Reprogramming Directive

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One girl's quest to go from audit files to Broadway

Some Girls

Some girls take courses at all the best schools in France
Riding their horses and learning their modern dance.
They’re clever and cultured and worldly wise.
But you see the world through a child’s wide eyes.
Their dreams are grand ones, you want what’s just in reach.
Some girls you learn from, some you teach.

Some Girls” from “Once On This Island”

Some girls grow up fighting about things like:

  • Their choice of boyfriends
  • The way they dress
  • Maybe they get bad grades in school / didn’t get into the right school
  • Drug or other alcohol related problems
  • Going out/partying too much/too late
  • Getting into trouble with the law
  • Cheating on significant others / backstabbing friends

I have fights which are work/career related. Not “I’ve decided to become a stripper” or “I can’t be bothered and want to work at fast food counters” type fights. Just “I know what I’m doing right now is not what I want to be doing for the rest of my life because as crazy as it may seem to the rest of the world I really do want to write Broadway musicals so I would really like to get some reasonable sort of work/life balance and more time to myself so I can work on this” fights.

I like to think – and hope that I am not alone in thinking – that I am a reasonably mature, stable, high-achieving, independent, focused young woman who knows what she wants but doesn’t foolishly chase after it without triply thinking things through and several contingency plans. I’m well aware of the sheer virtual impossibility of this dream; and thus the proportionally greater effort that needs to be applied to actually get anywhere with it.

Unfortunately, I still have the same five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes as everyone else. On any given day, work and work related activities (including work done before, during and after the commute to/from work) consume 840 minutes; other activities necessary for survival (e.g. sleep, eat, personal hygiene) take up 600 minutes; leaving me with a scant – let’s see now – oh, ZERO minutes left over to do anything.

The insightful reader will probably point out that I’ve not specifically mention weekends at the moment. Kudos to you, I’m just going to say that I’ve not really had a full weekend off without doing any work since I’ve been back from New York. Not to mention also teaching piano on the weekends, dealing with massive issues with an apartment and somehow trying to fit some sort of social life in. The insightful reader might also point out that I obviously do not want this bad enough if I am still trying to fit a social life in. To you, I’m going to say two things:

  1. We need rest and relaxation to produce anything worthwhile. No wonder I can’t write anything good – not only am I really new at this, I’m also sleep deprived and stressed.
  2. If you thought that was an excuse, try this instead – I refuse to believe that in this day and age, we have to choose an extreme of one or the other. Yes, I am Gen Y and frankly, I don’t think it is so unreasonable of me to want a career that I love and that I am passionate about which still leaves me with ample non-work time for a social life.
Choices - a screen capture from the Disney animation, Pocahontas, showing a fork in the river with one branch being a wide, smooth course and the other being narrow and winding.

Should I choose the smoothest course, Steady as a beating drum? Is all my dreaming at an end? Or do you still wait for me Dreamgiver? Just around the river bend.

Anyway. Somehow whenever the discussion about me taking my current job part time so I have time to pursue what I really want to do with my life comes up, I inevitably come across two viewpoints:

  1. “THAT’S SO AWESOME YOU SHOULD TOTALLY GO FOR IT!!!” (thanks all who fall into this camp…much morale support needed and appreciated)
  2. “…” – such silences can be split between
    • Those who think I’m an idiot for even considering it because how could you possibly contemplate a deviation from the tightly structured career path at a Big Four Accounting Firm (with all capital letters included) and that I must be lazy; and
    • those who think it means I’m not serious about and/or committed to whatever it is I am taking part time.

The former group of detractors normally come from the point of view where in their mind it is incomprehensible to take any sort of reduction in monetary benefits (i.e. salary) to gain in other benefits (i.e. work/life balance, time to pursue your life’s passion). This attitude is also welded to the concept of “sacrifice now, enjoy later” and the need to “secure the future”. A few problems I have with this argument are:

  • Monetary benefits are all well and good, but as a senior manager I admire once said to me, “past a certain dollar value, it doesn’t matter how much more they pay me, it doesn’t make up for the extra time at work”. Of course, I’ve also spoken with partners who have said the exact opposite (“it’s certainly worth it, I get paid a lot”) but I question how in tune that is with my own personal values and the way I want to live my life.
  • I appreciate the need to plan for the long-term but really, when is enough enough? Past a certain point, the dollar value earned just doesn’t give the same incremental gain to happiness or fulfillment. And it’s not like I’ll be able to take any of it with me anyway.
  • This is all based on the premise of living for a very long time. Not that I am trying to jinx or ill wish anything, but we can make all the plans we want but we really have no idea what will happen tomorrow. There is No Day But Today. I don’t want to be forever working and waiting until that far off “someday” when I have enough money/security/other such and such to start pursuing my dreams. I don’t want to look back and have massive regrets that I’ve wasted my life.
  • I don’t think just because I want to do something part time means I can’t be serious about what I choose to do in the time I’ve allocated to that part of my life or that I’m not committed. Although there is a positive correlation between time invested and seriousness/commitment to the task, it’s not necessarily causal; strategic focus, discipline, efficiency, effectiveness and flexibility are better measures.

Sometimes I think I’m stuck living in the future so much that I don’t know how to enjoy the present anymore. I feel physically and mentally drained and utterly exhausted every moment of every day. I dread every morning because I know I’ve got a massive stack of things left undone that I’ve already pushed back and need to be done because I can’t push them back any longer. I’m feeling guilty sitting here and writing this instead of working, because I had originally planned on doing work tonight but I couldn’t bring myself to. Just like how I was meant to work last Sunday but couldn’t force myself past the massive headache and then subsequently felt deeply guilty for not working.

Most of all, I wish I didn’t care as much about not letting other people down. I wish I could just let go of it all and not feel a thing. I wish I could bring myself to go on and buy a plane ticket right now and just…leave…

V Australia - Sydney to LA on sale

In a cruel twist of irony, I get this in my inbox today from Velocity Rewards, telling me about the great V Australia sales fares from Sydney to LA.

The Aptitude/Passion Disconnect – Being Good At Something You Don’t Like

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Dream Traps - What's Stopping You?

Many people spend their lives wishing they were good at something. They look at people who are good at that something and they envy them. And because of that, it is not socially acceptable for someone to dislike something they are good at, since they will inevitably cop a backlash of “How can you say that? You’re so good at it! I would love to be as good as you are.”

There’s an overwhelming expectation or assumption that if you’re good at something (i.e. you have aptitude for it), you must enjoy it (i.e. you have a passion for your aptitude). I think this is a fundamentally flawed assumption. We can be great at things we don’t like and we can love things we’re completely hopeless at.

I have great attention to detail, an ability to understand complicated issues or concepts quickly and analyse a set of facts. This makes me very, very good at being an external auditor. But I spend most of my free time buried in a fantasy novel, going to shows, playing the piano or reading design blogs. This means my job – where 90% of the time is about whether you’ve ticked a box in a checklist or not – is a horrible fit given my passion for the creative arts.

The logical conclusion is obvious. A lifetime of being good at something that you don’t like and not being allowed to express the fact that you don’t like it means you end up with a lot of issues, such as disliking your job but not being able to quit, thinking there is something fundamentally wrong with you for not liking something you’re good at and so you keep on trying even though you really don’t like it and internalising all your misery and end up depressed, burning out, having a nervous breakdown or all of the above.

Depression: Affects More People Than You Think

Since I officially moved out into my own apartment in August last year, I’ve been getting a lot of junk mail. Generally, it’s the usual run of IGA catalogues, real estate agents hounding me about either selling my place or renting it out, and pizza coupons and takeaway food menus. I also got pamphlets and handy fridge magnets from Beyond Blue, an Australian organisation dedicating to providing information about depression to the general population at large. At work, I also constantly see signs notifying everyone that there’s a free counselling service available to all partners and employees.

The most recent ABS study on mental health and wellbeing in 2007 found 1 in 5 Australians suffer from mental illness each year with depression being the second most common disorder. Running the numbers, that means over 650,000 Australians suffer from depression each year.

Up until recently, I pretty much shrugged off all the facts and figures and everything being shoved in our face about depression. It wasn’t until I started talking to my friends and colleagues and listening to my parents talk about their network that I really started paying attention:

  • Most of my colleagues at senior accountant level and below are not happy at work. Accounting firms are in a high turnover industry but the recent spate of resignations at the level at which they are happening is ridiculous. Over the last 12 months there’s been more than 10 senior accountants and half of the experienced junior accountants have left in my division alone, with more contemplating their alternatives, like Matthew Caldicott who is a junior accountant in the Financial Services division and took a career break to go on MasterChef Australia 2010.
  • My managers at work appear to be generally content with staying in their jobs, even if they are getting hammered by client deadlines.
  • My partners at work love it. Probably because they get an average cash salary of $500k.
  • Most of my ex-colleagues who have left are far, far happier than before and don’t regret a thing.
  • Most of my colleagues who are still here have stayed because they like their colleagues.
  • In every single farewell speech I have ever heard and departure email I have ever read, everyone always mentions the great people they worked with – no one has ever mentioned the great work.
  • My happiest friends are not the ones with the flashiest cars, most expensive clothes or highest-paying jobs.
  • My happiest friends are the ones who are in jobs where they have both aptitude and passion, or the ones who still have no idea what they want to do but are out there doing their best to find out.
  • My unhappiest friends are those who haven’t worked out what they want and haven’t done anything about it.

A Google Trends search on depression, happiness and career shows some interesting results (out of curiosity, I threw in global financial crisis just for kicks).

Google Trends of depression, happiness, career and global financial crisis

A Google Trends search of depression, happiness, career and global financial crisis shows a close - almost 1:1 - relationship between depression and career. A huge spike in depression happens as the global financial crisis sets in while more people are looking for happiness over time.

Obsession: The Pursuit of Happiness

I don’t think anyone will find it surprising that people are obsessed with being happy. We grow up listening to fairy tales where everyone lives happily ever after. We’re brought up with the idealised Great Australian Dream of a house on a quarter-acre block, 2.5 kids and pets. We think having a stable 9-to-5 job, a house like the ones in Better Homes & Gardens magazines and more money than we know what to do with will make us happy.

A whole industry around the pursuit of happiness has developed with companies such as The Happiness Institute providing seminars, training and events based on the science of positive psychology. There’s over 1.3 million research papers on positive psychology and articles in management publications and at least 50 TED Talks on understanding what makes us happy.

What does surprise me is unhappy people can be so 矛盾 (máodùn). They’re unhappy with their lives but they refuse to acknowledge it or, worse, they acknowledge it but refuse to do anything to change their situation or, worst of all, they place their hopes in things which aren’t going to help at all, like lottery tickets or hoping their dream job will fall into their laps from out of the sky or thinking if they wish enough it will come true.

Change is difficult, I know that. I know how difficult it is to fight against your upbringing, what it feels like to contemplate leaving the certainty of a well-paying, stable job and the sense of being overwhelmed by a seemingly unreachable goal. After all, I’m probably crazy in thinking I could go from being an external auditor to writing Broadway musicals.

Repression: The Disconnect Between Aptitude and Passion

By virtue of competition and the laws of supply and demand, most of us end up in jobs where we have some degree of aptitude, but not a great deal of passion. Some of us are not so lucky and end up working dead end jobs where we don’t have any aptitude or passion just to make ends meet. Others decide they’ve had enough – only to fail horribly and/or gain internet/popular culture infamy when it becomes evident they have no aptitude for it. A small group are able to find their dream jobs, but even then, they need to work hard to stay there and some come to realise dreams are not what they seem.

A Venn diagram showing where jobs lie between aptitude and passion.

A Venn diagram showing where jobs lie between aptitude and passion.

Progression: Keep Trying New Things

千里之行始於足下。
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
—老子 Lǎozǐ, Tao Te Ching

One of the hardest things to do is to look at yourself critically and acknowledge truths you don’t like.

I don’t like the fact I’ve spent 720 hours in high school, 3 years at university and another 500 hours and $10,000 towards a career I have a lot of aptitude for but zero passion.

I don’t like being torn between wanting to pursue my dreams and the constant internal voiceover telling me music is not an acceptable career path and I should stick to something I’m good at, that’s stable and pays well.

I don’t like the idea of looking back at my life when I grow too old to dream and find that I’ve made no difference at all on the world.

The next hardest thing is doing something about it.

It’s been two years since I came back from New York. Since then, I’ve watched a few shows, started a web design business with a friend, picked up two clients at work in the music/performing arts industry, attended a Talent Development Project workshop, met Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and negotiated a flexible work arrangement to allow me some time to figure out what I want to do and I started a piano blog which I’m still not too good at updating.

It’s been exactly one month since I started my flexible work arrangement. In the last month, I closed down my old blog and started this one to keep me accountable to myself so I don’t end up doing nothing at all, watched more shows and went to the UNSW Post Graduate Expo to figure out what my options are. I’ve talked to more people about what I want to do and how to get there and feel like I’m making really slow progress, but progress nonetheless.

My EBA exam is happening in the next month so I don’t expect to get a whole lot done, other than going to more shows and keeping this blog updated. Loathe as I am and as much as I’ll harp on about it, I need to focus and get this done because at this point, the incremental benefits of completing my CA far outweigh the costs.

One step at a time. Get the CA done, then get back on track with figuring how to get to Broadway.