Career query: Whose dreams are you chasing?

Picture of a dead-end road sign, as a metaphor for chasing career goals that don't fulfil you personallyLast year, I worked with a client whose story is a cautionary tale. 

Finishing High School, she was thinking about her options, and exploring possible studies.

She came along with her parents, who were lovely people and clearly committed to supporting their daughter.

But as the career consult progressed, something wasn’t adding up.

The person in front of me was reflected in the assessments – her personality preferences, interests and values all fit – but the careers she was interested in? They made no sense… until her father started talking about his career.

Turns out he’d followed family pressure into a career he hated, and had lived ever since with regret. His dream was still out there, calling him… and the more he talked, the clearer it became that his daughter was unwittingly chasing it for him; shooting for his prize. But while he was a natural for it, she was clearly not.

He wanted the best career for her – but “the best” was “his best

For anyone working in careers, this will be a familiar story. Many of us set out  towards goals that deep down, are not reflective of who we are or what we want – for many reasons.

The literature on career development recognises how many influences there are on our choices – from our location, community and culture, to our school,  friends, and the (often chance) experiences we have. But overall, the greatest influence on our careers tends to be our parents.

That’s hardly surprising. We learn about what’s valuable (and what’s not), what’s a ‘proper job’ (and what’s not) and what we ‘should’ be doing with our working lives, in large part, from our parents.

And it’s a lasting legacy, not just a teenage issue.

Whilst we may think we’ve left parental influence far behind us, it’s not uncommon for someone in their 30’s, 40’s and beyond to find themselves feeling ‘wrong’ in the ‘right’ job, lacking any sense of meaning or fulfilment – despite having achieved their goals – and starting to wrestle with what they really want from life.

As a career coach, it’s a story I hear, see and work with all the time.

Recognise it? Step back, and check whose dreams you’re chasing…  

1. Review your family history of career expectations 

First, you need to know your influences. Until you recognise the career messages you absorbed growing up, you can’t examine them – or choose how to respond.

When we’re not aware of those beliefs, there’s effectively invisible software running along in the background, influencing our decisions. Operating on automatic pilot, we set goals which may not actually reflect our own values… Exactly the kinds of goals which lead to very hollow victories when we achieve them.

It can help to ask yourself:

  • What careers run through my family tree?
  • What expectations were there for my choice of career?
  • What was seen as worthwhile, valuable or a ‘real job’?
  • Which strengths or fields were admired and encouraged?
  • Which strengths or fields, considered silly or unrealistic?
  • What choices would make them proud – or not?
  • What did career success look like?
  • Were they happy at work – or toeing the family line?

Putting it on paper helps you stand back from your story, giving you valuable perspective and helping you see patterns more clearly. What themes emerge… and how do they fit with your own career choices to date?

What’s worked out well, and what clearly hasn’t? Where are the tensions?

2. Now, clarify your own career values 

Once you can see the messages you’ve received from your family (and often their parents, in turn), it makes it easier to audit those values… and work out how they sit with you now.  Point by point, ask yourself:

  • Is this something I agree with and want for myself – or not?
  • Is this my voice and value – or someone else’s?
  • Is this relevant today – or from a different time and place?
  • Where do I agree… and where do I differ?

Doing this can be challenging, certainly – but also validating and empowering.

The challenge? Untangling what you want for yourself, from the expectations you were brought up with; separating what’s yours from what’s theirs. And the next step can be even more confronting, as you realise that things may have to change… and wonder how those changes may be received.

Because if you choose to swim against the current – to redefine success for yourself and set yourself new goals – there may be disappointment and push-back from those around you. You may find that not everyone understands, accepts or supports your decisions… at least to begin with.

As always, it takes courage to be true to yourself. 

Which brings me back to my client… who got a happy ending.

Once they recognised their differences – different strengths, gifts and needs – they both worked it out. The daughter went on to study a subject that I hear she’s loving… and the father came back on his own, to reflect, revisit and reinvent his career. Win-win.

In an alternate reality? My client slept-walk her way towards her father’s dreams, pushed through her studies and graduated with a heavy debt in a field she never wanted to work in. Her Dad was proud of her (but still unfulfilled), while she felt like fish out of water in her job, became disillusioned with her career… and spent too much time wondering what was wrong with her (when nothing was).

That’s the story I hear over and over again. And like the many clients I work with in this situation, the impact of a poor career choice can go well beyond financial, to someone’s health, wellbeing and relationships.  

If this sounds familiar, you’re in good company. We all sometimes lose our way and chase others’ dreams… but the good news? It’s never too late to change.

It’s up to you – to the choices you make, and what you can live with. 

Whose career dreams are you chasing?


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