The Ladders We Never Climbed

Ian Dury, new wave singer of the 1970’s and 80’s, wrote a song called What a Waste, in which he regretted, amongst other missed roles, that he could have been the ticket man at Fulham Broadway Station. In the twelve years I used the District Line in London, I was never able to go through this station without hearing that lyric.  

And every time an employee complained that they should have done something more with their career, I pictured Marlon Brando, in On the Waterfront, famously mumbling that he could have been a contender.     

I have been thinking about career choices and the sliding doors of a working life just lately. A friend’s daughter asked me to complete a survey on careers for her high school project and I had to mull over questions such as ‘what made you choose your career?’

That was a tough question. At what point did I choose my career? I chose to study business, so I guess that started to narrow the options.  At some point, I had to choose a major, so I chose Industrial Relations even though I had no intention, at the time, of working in that field. So why did I tick that box? It was mostly because I knew I would make a terrible accountant. I had also taken an elective subject called The Social Psychology of Work and loved it, but my career aspirations lay in an entirely different direction back then. A few years later, working for a large company, a door opened into Personnel, largely because I had taken that degree major. I had given up on my dream job.       

My closest friend at school was brilliant at maths and science but she could not envisage a career in that field. We did not know the range of options or who we could ask about getting started. Of course, it was a privilege to contemplate our future careers at all. We had some classmates who went home to be young housekeepers while they waited for arranged marriages. We both left Senior High School for a tertiary education in an era when it was free. What a gift. 

And I had no idea that Personnel, later called Human Resources, was a thing. A visiting careers advisor handed us a pamphlet that listed job titles, starting with Actuary, and ending with Zoologist. This was supposed to assist us in choosing the subjects that would impact our university options. We were trying to make life decisions at 15.   

These days I envy people who always knew what they wanted to do. I remember our Primary School headmaster asked our reading group if anyone knew what they wanted to be when they finished school. A boy called out, ‘Signalman, Sir! Air Force!’ I can still see him. He was 12 at the time and had wonderful posture. He did join the Air Force. I looked him up as I was writing this post.

But it seems to me now, that this certainty and sense of direction, is unusual.  Abraham Maslow agrees. He wrote, ‘It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement’.

My husband believes that his successful career started by taking the path of least resistance.His mentor advised him, take a degree that lets you keep your options open. And yet another close friend admits to being wholly reactive and just taking the jobs that were offered. This chain of offers started with waitressing at weddings. Some of those jobs were promotions but she freely admits that nothing was ever planned.  The truth is, said Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive.

According to Harvard scholar, Andrew H Miller, we live in a time of an accelerated generation of choices and chances. Advertisers sell us things by getting us to imagine better versions of ourselves though there is only one life to live. And the nature of modern work deepens the problem. Our professional society, unlike the agricultural and industrial societies that preceded it, is made up of specialised careers and ladders of achievement. You make your choice, forgoing other possibilities.  Year by year, you may clamber up into your future, thinking back on the ladders unclimbed.

My science friend missed out on a graduate role at IBM and wondered for years if that was a great loss. A few weeks after I started out working for a large company, I turned down an entry level offer in my dream industry. Was that a mistake? We will never really know about these ladders unclimbed.  We made choices. Tempus fugit.

Jean Paul Sartre advised us to focus on what we have done and will do, rather than what we might have done or could do. He thought that we did more than we gave ourselves credit for. Our real lives, he said, are richer than we think.

5 thoughts on “The Ladders We Never Climbed”

  1. A lot of (and particularly major) decisions are made on what is called ‘gut instinct’ which is another term for our unconscious mind which may be urging us in a direction that conflicts with what our conscious or ‘logical’ mind is saying. You will have experienced this if you have ever made a decision ‘against your better judgement’ to do something your conscious mind is telling you not to; for example, throwing up a career opportunity to sail the Pacific. In many ways you may think your decision is wrong but you make it anyway because you ‘can’t help it’.
    After a lifetime of decision making I would always put my money on my unconscious or ‘gut’ when I wanted to get something right , particularly for the longer term.

  2. Great article as ever Cheryl….thank you.
    My bookclub has just completed “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig, a literary exploration of those missed ladders with a largely philosophical conclusion on regret.
    These bookclub friends are all school Mums I have known for close to twenty years. Our conversation of roads more/less taken in our careers was illuminating and fascinating. There was so much I didn’t know about these old friends and discussing their personal convoluted paths in life has made me love each of them more.
    “The Midnight Library” is worth a read.
    L x

  3. Cheryl Walmsley

    Thanks Lorna. I have heard good things about that book and It does seem to be a topic that people want to talk about.

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