Meaning of Work: Professional Careers

Potential Pitfalls of Professional Careers

The Meaning of Work, Part 3

By Andrea Jacques

In this third installment of my series on the meaning of work, we look at one of the more prestigious terms people use when describing their work: profession.

The Good and Bad of Pursuing a Profession:

The term “profession” has two definitions that give insight into the mindset this term carries with it; 1) a type of job that requires special education, training or skill; and 2) the act of declaring or publicly claiming a belief, faith or opinion.  Someone with an occupation is just spending time doing something. Being a professional, on the other hand, carries with it the idea that you possess special knowledge or skills that have earned you the right to profess your ideas to others (and, supposedly, the implication that others should heed them).

On the positive side, this work mindset encourages people to pursue additional education and training. Professions such as law and medicine require extensive education and constant learning to maintain the most current knowledge. Many professional associations, in fact, require their members to accumulate continuing education credits on an annual basis. These criteria are essential for those who rely on professionals in areas such as law, finance and technology as it ensures their skills and knowledge are current enough to be effective and avoid costly mistakes.

Unfortunately, many people pursue a profession for the wrong reasons. Many lawyers, accountants, and doctors I’ve worked with pursued their professions because of the status, income and presumed stability associated with them. Often they were pressured to pursue the career by family expectations, and never really considered whether they would enjoy the day-to-day work their profession would entail. The challenge is this: If they don’t ultimately end up enjoying their work, the money, security, approval or status that led them to favor that career path to being with quickly becomes irrelevant as a source of satisfaction. What’s worse, the more money and status a profession brings with it, the more likely a person is to stick with it despite a lack of fulfillment.

If you yourself are professional, and you’re starting to feel the signs of dissatisfaction emerge, don’t ignore them. The longer you wait to start thinking about your next move, the more difficult it will be. It might seem cliché, but life really is too short to waste it spending half or more of your waking hours doing something that you dread. My own brother, who died suddenly at 48 within one month of finding out he had cancer, is a testament to how quickly our time can be up. Fortunately for him, the changes he made in the last 10 years of his life allowed him to feel fulfilled with both his life and work because he heeded his signs of dissatisfaction and acted on them.

How Ideas of Professionalism Impact Confidence

Even if you don’t have a profession, your beliefs around this word may be impacting you. Do you undervalue your work and hesitate to share your opinions because you don’t feel you have the professional training to back them up? Credentials can be overrated. Many of the world’s most successful business people such as Richard Branson and Steve Jobs never completed college; clearly, an  official degree is neither necessary nor sufficient to have great ideas. Here’s the point: stop hiding behind your lack of formal training or qualifications and roll up your sleeves to solve challenges and create opportunities in your work. The more you lean in to the work that you have, the more likely it is you will experience higher levels of fulfillment and success in your field.

Some career paths – such as law, medicine or engineering – do require a formal education. Many of my clients long to pursue a particular profession, but their belief that it will take too long or cost too much to get that training stops them from pursuing it. Formal education does require an investment of both time and money so you don’t want to make this decision lightly, but many of my clients who felt stuck in their careers were able to get unstuck when they finally acknowledged that the work they wanted to do was going to require more education. Then, instead of spending all of their energy trying – and failing – to find a different career that they could pursue more easily, they shifted their energy to figuring out how they were going to find the time and money to get the training they needed. In all cases, the process was far less daunting than they originally had thought. Ironically, a majority of my clients who are worried about being too old to get more education are not even in their forties, but even if you’re much older than that, consider the fact that people are commonly continuing to work much later in life and going on to second and even third careers.  With increasing life expectancies, going back to school in your fifties or sixties could still leave you with more than a decade to enjoy doing the work of using your new skills and knowledge.

Because of the time an expense involved, it is important to take some time to consider whether or not you are going to enjoy the work you will be doing after you complete your training. Prior to investing in significant education, look for ways you could start doing similar work without the formal training. You could volunteer, do an internship, job shadow someone in the field, or do informational interviews with people who are already doing the work. Don’t ignore the bad feelings you get from this journey. Question them. Are they fear and nervousness, or have you discovered something in the day-to-day life of the profession that you didn’t expect that changes your mind about wanting to do this? This will help you to get a sense of the pros and cons of working in that profession on a daily basis.

To be clear, I am not against education. But looking for ways to experience the work before investing thousands of dollars and hours in obtaining a professional qualification not only gives you a chance to try it on for size, it helps to keep those “chronic students” out there honest with themselves. Some people use the constant pursuit of additional education as a way to hide from putting themselves out into the real world of work. They use their perceived “need” for more education as an excuse to hold off on making their mark in the here and now. Continuing to learn and grow throughout all stages of your life is essential, but don’t use education (or the lack thereof) as a way to hide. Look for ways to do what you love sooner rather than later.

Ultimately, being a professional is more about the commitment to get and stay on top of your chosen field, regardless of your level of formal education. The good news is that if you love what you do, you are far more likely to invest the effort it takes, every day, to be at the top of your game.

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