Reinhold Messner, the famous climber who first peaked Everest without oxygen, said ‘Man, by nature, is not meant to have a profession. Perhaps, a calling’.
These words trace cracks in my mind as I, like countless others, am engaged in what seems the natural development of life: a degree, the right job, becoming a citizen of the world.
What did Messner intend when he uttered those words? Perhaps he is suggesting we are misinterpreting the idea of having a career.
What is your understanding of the course of studies you have chosen or the job you are looking for? Do you feel you were born to do a certain profession or are you struggling to choose a direction?
The fact that someone states to ‘be born’ to do a certain profession makes us believe that is the case. Successful people everywhere seem to have been created precisely for that role: Beyonce on stage, Steve Jobs designing Apple, Richard Branson giving the word Virgin a whole new meaning.
Less famous people around us love their jobs and excel at what they do. They have all found their paths. In the words of Sir Ken Robinson, they have all found their ‘element’.
So, perhaps this is it, we are all somehow preordained to a certain job, and we must find the right one, choose the right one, and once we find it, we will be successful. And happy.
Is this really so?
My answer is no. While professions are a social construct, human beings belong to nature. These two dimensions – the social and the natural – co-exist on different planes. While the social is finite, definite, and rule-regulated, the natural is infinite, fluid and constantly changing. Human beings are like little universes, each containing the complexity and the immensity of the big version of it.
Our little universe is composed of talents and inclinations – in some cases, a calling – while professions are social categories that come with a limited number of characteristics: their main scope, essential competences and remuneration.
No matter the job, when we choose one, we inevitably reduce our potential skills to the ones that specific role calls for; we also take on a number of aspects that may not be in tune with us. In this process, we are like a piece of a puzzle connected to another one that doesn’t quite fit. Some angles, some curves, some holes or some protuberances do not fit just right. You have to push a bit to connect it. It’s an impossible fit.
While there are some professions that suit us better than others, the reason it is an impossible fit is that our world is designed so that people suit given categories of jobs rather than vice-versa. In the same way a photograph cannot portray reality in its multidimensionality, our aspirations are not reducible to a job description. Some elements get obliterated in the passage.
This, not surprisingly, hurts. It hurts because our career has become that, what defines us. When asked about our profession, we often answer ‘I am a … teacher/lawyer/gardener’. The verb ‘I am’ reflects – and perhaps produces – some of this distortion.
We start dedicating to our jobs disproportionate parts of our days. We tend to forget that a job is a role, not an identity.
This has profound consequences. We may forget that jobs are social phenomena, and there is nothing wrong if we don’t feel we were born for one. By confusing what we do with who we are, our profession may become like a cage, that we, like wild tigers, incessantly pace facing its limitations.
Moreover, people buy into the idea of the perceived prestige that accompanies some professions as opposed to others. We identify with the hierarchies created by organisational structures or start to believe that a lawyer is a more valuable human being than a cleaner.
The bleakest consequence of mixing role with identity is professionals taking their own lives when retiring or losing their jobs: they lost their sense of self.
What is required is a change of perspective. Rather than looking for the piece of the puzzle that magically fits yours, consider yourself to be the whole puzzle instead; the jobs you do being but a part of the totality of you.
At any point of time, rather than looking for a career path, ask yourself: in what ways does my job allow expression of some of my talents? To what extent does this allow me to deepen some of my interests? Is there an alignment of who I am and the underlying scope of my current profession?
Each job, each role, gives the opportunity to develop and perfect some of our natural inclinations. A job is a means to end, not an end in itself; the end being self-expression; in some cases, and depending on your beliefs, expression of a divine purpose.
By recognising that the human dimension is what defines the social dimension, and not vice-versa, we are empowered to create or shape a professional life that resembles us and not the other way around. In doing so, we bend the bars of the cage we needed to fit in, reconciling the idea of work with that of freedom.