Archive for the ‘career directions’ Category

How The People You Hang Out With Can Make You Happy (Or Not)

There is a theory which I have heard more than one life coach put forward that goes like this: you should hang out with people who are richer and more successful than you are, so that the attitudes and habits that have made them rich and/or successful will rub off on you.   Hanging out with these people will create a healthy amount of dissatisfaction with your life and therefore motivate you to set goals and achieve great things.  Mixing with people who have achieved the things that you want to achieve will motivate you to achieve more.

On the other hand, psychologists researching the field of “happiness” are finding that the more we compare ourselves to others (particularly others who are richer, more successful or “better” in some way), the less likely we are to be happy.  The more we read about the rich and famous, the more advertising we watch that shows us all the things we could have, the more we mix with people who have more material wealth than we have, the less content we feel with our lot.

When I worked in South London, the majority of my clients were either on benefits or were asylum seekers.  Many couldn’t even afford to pay the bus fare to college or to buy a sandwich in the canteen at lunchtime.  I talked to them every day about their lives, and when I went home in my old car to my small flat, I felt rich.  I had plenty.  But when I took a year off on maternity leave, I started spending my days with a group of new mums I had met in antenatal classes.  They all seemed to be investment bankers, lawyers or media types, and they worried about parking their smart cars outside my flat.  I suddenly started to feel that what I had wasn’t good enough, and I didn’t like the feeling.  I can’t say it inspired me to be more ambitious – it just introduced a low level of discontent into my life.  It made me realise that, pleasant as they were, they weren’t the people I wanted to hang out with every day.

Now I’ve done what most people do, and surrounded myself with friends on a similar level of income.  I feel quite content again, and rich in the things that matter – health, family, job satisfaction and friendships.  People like to have friends with a similar income level because it’s comfortable.  You don’t have to be embarrassed about not being able to afford an expensive night out and you don’t have to hide your wealth for fear of embarrassing your friends.

We have also got rid of the television in our house.  We still watch programmes on DVDs and on the iPlayer, but we no longer have advertising pumped daily into our house.  And what a difference it makes!  It’s subtle, but I find myself wanting much less.  My children, when asked, couldn’t even think of things they wanted for Christmas (apart from an invisibility potion that really works – not easy to procure!)

I try not to make comparasions with others at all, because thinking about who has the better house, car, holiday, job or children doesn’t lead to warm and friendly feelings.  It just leads into a way of thinking that marks out some people as better or worse than others (and there will always be others better than you).  If I catch myself making comparisons, I will stop myself.  But I can’t say I never do it at all.  Maybe a few Buddhist monks manage it, but most of us make comparasions, whether we are aware of them or not.  And it’s the subconscious comparasions that are very hard to challenge because we don’t even notice we are making them.

Societies where there is greater inequality tend to be less happy, because people are comparing themselves to the very rich.  And the interesting thing is that even the richer people in unequal societies are less happy – after all, there is always someone richer than you, and the values in unequal societies promote the acquisition of wealth rather than the sharing of it.

So if we really do want to be happy, maybe we should be choosing jobs and activities that bring us into contact with people who have less than we do.  Voluntary work is one way of doing this.  Interestingly, the research on happiness also shows that altruistic acts increase our happiness levels too.  We should also be avoiding careers that will have us mixing with with those who are richer and more successful than we are (unless we can develop the strength of character to avoid getting into negative thought patterns and comparasions).

Of course, if we think that wealth and success are more important than happiness, then we should do the opposite!  Bring on the social climbers, and let them get on with it.

There is a pervasive narrative in society that we should all achieve and succeed to the best of our ability, and in the process earn as much money as we can, but really, it’s time to think a bit harder about what we value.  Most of us say we want to be happy, but we don’t always choose things that will make us happy.  Many people will choose a job that pays more money rather than a jobs that offers flexitime or shorter hours.  Many people relentlessly chase promotions without thinking about whether it will actually bring happiness.

I’ve had a few clients who have given up (or thought about giving up) well paid jobs, to do something they enjoy more but pays less.  They worry about whether they are doing the right thing.  They probably are.  But they still worry that they won’t be happy with less money than they are used to or less money than their friends have.   It’s a brave decision to make.

Having made that decision, they may find that they are really enjoying the new job, but struggling to get used to the new income level (although this often isn’t as difficult as they anticipate).  If it is a struggle, they could help themselves by cultivating friendships with people on a similar income level, making time to meet and talk to people with much less money than they have and limiting the time they spend with those who have more money than they do.

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Pressure of University Clearing

As a Careers Adviser in Further Education, I would look forward to Clearing day with a mixture of trepidation and excitment.  It’s one of the busiest days of the FE Careers Adviser’s calendar and a day of high drama: tears, triumphs, hugs and quick decisions to be made.

The day would start with groups of students hanging around, waiting for someone to come to the noticeboard with the list of obscure codes and letters that would prove to be life changing.  As the notice went up, a group of students would cluster around, pushing for a better view.  We would watch from the windows of the advice centre, as students hugged and congratulated each other, phoned parents and celebrated.  And a trickle of disappointed students would appear at the door.  Before long, the trickle would swell, and we would have twenty or thirty students consoling each other in the waiting area.

Our task was quickly assess their situation, and put them to work on the clearing process.  If they had only just missed their place by one grade, the first task was to ring the university they had applied to.  Many of them would still secure a place with this one phonecall, and could quickly be despatched with a smile on their face.

The rest were put to work, hunting through the newspapers and the UCAS website for courses that they were interested in.  We sat by the students as they checked prospectuses, phoned universities and put their case to admissions tutors.  As each one found a place, the rest would hug and cheer them.  By the end of the day, most had secured some tentative offers, and were reassured that they would still be going to university.  There would be a few who were considering the alternatives.  Job well done, we thought.

Later, I worked as a University Careers Adviser and saw for myself the results of these hasty decisions.  It was all too common for students to feel that they were on the wrong course.  It was only now that they were realising how much Maths was involved in that Business Studies course.  Or how their Psychology course wasn’t recognised by the appropriate professional body.  Or that there wasn’t any practical work in their Media course.  All things they could have found out before they accepted their university place, but didn’t.

Many (but by no means all) of these decisions were made in the rush of the clearing process.  The pressure to just “get a place” makes it hard for students to coolly assess the offer, check the course content and visit the university to see for themselves.  They may not think to ask about drop-out rates, career destinations or student satisfaction ratings.

This week, thousands of students will go through a very similar process in clearing.  The process hasn’t changed all that much.  The most radical difference is that now, students can receive all this information online.  The noticeboard is obsolete.  Many students will receive the news of whether thay have a place at university in the privacy of their bedrooms.  It does give them the chance to absorb the shock of not getting a place before they face the world.  It saves that awkward moment between friends, where one recieves three grade As, and the other receives 3 grade Es and they don’t know what to say to each other.

But with this privacy comes isolation. There are no friends on hand to give a hug and console.  There is no group of disappointed students, in it together, and giving mutual support.  Teachers and Careers Advisers are not on hand to calmly guide the student.  Parents may be as disappointed and confused as the student themselves.

The pressure has only increased to secure a university place, as many school and college leavers fear there will be no jobs for them to go to.  The pressure to get a university place sorted before facing the world will lead to many students accepting places on Any Old Studies at University of the Back Of Beyond, just so they can say they have it sorted when they finally see their friends.  And yet it will be harder than ever to do this, as the number of university applicants has increased and funding for additional university places has been cut.

It’s a brave decision to step out of the clearing process, and make the decision to have some time out and re-apply.  No-one wants to be left behind as friends go off to university.  No-one wants to have to tell the world that they failed to get a university place.  But maybe this is better (and braver) than spending three years (and a lot of money) on the wrong course.

There are lots of things that can be done with this time out:

  • Getting relevant work expereince, whether in a paid job, an internship or just a few days of unpaid work shadowing, can give  something to talk about and write about in applications.  It’s essential for many careers – Media and Law, for example – and can give a UCAS application the edge.
  • Voluntary work, either at home or abroad, is looked upon very positively by universities, and can give the chance to develop new skills, confidence in dealing with people, going to new places and operating in a different culture.  Helping others with their problems and issues is a really effective way to take your attention away from your own problems.
  • There may be apprenticeships available in your area that would provide an alternative route into the career you are interested in, as well as additional qualifications
  • To some extend, any work is useful, even if it just convinces you to work hard at university because you never want to work in a chicken factory again.
  • Some people will choose to re-sit A-Levels, and this can open up a wider range of courses.  However, it should be remembered that some of the more competitive univerisities don’t look so positively on re-sits, unless there is a good reason for not doing well the first time.
  • Gaining new skills though practical courses, such as IT, Business, Care, Construction, Art or Mechanics might open up new doors or give new ideas

If you do find yourself (or your children) in Clearing, please don’t sit alone in your bedroom trying to figure it all out!  Go into your school, college, Careers Service or Connexions and get some professional help.  Don’t make your decisions in a rush without thinking it through.