The career ladder is sometimes a lily pond

Ten years ago I volunteered for a innovative new charity organisation in a big city. It was one of the best experiences with work I’ve had. I volunteered there for 6 months in total, I had to leave because my finances meant I had to focus on full time paid work, and I got a little bit unwell with depression.

A while after I left, a job came up there as part of the admin team. It wasn’t the department I’d been volunteering in so my experience was limited but I knew the organisation, had basic computer literacy and was well liked there. I was told the chances of me getting the position was fairly high, I interviewed well and was told they’d be in touch.

Well I didn’t get the job. I was told that as, after volunteering with them, I had went on to work in retail and managed several members of staff they felt I was overly qualified and would get easily bored, and that my lack of responsibility there would soon make me tire of the basic admin role.

I was gutted. And I admit I felt a little bit betrayed. These people knew me, I’d have fit right in with them, I would’ve picked things up quickly, and the person whose job I was getting, she was being promoted to office manager, really wanted me to get the job. But it was someone working in the finance department that got to make the final decision.

It occurred to me that some people don’t understand that rather than a career ladder, that you must strive to climb up, always increasing your skills, wage and status, some of us have more of a career pond. We hop from one lily pad to another, sometime straddling two lily pads at once, staying in relatively low paid, less demanding jobs. Sometimes we slip in and out of multiple jobs at once, managing a few months here a couple of weeks there. Sometimes we stay on the same pad, but our eyes aren’t looking up, in hope for the future, just to the side, in the hope that we can keep afloat.

Don’t get me wrong, every 30 hour week is tiring, draining and requires our concentration and some degree of skill and knowledge. But we don’t all strive to be in a job that takes years of education and depletes all of our energy so we can enjoy expensive holidays twice a year. Some of us prefer a less taxing job, so we have the energy to pursue our hobbies and interests. Some of us take part time work so we can be ‘time rich but money poor’ and spend more time with our families.
And some of us just can’t take the stress of a fast pace work environment, in a job that gives us no sense of purpose, for a corporation we don’t believe in, and want to do something for less money for an organisation small enough that you can name every employee and one which doesn’t have profit as its main goal.

I wish I’d been able to calmly articulate that all those years ago. I wish the rejection letter didn’t just make me crawl into a ball and want to die. In more recent years, ‘fear of rejection’ has been classed as a symptom of mine.

I started a new job a couple of months later. I lasted a week before I had a nervous breakdown, and apart from occasionally volunteering, I haven’t worked since.

I know I was at a vulnerable place in my life then, I’m not blaming the rejection of that job or the stress at the start of the new one. There was years of trauma built up inside me and I’ve struggled with my mental health since childhood.

But I couldn’t help but feel a bit singed when recently I saw that this organisation were celebrating a big birthday and were hoping to track down their old volunteers to see what they were up to. They boast of having helped people find their dream job, further their education and open their horizons and they wanted to know where everyone had ended up in life.

It pained me. Because despite my life long habits of hopping across the lily pond, and not judging others for their career choices (or lack of), I can’t help the social conditioning that tells me I am an underachiever, a failure, that there are others in the world doing better than me, striving, thriving. Heck some of them are actually enjoying their lives!

And so I wanted to tell them this. I wanted to tell them that not all of us made it. That some of us had the best time when working for them, but upon leaving, with debt and, despite the experience, no further skills or qualifications on paper, some of us had to go back to the jobs that we loathed. And some of us never did much beyond those hay days; where I worked for free and felt valued.

Of course there was the mental breakdown, a brief spell with alcoholism, several hundred hours of therapy, 4 relationships, 7 house moves, and various dropped out of online courses, self study courses and a nice ongoing income of £5 a week selling old tat on Ebay. But I’m not entirely sure that’s the kind of thing they’re after. They want their bright young things to have went on to bigger and brighter things!

At one point I’d volunteered with the son of someone who is about 9th in line to the throne, so I imagine he’s done alright, wherever he’s ended up. And if he hasn’t it doesn’t really matter, as he has a title, reputation and a bit of spare dosh to fall back on. See how it makes me bitter? It makes me want other people to have sucked at life too. Which isn’t a very endearing quality I know.

When I looked at the ‘Our Team’ section of the company website, it was all new faces. Not a single person I knew or recognised. Apart from that one person, that person from the finance department who didn’t offer me the job. And I wondered, did she truly love that job so much to stay in it for ten years, as all the other employees moved on, or at some point did her own career ladder slip into the stagnant lily pond too?

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