Radio 4 – Is Following Your Career Passion Realistic?

Corinne Mills joins Evan Davis on BBC Radio 4 to discuss career plans and post-pandemic opportunities for life/work redesign.

Listen again here:


Or if you’d prefer to read the discussion, then please see the transcript below:

Evan Davis: Now have a listen to Mel Brooks on the Today Programme this morning looking back at the origins of his career in film.

Mel Brookes Soundbite: “My uncle Joe changed my life, one day he said how would you like to see a Cole Porter musical on Broadway called Anything Goes. I’d never seen a Broadway show, and when the show was over, I was screaming and I said “Joe, I’m not gonna go into the garment centre, I’m not gonna be a shipping clerk. I’m gonna go in to show business. I wanna do what they were doing on that stage!” and I never deviated from that plan.”

Evan Davis: Well, it’s a man who clearly had a plan A for his career, and managed to stick to it. Which is an interesting approach, as opposed to for many of us muddling along until you find a job you are contented with, it kind of implies a strength of purpose that Mel Brooks had in career planning.

Is that luxury? Luck? Or an optimal career strategy?

I have a couple of guests to talk us through approaches to careers. Martha Newson, a Cognitive Anthropologist, based at the universities of Oxford and Kent and Corinne Mills, a Career Coach and Managing Director at Personal Career Management.

Evan Davis: Martha, I don’t know about you, did you have a plan and stick with it? Is Mel Brooks typical, is he well-advised?

Martha Newson: I remember at school, they asked what I wanted to do and I said I want to be a prime minister. I didn’t stick to that plan and I’m quite glad I changed my mind.

So, I’m a doctor of anthropology and I put doctor on my first bank application when I was 18, before I even had an undergraduate degree, so I suppose there was a bit of conviction there but it was tongue in cheek. I didn’t think I’d actually achieve it! So maybe there was a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy there.

Evan Davis: Corinne, what did you make of that approach, you have the idea, you’re inspired, you know what you want to do and then you just stick to it until it works?

Corinne Mills: Well, I’m a great advocate for knowing the direction you want to go in and by hook or by crook find yourself opportunities that are going to take you in the right direction. I’m not sure everyone has a deeply detailed career plan, you know step 1, step 2, step 3. But I think if you know what you’re interested in, what you’re good at and are able to convey that, then you can. Opportunities will come about, you’ll seek them out, you’ll talk to people about it, and things will happen.

Evan Davis: Corinne, you’ve just used two words, things you’re interested in and things your good at. The sad thing is for a lot of us is that this doesn’t always work out to be the same set of activities, you may be very ambitious in one area but just not able to get on it.

Corinne Mills: Well, I think mostly people do know what they’re good at, but sometimes they take it for granted, well actually they have a super strength in something but actually they just assume that everyone else can do it.

I think when you actually look at what you are capable of, what you enjoy doing, and what comes easy to you, those are your strengths, and you can build a career on those, and make money from it and enjoy yourself why you are doing it.

Evan Davis: Martha, I want to put in there for ‘pivoting’, basically good career management like good business management is often about pivoting, where you see things, the world-changing, you learn something about yourself or about other people, and you change.

Martha Newson: Yes, that’s definitely a skillset in itself. I think it’s wonderfully comforting to know what you want to do and have the conviction to do it. So, on one hand, you have insight on yourself, and about the world around you and what it needs, and the commitment, but there’s also the luck or on the other hand the privilege. It’s not just luck and opportunity, when you say start speaking to people about it, which people are they? Who’s in your social circle? Which uncle have you got taking you to the pictures? or who is there to help you? Have you got to be paying the bills? Have you got small mouths at home? It’s not just luck, it’s also the privilege we find ourselves in.

Evan Davis: Do you, Martha think you take someone like Mel Brooks, who sticks to his plan, and absolutely knew what he wanted to do and pursued it. People like that may be more driven, so there’s sticking to plan, and how driven you are, when you do that?

Martha Newson: Motivation has a big part to play in it, but it’s also how much enjoyment you get out of the process. So if you haven’t reached those goals are you still enjoying the process, so much of career focused society is focused on the goals and the outcomes and with that there’s a lack of downtime, a lack of rest and very little non-work socialisation.

We make a living, so we define our whole life and living by our careers and when we do that we have an evolutionary mismatch we invest lots of time in the goal-driven outcomes, rather than the process and we have less time for rest and sociality and that’s why we get all this stress.

We need the non-working time when we are chatting, we’re hugging, we’re laughing, those are all physiological events that reduce our stress, and we just don’t get enough time for it when we are focussed on the goals, and giving all our time to our career, unless we are someone that really enjoys the process.

Evan Davis: That’s interesting with a little bit of evolutionary history there. Corinne, I guess things have changed quite a bit in most industries since Mel Brooks was starting out, haven’t they?

Corinne Mills: Well they have, and I think just taking a look at Martha’s point actually, I think some respects the pandemic has kind of given some new opportunities about this, now with flexible working we have the opportunity to design our lives and our careers a bit different.

If we want to go for a walk in the afternoon, or we want to go and pick up the kids from school, or do something social, or work in the evening and take the morning off, actually we have got an opportunity to design our working lives differently.

I think if you’ve got flexible working, and I’m assuming your employers not using surveillance technology to make sure you are chained to the computer all day. I do think there’s a recognition from employers about well-being and a little more focus on outputs rather than presentism, I do see that in employers as a real shift.

Evan Davis: Thanks Martha and Corinne for joining him.