“What do you do?” Careers and Labels

Careers are such strange things. When we’re children people ask us what we want to be and it’s always these clearly identifiable jobs, ones that carry an identity with them: teacher, fireman, policeman, actress, doctor, etc. When you get older you realise that there are so many jobs that don’t have a name, which you can’t aim for because you don’t know they exist, and where telling people what you do requires a paragraph of explanation. In some cases, this can make you feel like your job is worth less than the jobs that have a title, and less than the people who’ve been aiming for the same vocation their whole lives.

For example, my boyfriend is an academic, many of his friends are academics, some of his exes are academics. Before we met, after a period in publishing I decided to go back to university for a Master’s degree, with a thought that I might carry it on this time and become a lecturer. Talking it over with a teacher who knew me well he gently warned me that academia might not be right for me because there is so much time spent alone, doing research or marking or writing lectures, and the rest of the time you have to be in some way an extrovert, engaging the attention and motivating the minds of dozens of students. In the past I’ve heaped a whole load of contradictory labels onto myself – introvert (needs to spend time alone), history of depression (shouldn’t spend too much time alone), anxious (should steer clear of stressful situations). And then I wondered if I was limiting myself with these labels from a career that I could enjoy. So I kept aiming for the PhD, until I found out other, innate qualities about myself that don’t have labels but which do mean that being a lecturer wouldn’t be the best path for me. I don’t enjoy working on one thing for long periods of time, I find it tedious and frustrating. Although I enjoyed what I was researching in my MA I didn’t have that all-consuming desire to get to the bottom of a topic and do everything required – learn new languages, travel – to find out everything about it. Although I’m a competent public speaker it makes me extremely stressed. For these reasons amongst others (expense, lack of job opportunities on the other side) I decided not to carry on with my studies.

As someone who defined themselves for a long time by their grades (see other blog) I’m still coming to terms with this decision, and struggling not to feel inadequate and intellectually a lesser being next to these academics. And maybe I am, in some ways, if you judge by particular criteria. I don’t have the kind of memory that holds on to thousands of historical facts. I seem to have filled up my brain by age 16 with information about different horse breeds and the plots of hundreds of books – there’s not much space left. I’m not one of those people who can expostulate at length on various topics when I don’t know exactly what I’m talking about (introvert trait?) unless I’m drunk (or just shy?) so being a lecturer probably wouldn’t work out so well. If a student threw me a curveball question I’d either need to have a hip flask of gin to let me bullshit about it or tell them to ask again next week once I’d read up on it. Although it’s been a difficult process, I’m glad to have done the MA so I could find out these things about myself, about my differences. Essentially, I believe that’s what university is all about.

The company I work for has recently been approached by a group working to encourage students to take STEM subjects at GCSE and beyond. As a mapping company and technology company you’d assume we’d be a good fit for a slightly ‘think outside the box’ example of what you can do with STEM subjects. But the people in the office mostly didn’t do science and maths. Of the people who did further education, we have an assortment including English, History, Architecture, and Music. Some didn’t go to university at all, and their A Levels weren’t in the right ball park either – Latin, Greek, etc. We are, in fact, an advert for Arts and Humanities subjects as passports to whatever the hell you like. While I understand that we need to show children what they can do with maths and science and encourage them to carry it on if they enjoy it, I think we should also be teaching children that they can keep changing their minds, over and over again. What they do at university does not need to define them for the rest of their lives. Neither does their first job. Or their second job.

As you get older your ideas of yourself can change – they might not, you might carry out your childhood dream – but if, like me, your ‘childhood dream’ changed monthly and was remarkably similar to what your best friend’s ‘childhood dream’ was, or the occupation of the protagonist of the latest book you’d read, then don’t panic. You don’t have to have had a dream, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it. You have the freedom to just see what comes up, see what sounds interesting, and see what opportunities come from people that you know. Do not underestimate the advantages of going for something that isn’t what you ever imagined, if the people are nice and the job keeps your mind busy. I love working at the job I’m in now because I get to do so many different things every day. I have an obscure job title which nobody has ever thought up as their dream job while they’re at school (we invented it) and which tells you virtually nothing about what I do every day, but it suits me with my preference for short jobs I can chop and change between.

The film Good Will Hunting made me laugh in this respect (spoilers!). There’s so much debate about what Will should do, what job he should go for with this fantastic brain that was going to change the world. But why did he need to decide right then? He was what, 20? He could do one thing for a bit, then something else. He could go be in love with the girl for a while, sort his head out after some pretty serious and life-changing therapy, then think about what he wanted to do. We shouldn’t keep pushing young people to think of a career by an expiry date, especially when people are putting down that expiry date as 17, when you’re picking your university subjects. Hardly anybody knows themselves at 17 – that’s why most of us have relationships at that age which are, in retrospect, such monumentally bad ideas. People change their minds about their passions and careers at 28, 35, 50, 65, whenever. Talking the issue over with a colleague recently, he said he thought the best advice would be: whatever you’re doing, do it well. Do the best at it that you can. Which is why I believe it’s so important not to assign career paths to students and imply that their subjects and university degrees will be labels that define them for life. They need to be doing the topics that interest them, because it’s so much harder to do well at a subject that you don’t enjoy. Also, although we can encourage children to think of the big dream jobs, we could also try to explain that there are many jobs that they won’t be able to think of yet, but which will suit their qualities and differences just right. And they’ll find out those qualities and differences through experience, and little else.

The Sounds of Silence

I’ve been thinking about different kinds of silence lately. A few weeks ago I was on the phone, telling somebody something I found difficult to say. Even though there was a lot of noise around me, suddenly I was acutely aware only of the silence on the other end of the line, and me throwing words into that abyss.

Silence seems like such a simple concept on the face of it. Just an absence of noise. But what kind of noise? Sometimes by silence we refer to an absence of voices, or an absence of traffic noise, or just an absence of a noise that may have been particularly trying to us for a long or short period of time. For example if you’re listening to a song you particularly dislike, and when it stops you feel a sudden surge of relief at that silence, the absence of that particular sound.

When it comes to conversations with people, there are so many types of silence. It might be awkward, or loving, or so full of tension it seems deafening. Of course, on the phone, there’s also the silence that means you’ve been cut off and you really have been throwing noise into nowhere for the last few minutes. But most of the time we can feel something in a silence. We try to gauge people’s feelings through the lengths of their silences, the quality of that silence. Sometimes we are wrong, but silences are surprisingly easy to interpret. We wait or we break the silence, depending on how sure we are of what it means, and how much nerve we have to sit and listen to it. Silences are so important.

This got me thinking about other silences, including very brief, even momentary silences in poems or songs. In poetry, a break, or caesura to give it its fancy name, changes the flow and feel of a poem or gives the reader and the listener a moment to reflect on the words that have just come before. Sometimes it can be where we would naturally take a breath when reading aloud, but often it serves to isolate a particular thought, and give it extra emphasis. In songs, breaks in the music can mark the end of a phrase, but, particularly when you’re dancing to music, breaks and pauses and silences can be full of feeling. There’s a great satisfaction to anticipating a break and stopping dead for it, but also in continuing to move in a certain way into that silence. When the silence ends the music may have changed. The silences mean as much as the sounds.

I’m sure you’ll all remember John Cage’s 4’33”, a piece of music that consisted only of silence. It is a strange concept, and many people thought it was just ludicrous. How can we say it is a composition or a performance when it’s just nothing for four and a half minutes? We are so uncomfortable with concentrated silence in modern Western culture – perhaps in Eastern culture too, I’m not really sure – maybe less so. It is so rare to sit and consciously not do anything, especially now when we all have smartphones and tablets readily to hand, not to mention books and music players. I can imagine the silence in those concert halls being full of tension, confusion, antagonism, but perhaps for a few, a deep and peaceful quiet.

When we’re with others we expect there to be sound. Everybody pities the couple sitting in a restaurant who aren’t speaking to each other. But who knows what kind of silence they’re sharing? It could be bored, distrustful, resentful, panicky, tired, restless, or apathetic – take a moment to think about how each of those silences would feel. But it might also be comfortable, content, smouldering, happy, teasing, sleepy, or peaceful. One of my favourite quotes of all time is from Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction: “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody really special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute, and comfortably share a silence.” But it’s so rare. People are usually more comfortable with noise when they are around others, feeling that they should be interacting and saying something.

The exception to this is when we are surrounded by strangers. Then only silence, a particular type of silence, will do. This is a silence characterised by noise spilling out of earphones, and keypad tones, and muttered expletives when people get in our way. People on tubes and trains keep their silence, even if in this case silence just means no speech, unless it’s between people who already knew each other. But, thinking about it, even with this broad definition of silence, the individual people are rarely sitting in total quiet and peace. In their heads, there is noise from the music they are listening to, or the videos they are watching. Or if they are reading, their minds are full of the voices they are giving each character, and the pictures and places that are being conjured up by those silent pages. I used to experience a total silence toward the outer world when reading – I would be completely deaf if I was really involved in a book. I didn’t hear people calling my name or telling me dinner was ready or that it was my turn to read aloud to the teacher. It was a gorgeous self-imposed deafness. I am, sadly, less good at creating that silence outside my own head now. It is something I am working to reclaim, and not just when I’m reading. I’m working on sitting in a crowded place, or an empty place, and doing nothing. Just sitting and being, and ignoring any noises around me that I don’t find interesting.

In the wider world, there are many other different qualities and types of silence. I’ve been living in London for almost ten years, and a lot of the time it’s very loud. Constant traffic, chatter, sirens, and building work. But I’ve noticed that every now and again, and not that infrequently, the noise stops. I’ll be walking along a street in central London and just for a few seconds the noise dies away. There’s a brief but full and peaceful silence, like somebody pressed pause. Then a car engine will rev and the silence is over.

I love those small and gentle silences. But the quality of them is so different to silences in the country. There silence is the norm, just trees and the wind and sometimes the odd bit of traffic. It’s absolutely lovely in many ways, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I find it harder to sleep there now because of this almost total silence. I have become used to the buses moving past my window at regular intervals through the night, and to falling asleep to the sound of traffic. If I wake up when it’s dark I can guess the time by the sounds of the cars. Sometimes at times when you think that silence would be preferable to noise, silences are, again, less comfortable. For people who suffer from insomnia, silence can be much more difficult to rest against than some kind of noise. I personally think there is no silence more lonely or that inspires more desperation than the silence of those around you sleeping. Even if, technically, it is not silence because you can hear their breathing, I would call that a silence and it can be a very difficult silence. There is so much to be felt in that silence – all the rest and quiet we are missing, because we cannot fall asleep.

Moving from these silences, I thought about the invisible and private silences inside ourselves. Silences can be easy to stay inside, if speaking will cause discomfort or irritation or danger to ourselves. Then many people will stay silent. Other times silences are difficult to keep, but are kept because they serve a better purpose than speaking. The example of this that has affected me most recently is from the book To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron, about his journey to the sacred mountain, Mount Kailas. In the book Thubron also tells stories about his family. His father shot several wild animals when he was in India, and he kept the hides and taxidermied remains in their family home. His mother never liked them, but was deeply conscious of the complex emotions her husband had towards them. He was proud of them, but at the time that he shot the animals he was also afraid, and uncomfortable, and overcoming those emotions to bring the animals home had enormous importance in the view he had of himself. Despite the discomfort they gave her, his mother never said anything about the animals. She knew that voicing her displeasure would cause great disquiet to her husband, so out of her love for him she kept her silence. I think there’s an important lesson here, in an age when we feel we always must have the right to be comfortable and to have our voice and opinion heard, either in the wider social cause, or in this concept of “keeping things in” being unhealthy to ourselves. Of course most of the time speaking out is very important, and staying silent about things that are unjust or wrong is not something we should maintain. But, in smaller ways, we should sometimes consider the impact that speaking or acting will have on everyone else. On some occasions, keeping your silence might serve better than making noise for the sake of making noise.