What is “Career” anyway?

Day 9 in our ChristmasCalendar2019!
Food: Food for Thought

So, this blog is organized by KI Career Service, and though I’ve only worked here for less than a year, there have been plenty of moments where I’ve asked myself:
‘What’s in a name?’


What does one expect from the word ‘Career’? I’ve heard people I talk to say ‘It’s too late for a career for me!’ or ‘I’m a career person!’ or ‘That’s bad for your career!’. In any case, good or bad, happy or sad, people seem to have different ideas of what a ‘career’ means to them, and maybe it’s not necessarily (all) we want to point at with the therm in our office’s name. Let me warn you now, this is not a comprehensive essay, more a series of thoughts on the topic. Philosophize with me, if you so please.

To start: according to Wikipedia, which was the first thing suggested upon googling the term:

‘The career is an individual’s metaphorical ‘journey’ through learning, work and other aspects of life. There are a number of ways to define career and the term is used in a variety of ways.’

It then goes on to browse through multiple suggestions of what it might be used for, but my point is that it’s a pretty broad description, and it’s hard to see how ‘It’s too late for a career for me!’ would be applicable according to Wikipedia’s first lines, unless you’re dead. I guess that is the view we also hold at Career Service, though I need to admit this post was not written as Career Service, but as myself, so don’t interpret this as the official opinion.

In the past years I’ve listened to a bunch of audio-books, and one of them was ‘Everything that remains’, by Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, a.k.a: the Minimalists. It tells of their journey from corporate climbing materialists in their twenties, with high wages but even higher debts, to writers/publishers/… and minimalists in their thirties, with what seems to be a lot less money but a lot more life. Along the way they discuss a similar ‘What’s a career?’ issue, and to them the word ‘career’ is definitely not the all encompassing learning journey of life. They talk about three ways of defining how you talk about your work (so we are already in the work-realm, not in the rest-of-life-realm): Job, Career or Mission. A ‘job’ is seen as something boring, maybe soul crushing, but stable and providing a pension. A ‘career’ is seen as dangerous, because you establish your identity based on it, and so it is hard to get rid of, even if you hate what you do. And a ‘mission’ seems to be the thing they are striving for. I can’t help myself but think about the post of about a week ago, written by Mathew and talking about postdoc issues, where the Japanese therm Ikigai, ‘a reason for being’, was mentioned. The ‘mission’ idea actually seems to open up the work-realm to the rest-of-life-realm, though I’ve also met people who hate the idea of everyone needing a ‘mission’ or having a ‘passion’.

All in all it is semantics. Humans inventing words to cover meaning, while the interpretation of the words clearly means different things to different people.

Still, good to think about if you ask me.

Back to the Minimalists. I haven’t met many (or any?) academics who chose the path (career?) they have chosen for the money. Though everyone seems to need more grant money, there isn’t so much fuss over having the highest salary (hell, many would be happy with any salary at all, but that’s another issue), and a raise in salary is not often the driving factor to leave the academic world. This might be different from the history of our friends the Minimalists, who did find ‘six figure salaries’ a huge driving factor, but the power of the idea that you need to ‘do what you are doing and can’t stop even if you hate it because your life depends on it, and who would you be without it?’ is all too common. So the trap is there anyway, and if it is a thing you link to the word ‘career’, a word present in the name of the office I work for, then I’d like to apologize for the confusion.

I don’t see the work I do as making people ‘find a career’ or ‘give up a career’, or that the ‘career’ we are talking about is the work-realm, ladder climbing, thing that holds your identity hostage. In my opinion, you don’t need to do something just because you can, or even are good at it.

I don’t know if this is going anywhere, but I’d like to tie it up with another thought, this time from the book ‘Ten thoughts about time’ by Jönsson Bodil (originally called ‘Tio tankar om tid’). It is the first of the ten thoughts, namely that all we have is time, that time is the base currency we exchange for everything else we want to have, or do, or see, or whatever. How we often think that money is the basic currency, but we spend our time to get money (or status if you prefer, who knows), so that, actually, time is all we have.

If you allow me (I am writing this on a dark December Sunday evening, so my mind might be wandering a bit more than usual) I’ll end with this, and throw in a third book:

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

J.R.R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of The Ring

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Feature image: Image by Michi S from Pixabay

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One thought on “What is “Career” anyway?

  1. “unless you’re dead”

    Brilliant article! (and I’m not just saying that because you namedrop me).
    Ayla covers the core message that it is pretty difficult to separate ”career’ from ‘self’ at the best of times, and more-or-less impossible for academics.

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