by CareerActually contributor Julie Preston

Julie Square

Inspiration can turn up in the most unlikely of places. I recently stumbled on an old YouTube video and would like to share my reflections.

Tim Minchin’s biography describes his career as “musician, composer, actor, comedian and writer”. In 2013 he gave the Occasional Address at a University of Western Australia graduation ceremony. The official YouTube video of his address has been viewed over 2 million times.

Tim spoke of nine life lessons. Despite professing “I’m certainly not here to give career advice, cos… well I’ve never really had what most would call a proper job”, Tim’s address contains thought and reflections that can be applied to developing a successful career:

  1. You don’t have to have a dream.
  2. Don’t seek happiness.
  3. Remember, it’s all luck.
  4. Exercise.
  5. Be hard on your opinions.
  6. Be a teacher.
  7. Define yourself by what you love.
  8. Respect people with less power than you.
  9. Don’t rush.

The ‘lesson’ that resonated with me was his first, that you don’t have to have a dream. This is an excerpt from the transcript:

 … I never really had one of these big dreams. And so I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you… you never know where you might end up. Just be aware that the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery. Which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams. If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye.

I was asked only last week “Where do you want to be in 5 years?” and I wasn’t even in an interview! As children we’re encouraged to imagine what we want to be when we grow up. Having dreams and goals to strive for can offer purpose and direction, and facilitate choices around career direction. However, too much focus on the dream robs enjoyment from now. We’re never quite there, never quite good enough.

And what happens if the reality doesn’t live up to the dream? I started University with the dream of becoming Professor Preston. The goal was fixed, and I knew the path to get me there… PhD… Postdoc… Fellowship… At the time I was so focused on my goal of Professor Preston that I was unwilling or unable to notice academia wasn’t really the right choice for me. After a few critical events at work, and conversations with a trusted colleague and friend, I sought the guidance of a career mentor. We explored the reasons I had chosen an academic path, what I wanted to achieve in my life, my values and how academia wasn’t fulfilling enough of those values for me.

The goal had to change. When I look back I recognise some big clues that I wasn’t enjoying the path I had chosen. Academia can be very isolating, even more so because I had moved on my own half way around the world to start my postdoc. Experiments don’t always work the first time, and sometimes not even the 10th time. I had the curiosity and enthusiasm to get started, but not the resilience to see my through long stretches of disappointing results, rejected papers and failed grant applications.

Almost as importantly, my mentor gave me the space to realise that leaving academia, setting aside my big goal and pursuing a different path did not make me a failure. It was a positive step forward in my career journey. The mentoring relationship was relatively short, but it completely changed my approach to work dreams and goals, resetting their degree of importance in my life.

In his address, Tim encourages us to pause, to look around and really see where we are right now. Opportunities and possibilities may present themselves from unexpected places if we only take the time to be aware.

The Dream

After finishing my postdoc in the UK, I returned to Australia and retrained in Career Development. I have since worked to support academics on their career journeys, and currently coordinate a university student Career Mentor Program. I no longer have that big end goal that had been driving me for so long. Instead, I have a set of values that guide my career choices. I remain focused on the task at hand, but at the same time I’m aware of opportunities around me.

Keep hold of your dreams and ambitions, but don’t let them cloud your enjoyment of today’s possibilities.