Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed- interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing sprit- crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that?
Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh
It’s not a position that I expected to be in, but I’m getting a lot of requests for advice from folk who are contemplating what they should do next in their own lives.
It’s awkward, not least because I’m the last person to ask. My career trajectory has been marked by one dead end after another, by being a perpetual troublemaker, and by the discovery that, above all, bosses and I don’t get along.
There are things I wish I’d known before I started, of course, and so I thought I’d write up a general outline of what I might say if you were to ask me about where to head with your future. And then I remembered that, in part, I’d been inspired and fuelled by advice from another writer, George Monbiot, who responded to similar requests almost a decade ago. I’ve reposted his thoughts on this below. Although the title he chooses for his careers advice is clearly a reference to Irvine Welsh (above) and to the futility of choosing a career, Monbiot’s ideas are refreshingly free of cynicism, and they’re as relevant now as they were when I read them nearly a decade ago.
But I’ll add my own coda.
A lot of people seem to be asking about where they should position themselves in today’s society; is it better to be ‘inside’ working for progressive change, or on the ‘outside’ demanding a better system altogether? These metaphors of inside and outside don’t serve terribly well, because they posit extremes that most of us don’t experience. None of us is outside the system. Not if you’re reading this, at least. We’re all bound up in one way or another in an increasingly global society, and one that is heading full speed toward self-destruction. We’re conscripts to that society, by coercion and consent, because we like it and because we don’t, and it’s a system that assigns privilege at birth by dint of race, class, gender and ability.
So the question has to be ‘where can I be to make the best and most effective change’? Here, I’m particularly clueless (though I do think that living one’s own convictions, not matter how inconsistently, is better than not living them at all). But in making choices about where you’re heading, the challenge is to find the balance between using your privilege and working toward a world where that privilege doesn’t matter.
Are there places and professions that do this better than others? I’m sure there are. The world is short of radical teachers, lawyers, social workers, scientists, medics, organisers, researchers and workers. Having really been none of these, I can’t say what it’d be like, but knowing a few people who are some of the above, it’s easy for me to say how awed I’ve been by their simultaneous passion for their chosen careers, and for furthering social justice. There are ways of combining almost any career with progressive and radical activism.
Although I’ve occasionally had some bad experiences with it, the academy can be a place of refuge for world-changing ideas and praxis. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for the PhD programme I did in Cornell’s Department of Development Sociology, and if you’re looking for time to read and ponder, to figure out what you think, to meet new minds and struggles and to learn from them, and then to fashion the tools you need for activism, I can heartily recommend it.
These sorts of programme aren’t for everyone, of course, and when I first read George Monbiot’s career advice, I was already heading out of the academy. In any case, I learned the most about the world not from books, but from fellow activists. In other words, it’s well worth getting stuck into the social issue that moves you the most, and learning from others who’ve been struggling in it for longer.
The common denominator in the greatest activists, I’ve found, has been some form of accountability. I, for instance, am far from being an elected and democratically accountable member of any movement, but I try to rein myself in a little by engaging with movements that are democratic. The result is that I bring whatever meagre talents I have in writing, and use them in the service of these organisations, whether they’re an international peasant movement or a shackdwellers movement in South Africa.
This lesson of accountability is, I think, the one that continues to be the hardest to put into practice. But it’s worth trying, even – or rather especially – because it’s difficult. If we’re concerned to bring about a world where everyone’s voice counts equally, and where there’s genuine democracy, then surely we need to learn, no matter how tough and unfamiliar it is, to build the sorts of structures where we can all be accountable to one another.
Update Idealist has some good advice for folk looking to move into the non-profit world.
Even better Update If I were going to do it over again, I’d also want to be a student with Andrej Grubacic at the California Institute for Integral Studies. Find out more about their incredible social and cultural anthropology program.
Every week, sometimes every day, someone writes to me asking for advice about the career they should take. I can’t, unfortunately, respond to them all, so I thought I should try to formulate some general guidelines, which I hope people will be able to adapt to their own circumstances. This advice applies only to those who have a genuine choice of careers, which means, regrettably, that it does not apply to the majority of the world’s workforce. But if the people writing to me did not have choice, they wouldn’t be asking.
While this guidance may be applicable to some people working in other areas, the examples I will use all come from journalism, as most of those writing to me want to be journalists, and this is the field in which I have mostly worked. Before you take it, I should warn you not to rely on my word alone. I can’t guarantee that this approach will work for you. You should take advice from as many people as you can. Ultimately, you must make your own decisions: don’t allow me or anyone else to make them for you.
The first advice I would offer is this: be wary of following the careers advice your college gives you. In journalism school, for example, students are routinely instructed that, though they may wish to write about development issues in Latin America, in order to achieve the necessary qualifications and experience they must first spend at least three years working for a local newspaper, before seeking work for a national newspaper, before attempting to find a niche which brings them somewhere near the field they want to enter. You are told to travel, in other words, in precisely the opposite direction to the one you want to take. You want to go to Latin America? Then first you must go to Nuneaton. You want to write about the Zapatistas? Then first you must learn how to turn corporate press releases into “news”. You want to be free? Then first you must learn to be captive.
The advisers say that a career path like this is essential if you don’t want to fall into the “trap” of specialisation: that is to say, if you want to be flexible enough to respond to the changing demands of the employment market. But the truth is that by following the path they suggest, you are becoming a specialist: a specialist in the moronic recycling of what the rich and powerful deem to be news. And after a few years of that, you are good for very little else.
This career path, in other words, is counter-educational. It teaches you to do what you don’t want to do, to be what you don’t want to be. It is an exceptional person who emerges from this process with her aims and ideals intact. Indeed it is an exceptional person who emerges from this process at all. What the corporate or institutional world wants you to do is the complete opposite of what you want to do. It wants a reliable tool, someone who can think, but not for herself: who can think instead for the institution. You can do what you believe only if that belief happens to coincide with the aims of the corporation, not just once, but consistently, across the years (it is a source of wonder to me how many people’s beliefs just happen to match the demands of institutional power, however those demands may twist and turn, after they’ve been in the company for a year or two).
Even intelligent, purposeful people almost immediately lose their way in such worlds. They become so busy meeting the needs of their employers and surviving in the hostile world into which they have been thrust that they have no time or energy left to develop the career path they really wanted to follow. And you have to develop it: it simply will not happen by itself. The idea, so often voiced by new recruits who are uncomfortable with the choice they have made, that they can reform the institution they join from within, so that it reflects their own beliefs and moral codes, is simply laughable. For all the recent guff about “corporate social responsibility”, corporations respond to the market and to the demands of their shareholders, not to the consciences of their employees. Even the chief executive can make a difference only at the margins: the moment her conscience interferes with the non-negotiable purpose of her company – turning a profit and boosting the value of its shares – she’s out.
This is not to say that there are no opportunities to follow your beliefs within the institutional world. There are a few, though generally out of the mainstream: specialist programmes and magazines, some sections of particular newspapers, small production companies whose bosses have retained their standards. Jobs in places like this are rare, but if you find one, pursue it with energy and persistance. If, having secured it, you find that it is not what it seemed, or if you find you are being consistently pulled away from what you want to do, have no hesitation in bailing out.
Nor does this mean that you shouldn’t take “work experience” in the institutions whose worldview you do not accept if it’s available, and where there are essential skills you feel you can learn at their expense. But you must retain absolute clarity about the limits of this exercise, and you must leave the moment you’ve learnt what you need to learn (usually after just a few months) and the firm starts taking more from you than you are taking from it. How many times have I heard students about to start work for a corporation claim that they will spend just two or three years earning the money they need, then leave and pursue the career of their choice? How many times have I caught up with those people several years later, to discover that they have acquired a lifestyle, a car and a mortgage to match their salary, and that their initial ideals have faded to the haziest of memories, which they now dismiss as a post-adolescent fantasy? How many times have I watched free people give up their freedom?
So my second piece of career advice echoes the political advice offered by Benjamin Franklin: whenever you are faced with a choice between liberty and security, choose liberty. Otherwise you will end up with neither. People who sell their souls for the promise of a secure job and a secure salary are spat out as soon as they become dispensable. The more loyal to an institution you are, the more exploitable, and ultimately expendable, you become.
None of this, of course, means that you can start doing precisely what you want to do straight away, and be remunerated as you might wish. But there are three possible approaches I would recommend.
The first is simply to start how you mean to go on. This is unlikely, for a while, to be self-financing, so you may need to supplement it with work which raises sufficient money to keep you alive but doesn’t demand too much mental energy. If you want to write about the Zapatistas in Mexico, earn the money required to get you out there and start covering them. If you want to make it pay, you must be enterprising. You should investigate all the potential outlets for the stories you hope to come across: magazines, newspapers, radio and TV stations, websites and publishers.
You should have a clear view of what you want to cover before you go, plan it carefully and find as many contacts as you can from among people with some knowledge of the issue. But at the same time you should be ready for stories you don’t anticipate, which might find a home somewhere unexpected. You might for instance come across a wildlife story while you’re there, with which you could help finance your trip by writing it up for a wildlife magazine. You might supplement your earnings with a travel piece, or something for an architectural magazine or a food programme. Editors are sometimes delighted to receive material from outside the box (though more often they simply won’t understand it). Work in as many media as you can, and be persistent.
Be prepared to live and travel as cheaply as possible: for my first four years as a freelancer I lived on an average of five thousand pounds a year. In seven years working in the poor world, I managed to keep my expenses down to three thousand pounds a year. This is a good discipline for any freelancer, however well you’re doing. If you can live on five thousand pounds a year, you are six times as secure as someone who needs thirty thousand to get by. In Britain, however, the possibilities of thrifty living have now been clouded somewhat by student loans: many people looking for work are already burdened by debt.
Work hard, but don’t rush. Build up your reputation slowly and steadily. And specialisation, for all they tell you at journalism school, is, if you use it intelligently, not the trap but the key to escaping from the trap. You can become the person editors think of when they need someone to cover a particular issue from a particular angle (that is to say, your angle). They then respond to your worldview, rather than you having to respond to theirs. It’s surprising how quickly you can become an “expert” in a particular field: simply because so few other journalists will know anything about it. You will find opportunities, and opportunities will find you.
The second possible approach is this: if the market for the kind of work you want to do looks, at first, impenetrable, then engage in the issue by different means. If you want to write about homelessness, for example (one of the great undercovered issues of developed societies), it might be easier to find work with a group trying to assist the homeless. Learn the trade by learning the issues, and gradually branch into journalism. Though this takes you a step or two away from your ideal, at least you will be working with the people experiencing the issues which interest you, rather than with the detached men and women in the corporate newsrooms who have themselves lost their dreams, and who know as little about the real world as the careers advisors who helped land them in those jobs in the first place.
The third approach is tougher, but just as valid. It is followed by people who have recognised the limitations of any form of engagement with mainstream employers, and who have created their own outlets for their work. Most countries have a number of small alternative papers and broadcasters, run voluntarily by people making their living by other means: part time jobs, grants or social security. These are, on the whole, people of tremendous courage and determination, who have placed their beliefs firmly ahead of their comforts. To work with them can be a great privilege and inspiration, for the simple reason that they – and, by implication, you – are free while others are not. All the money, all the prestige in the world will never make up for the loss of your freedom.
So my final piece of advice is this: when faced with the choice between engaging with reality or engaging with what Erich Fromm calls the “necrophiliac” world of wealth and power, choose life, whatever the apparent costs may be. Your peers might at first look down on you: poor Nina, she’s twenty-six and she still doesn’t own a car. But those who have put wealth and power above life are living in the world of death, in which the living put their tombstones – their framed certificates signifying acceptance to that world – upon their walls. Remember that even the editor of the Times, for all his income and prestige, is still a functionary, who must still take orders from his boss. He has less freedom than we do, and being the editor of the Times is as good as it gets.
You know you have only one life. You know it is a precious, extraordinary, unrepeatable thing: the product of billions of years of serendipity and evolution. So why waste it by handing it over to the living dead?