularly when you’re at university. So, when you’re not sure what you want to do, or you begin to question the career path you’ve already started wandering down, it becomes not only a career crisis but an identity one.

When I was at school, English was my thing. I loved reading, and although I tended to do well in most of my classes, it was the subject I did best in and the one in which I was most confident in my abilities. All of this meant that I knew I wanted to do a literature degree at uni, but beyond that, I didn’t have a clue. After a dalliance with wanting to be an author, which lasted far too long for the (lack of) work ethic and imagination I showed the process of creative writing, I found myself nearing the end of my second year and already beginning to panic about my career prospects and lack of experience in anything that wasn’t customer service – the one thing that I knew I wanted out of at the first opportunity. So, I decided to give some non-fiction writing a chance and dove head-first into student journalism. I not only made loads of new friends but I worked really hard to get as much legit experience as I could in the “real” media world, including some paid freelance work which really helped boost my ego as well as my CV. Yet, when it came to my final year and staring at a barren jobs market (partially thanks to a general lack of arts journalism jobs in Scotland, and partially thanks to 2020 and Covid) I couldn’t imagine any of it being a dream, rest-of-my-life job.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed what I did enough to do it for free sometimes, and certainly felt good getting paid for it. If I got a full-time job in the industry which slotted perfectly around the other aspects of my life I’d gladly take it in a heartbeat. But this is a cutthroat industry; the amount of graduates outnumbers the number of available jobs what feels like tenfold, and you have to really, desperately want it – and be willing to go wherever the jobs are rather than where you necessarily want to be – to cash in. The realisation I slowly came to throughout my final year – but it’s taken me into a passion-project Masters to properly accept and articulate – is that I don’t think I want to live for a career. I can’t think of any I want badly enough to sacrifice my home, my happiness or my mental wellbeing to claw my way to the top. I was always taught to base my worth on my career path and goals, but I’m a whole person outside of them too, and I don’t want to lose any of that just to earn the looks-good-on-a-CV type of success that I don’t want that badly.

It feels taboo to say it, but you’re allowed to want to work to live, rather than live to work. Your career doesn’t have to define who you are for the rest of your life – in fact, it’s actually pretty messed up that that’s the norm. High-achieving school and university environments have led us to believe that the only way of being a successful member of society is to have a career that takes over your life and either earns you loads of money or makes a real difference in the world. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting these things for yourself if you genuinely want them, but there is something wrong with being told that you can’t be successful in any other ways.

I get that we want to encourage kids to be as much as they can be, and in the late-capitalist hellscape we live in “as much as you can be” is inherently tied to “as much as you earn” or “as much as you invent” or “as much as you influence others” etcetera, etcetera. But the fact that success is never defined in non-career terms is so damaging – maybe not to the young people who are encouraged to shoot for the stars, but definitely for the adults who land abruptly amongst the rubble, and who decide that maybe they don’t want to build a rocket at great personal cost to themselves, when they’re happy enough looking up at the sky with their feet firmly on the ground.

If you want a job that earns you enough to live off of and not much more because it affords you the spare time to spend on hobbies, with friends or with family, then no one should be able to tell you that you aren’t going to be “successful” in life. “Success” isn’t a tangible thing – it isn’t quantifiable, it’s relative to you, and the only person that can measure your personal level of success is you. And if success for you is being happy and generally living for the life you lead outside your working hours, then that’s okay. Obviously, it would be preferable to not hate the job that you do to pay the bills, but it isn’t necessary for it to be your life either.

Not everyone can be a world changer, but not everyone wants to be. You’re not less successful than anyone else for thinking that way, but you just might find yourself a damn sight happier in the long run.


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I think this article comes off as quite privileged. Not everyone has the luxury to aspire to land a job that pays “enough to live off of and not much more”. Why do you think people from disadvantaged backgrounds go to uni? It’s certainly not to get low-paid jobs. I don’t think aspiring to have a well-paid job is necessarily a reflection of corrupted morals, but maybe that people want to live comfortably? You can be anti-capitalist but still recognise that trying to earn a decent wage to have a nice life isn’t the end of the world. I think when people try to make valid criticisms of the notion of “success” they too often end up arguing for the side that’s rooted in middle-class privilege. It’s important to keep in mind that many people aspiring to be “successful” are often those who grew up in poverty.