A while ago, a former colleague from my job at a big-four-company – who is on a sabbatical in Japan at the moment – contacted me about my last blog post. This not only made me very happy (we hadn’t been in touch for a while), but it also lead to an interesting email-dialogue. She has studied psychology and in her last email she wrote and reflected about how her definition of “having a career” changed now that she lives in Japan. It was a very interesting read and it inspired me to think about this topic myself.
At first, it seems like such a simple question, but for me the definition of what a “career” really is has changed throughout the jobs I have had so far in my life. Four jobs and four very different angles on a goal that almost everybody strives for. Due to recent changes in my life I have come to yet another very different definition – but let’s start from the beginning.
Straight from graduation: “Career” means “having any job at all”
After graduating from university and proudly owning a Master’s degree, starting my “career” simply meant “not becoming unemployed”. I still remember being thrilled upon the thought of finally finishing my studies and at the same time being utterly terrified of having to manage the next very difficult part of life that was: joining the workforce. I was afraid of sending out resumees – always thinking that either my grades or my professional experience (that consisted of various internships and a short period of being self-employed as a graphic designer) weren’t good enough for anybody to actually hire me. Luckily the advertising agencies I applied to didn’t seem to have such high standards, because upon sending out seven applications I received seven invitations for interviews – which rendered me absolutely excited. So I went to seven interviews, sweat through my light-grey blazer seven times and finally received two offers for project management jobs in Frankfurt, the city I have always wanted to live in. Of course I made the classic mistake that any insecure young woman without any professional experience and self-confidence makes: I took the first the job that was offered to me and did not negotiate my salary at all. For me it was enough to have a job – any job – and not having to sneak around at parties mumbling “I don’t know yet” whenever anybody asked me what I was going to do after graduation. It was a simple time and I was happy.
The first job: “Career” means “having another option”
Reality caught up with me quickly: working in a big and sought-after advertising agency meant stress, unpaid overtime and (at least for me) getting yelled at every Tuesday during the weekly meeting with the marketing manager of the automotive client I was responsible for. It was difficult for me getting used to the fact that it was simply impossible to satisfy the client’s wishes, no matter how hard and long we as a team worked in order to realize the requirements that were thrown at us each day. I learned quickly that – in order to be happy with your job – you need to be able to actually have a chance of achieving the goals that are set for you by either your boss or your client. But if your life consist of a daily struggle with goals that are so unrealistic (some might also euphemistically call them ambitious) that nobody can ever achieve them, you quickly become frustrated. Oh, and have I mentioned, that I don’t care about cars at all? So, after a year, I started screening job advertisements again. I still didn’t really know what I was looking for at that time, but at least I knew a little bit better what I was not looking for: a job in which I am at the mercy of one single tyrannical client, while working hundreds of extra hours for a product I couldn’t care less about without being paid a penny for it.
During my search for a new job I came across an ad for one of the world’s “big four” audit and consulting companies that strangely matched my still very unspecific profile pretty well. Although I was sure that I did not have a chance of even being invited for an interview (this company received 40.000 applications each year) I went through the nerve wrecking online-application-process and managed to successfully supply my resumee. And guess what: after only four interviews, one of which included a two-hour case-study, I got the job! After that my definition of “career” got a very interesting spin: having a career suddenly meant having another option and not being stuck in a job you’re not happy with.
The new job: “Career” means “being busy”
So, when I was twenty-six, I started to work in a big shiny tower with impressive sand-colored marble floors and walls, a canteen that featured a live-cooking station, meeting rooms on the 50th floor that overlooked Frankfurt’s skyline and my very own office with its own door that I had to share with only one other person (at the advertising agency we of course had an open office area, which was loud and crowded and left no space for privacy at all). Although I worked in a department that was not client-facing it was expected of us to wear the usual “consultant-uniform”: A dress or a skirt and blazer with high heels for the ladies and a dark suit for the gentlemen. At first, this all made me feel very important and special: dressing up in the morning, stepping into the huge lobby, grabbing a coffee-to-go at the café overlooking the lobby and sitting down at my desk from where – during Christmas time – I had an excellent view at the gigantic Christmas tree that was set up in the middle of the courtyard each year. At first I really felt that this job was everything anyone could have ever wished for.
But I soon realized that all those very nice superficial things became irrelevant when the rest of your life went down the drain. Although it should have been perfectly clear to me that working at a big-four-company meant working a lot of extra hours (weekday nights, weekends, even public holidays) and having to deal with people that possessed a self-confidence and a rigor that could tear you in pieces, this reality came to me quite as a shock. I had already considered the overtime at the advertising agency unacceptable, but at this new job different standards were set. It was expected of us to put work first at any time; private appointments had to be cancelled in case something had to be finished “EOB” (= end of business), people had to return earlier than planned from their vacation because “an important client needed an offer”, it was impossible to pursue a hobby (like going to a Zumba class once a week) because you couldn’t commit to any specific time on any specific day and we of course had cell phones for work, that had to be turned on all the time in order to be reachable whenever some pretentious person above us in the firm’s hierarchy had an urgent request.
It took me four years, lots of tears and one nervous breakdown at eight o’clock in the morning of October 3rd in 2016 (I remember this specifically, because I had worked for three weeks straight twelve hours per day with only the Sunday’s off) to work up the guts to quit the job, that had seemed so perfect from the outside and been so nasty on the inside. At that time my definition of “career” had changed to “working non-stop in a designer-built glass tower for renowned big international clients” while hoping each year to finally get promoted, in order to have a little more money and an important sounding title as a replacement for the life you missed out on.
The third job: “Career” means “working on stuff you like with people you appreciate”
After the aforementioned nervous breakdown I was prepared to quit the big-four-job without having a new one. I was ready for it all: the fear of not knowing what comes next, giving up on any unemployment benefits because of having quit the job on my own, the humiliation of sitting at home and screening job advertisements again while my former colleagues slaved away in the glass tower twelve hours each day. But I was lucky: before submitting my resignation I was offered a job by my former boss from the advertising agency in the digital department of a bank. My former boss had left the agency herself a couple of years ago and we had stayed in touch – and now she came to my rescue. I was unbelievably grateful and happy and although I technically was not really qualified for the job that was offered to me, the people from the bank decided to give me a chance.
And then, a few months into this new job, for the first time in my life, I slowly realized that work could actually be fun if only a few parameters matched the personal requirements I had subconsciously set for myself: the banking industry was very interesting (as opposed to e.g. the car industry), the product I worked for was cool and sophisticated, my role in the team fit my skills and character, the people I worked with were not only very talented but also fun to be with and the amount of overtime and traveling was acceptable. It even turned out that working overtime and traveling was a lot easier when you were together with people you liked and that had a similar mindset – it sometimes didn’t even feel like “working” at all. For me this job finally felt like “having arrived professionally”, which is why my definition of “career” again changed profoundly. Having a “career” now meant “working in a role you are comfortable with, on a project you are interested in with people you appreciate”. And that definition is still valid for me today, although I recently had to add yet another very different aspect of “having a career”.
The future: ” Career” means “taking care of your family and your professional development”
I am eight months pregnant now and after experiencing premature labor last week and being stuck at home in order to “take it easy” the notion of having a child pretty soon became quite real. And with this realization also came the thought that, in the future, having a “career” will not only be about myself and whether I feel good at a job or whether I like the people or not – it will also be about how well the jobs allows me to take care of my child (for example by offering flexible work-hours) while at the same time not neglecting my need for continuous professional development (I couldn’t imagine doing the same thing for multiple years). I don’t have any illusions: it will be tough out there for working moms, especially in industries where men still dominate the top management. I still remember what my (male) boss said when I announced that my boyfriend and I would each stay at home half a year to take care of the little one: he called it “modern”, I call it “fair”.
So I guess as we grow older and as we gain more experiences, our answer to the question “What is a career?” will change constantly and profoundly. And this is a good thing, because every tweak of our career-definition will bring us a little bit closer to what we need – either what we need to be happy in general, or what we need to master a specific stage of life. And knowing what we want enables us to take action – to quit the job we don’t like or to go to Japan to build up an expat-network or to take some time off to be with our child. Because the worst thing you can do, is not to do anything at all.