Cultural Myths That Clutter the Career Selection Process

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What is happiness?

The feeling that power is growing,

that resistance is overcome.

- Friedrich Nietzsche


verything your world teaches you has an earth-is-flat potential to be absolutely wrong. And even if what your surroundings are telling you is “right” for most people, cultural rules can still be abysmally misdirecting in your specific case. Therefore, after you have reviewed your existential understanding of the given of meaninglessness, it is wise to also run through some of the more misleading myths that the dominant culture tells us about the world of work in preparation for unearthing the next big career experiment you want to try out. It’s also best if you’ve already read the article on the myth/choice/truth process.

1. Myth: Happiness is money, fame and fortune. (Rule: Get a well-paying job – any well-paying job – to get rich and you will be happy.)

This is an oddly confusing myth. We know on some level that it’s not true, yet money and fame seem fortunate. As we mature we realize that happiness is only created by wealth if a couple of things are true first. To the extent your current life is uncomfortable, money will bring you the particular – and temporary – happiness that increasing comfort brings. If you know what you want to do with your life, money and fame can give you the power to make happy things happen (using these resources to get an education, open a business, support an artistic life, etc.). If you are eager to cross-pollinate with other experts, fame and fortune can give you entrée into elite circles of professional potency. So you can see that wealth and fame are only satisfying if they are byproducts of doing something meaningful (because they are prizes, not goals), or if they are used as tools to create meaning. Otherwise, it turns out, money just makes happy lives a little happier, and unhappy lives a little more comfortable.

2. Myth: Do what you love and the money will follow. (Rule: Don’t worry about the earning potential of your passion.)

This myth is also confusing for it often appears accurate. When folks are passionately engaged in building their unique professional life, they will be bringing the best of themselves to that effort. And people who sustain this high level of engagement are often both respected and financially rewarded. If there is money to be had for doing a certain gig, however, that is a sign that the culture approves of your life plan. And that is a result of luck. If weaving is your passion, the dominant culture is not going to reward you in the same way it would if your passion were surgery. Or think for a moment about the status and compensation for actors in Shakespeare’s time versus the current bizarre situation with respect to actor's salaries. Wealthy people are often talented and diligent but they are all, without exception, extremely lucky.

3. Myth: You have to have an artistic talent to have a passion. (Rule: You don’t get to be passionate unless you are a painter, musician, writer, etc.)

This myth makes no sense, but people are oddly captivated by it. I guess we like to think of the tortured artist as the pinnacle of human creativity and somehow we delight in living vicariously through the lives of these suffering folks. Nietzsche himself admitted: “I wanted to believe that the deepest sense of existence was to be found in suffering and that only art enabled us to face this suffering and not run away from it.” He came to realize what Maslow articulated many years later (as described by Reis and Gable in Flourishing):

Moving away from the common descriptions of domain-specific creativity (i.e., the idea that creative works are only produced by the talented artist, poet, scientist or composer), Maslow described the self-actualized creator as displaying a predisposition to be creative across a broad number of nonspecific areas (e.g. humor, house-keeping, teaching). This broad-band creativity springs from the self-actualized individual’s characteristic interest in the unfamiliar, the mysterious and the complex. In addition, Maslow emphasized that these fully functioning, self-actualized creators have the ability to express ideas and impulses without fear of criticism, and thus are better able to produce and express creative ideas.

Please believe that passion is free to everyone – horse trainers, waiters, composers, teachers, clerks, boat captains and mail carriers.

4. Myth: You have to suffer if you have passion. (Rule: Caring deeply about something means you will have a painful, lonely life.)

Passion implies that we pursue our keen interests with intense emotions, but just because we’re crazed doesn’t mean we’re crazy. To again quote from Flourishing: “Much work on the personalities of creative individuals has revealed a number of defining characteristics, including the ability to persevere in the face of obstacles, an open orientation, the possession of broad interests, curiosity, task absorption, and a high level of intrinsic motivation.” Nowhere in this description is mandatory pain. It’s not that passionate people don’t suffer, it’s just that suffering is neither a prerequisite for, nor a result of, passion.

5. Myth: There are boy jobs and there are girl jobs. (Rule: You’d better be exceptional if you decide to cross gender lines.)

This myth may appear to be disappearing, but think how hard it is to resist saying “woman surgeon”, “lady jockey” or “male nurse.” If the majority of work participants of a particular job are male or female, there will be a certain narrative that arises around the job that is gendered. When the culture of the world of work supports certain behaviors (working long hours, privileging competition, rewarding aggression, danger and so on), the “flavor” of the job becomes “masculine.” Our minds go naturally to think of jobs in finance, technology or firefighting. If, on the other hand, a job pulls for other behaviors (shorter hours, job sharing, focusing on caring, encouraging cooperation and so on) we imagine the careers to be of a more “feminine” nature. We will think of nurse, teacher and librarian. So even if boys can be nurses, will they be the same kind of nurse that the culture of nursing wants them to be? And wouldn’t you surmise that a man who goes into nursing is an unusually nurturing man? These nuanced prejudices can cause you to turn your gaze slightly away from fields or specialties that you may be well suited for.

6. Apples don’t fall far from trees. (Rule: Follow in the footsteps of your parents and their friends.)

“Plastics.”

Anybody?

(youtube.com/watch?v=PSxihhBzCjk)

You won’t want to avoid exploring career options that have either been mastered by your parents or suggested by your uncle, but you will want to take their input with a hefty grain of black truffle sea salt. When people are happy in their jobs they will naturally and generously want others to join them there. Their enthusiasm can feel a bit like certainty. Just listen and add their input to the lists you will be compiling when you get to the homework section of the career choice process.

In addition to these broad myths forwarded by the dominant culture, you will also have collected work mythology from your family of origin. A bittersweet example from my upbringing was this parental input: The field of psychology is pseudo-science populated by nut jobs. Wow. That was helpful. Be that as it may, be on the lookout for stories you have been told about the world of work, you as a potential worker, and how the two “should” interact. They may be good stories, they may be spot on, but they may also be horrifically off track. Take it from this nut job.

Next up: Finding Your Employment Bliss

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.