Please stop asking me about my career
They called themselves “interns”. We called them “workies”. They would come into the office for two weeks, shy or garrulous, enthusiastic or resentful. I remember the brilliant ones — Sally, who wore home made diaphanous kimonos and asked sweetly phrased existential questions on quiet afternoons, Anita, who rang every PR in the country to track down a set of giant Jenga, and Jen, who offered to make a cup of tea every 11 minutes. I remember the dreadful ones — Gina, who managed to alienate everyone by being simultaneously stuck up, sneery and homophobic within her first 48 hours, and Becca, who refused to transcribe any interviews, but generously offered to interview Cheryl Cole for a cover feature. One girl wept at the end of her first day, assuming the silent, slightly tense atmosphere in the office was due to something she’d accidentally done, rather than an unreturned phone call from One Direction’s publicist. Work experience is strange and stressful for everyone involved, whether you’re the workie or their supervisor.
The placements on the magazine were sought after, and competition was fierce. As the supervisor of the work experience folder, I wielded great power — and I felt as though I had a great responsibility to the candidates I chose. I wanted to make sure their time with us was as educational and enjoyable as possible. I was surprised by the variations in quality, the way the applications ran the gamut from brilliant to bratty, and the number of cover letters addressed to our rival title.
The truth was that while we did everything we could to make the experience positive and rewarding, the work was quite boring. Masses of interview transcriptions (“As much fun as counting your cock”, my old editor once told me that her old editor had once told her), made up research tasks — I still have a pile of Wenn photo print outs of ‘celebrities with dogs’ and the odd book review. To be honest, that was the point. I’d started as an intern and graduated to staff writer because I had an earnest, puppyish thrill about completing every task I was assigned. Transcribing interviews was a lot like eavesdropping — it was also a masterclass in the art of conversation, and how to make an experience intimate and informative. There was a lot to learn if you were as nerdy, intense and obsessive as I was. Perhaps most importantly, I was a quiet learner. There are no stupid questions but studying through observation is a useful skill. No-one wants to hire the perpetual toddler with their “why why why”s.
After four years, 52 issues, hundreds of thousands of words and, at a conservative estimate, the supervision of 250 “workies”, I went freelance. Or rather, my editor suggested to me that the time had come for me to go, budgets were tightening and my distaste for the new James Arthur single had marked me out as a bit of a liability. “Have you thought about going freelance?” she asked. I had. Every single piece of information I’d read about going freelance had convinced me that it was the fastest route to homelessness and ditch living. To be a successful freelancer, you needed savings, contacts and phenomenal organisational skills. I did not have one of the three. I turned to Twitter and sought advice from some of the freelancers I vaguely knew. They told me not to bother.
Since I went freelance, strangers ask me for career advice all the time. I get asked for help and support several times a week — much more often than I ever did when it was my job to supervise the gang of interns.
At first, I was keen to help. I remembered the fear, panic and horror I felt when I was starting out. I know what it’s like to be simultaneously alight with ambition, and terrified by your own audacity. I knew how many friends and family members will discourage you because they want to remove all risk from your life, as they equate happiness with a lack of uncertainty. I knew how much it means to hear a voice that wants you to have faith in yourself.
The trouble is that when I was Magazine Staffer, benign dictator and Queen Of The Workies, I was in a position to give people some genuinely useful advice. When you’re starting out in magazine journalism, there are clearly defined roles to fit into and rules to follow. Since I left, I’ve ended up with a career of my own invention. I have been digging my path with a spade and there isn’t really a means of turning it into a public walkway. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to. Since I left full time office employment, social media has exploded and mutated. There has been a strange and uncomfortable blurring of the lines between journalist, writer, influencer and personality. Instagram didn’t exist as a public platform when I opened my very last payslip, and now it’s a space filled with explicit and covert advertisements for a ‘freelance lifestyle’.
When I speak at events and the audience ask questions, the one I hear the most is “How did you ‘get’ your career? What advice do you have for writers?” I resent it. It makes me feel more like a lottery winner than a writer. It makes me sad that no-one ever wants to talk to me about my writing. They only want to talk about their own work, in the context of the opportunities I’ve had.
It’s impossible not to empathise. It was tough to get a placement on the magazine, to get your career started. Now that magazine doesn’t exist any more. That kind of work experience doesn’t really exist any more either — many companies are rightly concerned about the implications of exploiting young, unpaid workers, and have stopped or reduced their programmes. It some seems as though the number of aspiring young writers has increased in inverse proportion with the number of opportunities available. We’re left with a gap in the market, and it’s been filled by a pyramid scheme. A kind of ‘creative cannibalism’ in which influencers offer classes and marketing courses. Fans can pay over the odds to learn how to have a career in doing what their favourite influencers do — dispensing overpriced career advice!
At the beginning of the year, influencer Caroline Calloway cancelled a teaching tour package she was selling to her 800,000 followers. She was meant to be travelling across the US to teach some nebulous lessons — the most concrete being ‘how to build an Instagram brand’. (Calloway attracted criticism for everything from asking photographers to work at the event for free to asking participants if they wouldn’t mind bringing their own lunch, even though lunch was supposed to be part of the package).
As the planned series of seminars unravelled, the episode was compared to the Fyre Fest fiasco — right down to the lack of sympathy for the attendees. Calloway seemed less like a professional development expert, and more of a cult leader. Give her $165 and you can be just like her and wear a hand made flower crown! Cults only work if they can recruit a renewable supply of desperate and vulnerable members. If you feel strong and happy, and your work fills you with passion and purpose, you’re less likely to give your money to someone like Calloway. But if you’re frustrated, vulnerable and anxious about your career path and status, your wallet will fly right open. Welcome, Millennials! My generation — broadly, people born between 1982 and 2004 — have grown up believing in ambition as unquestioningly as our grandparents believed in church on Sunday. We are also, in real terms, the most overworked and underpaid generation to be born since WW2.
Many of us start our working lives in debt, and free labour has become normalised. If you want to work in a bar or café, somehow you need to prove you are more passionate, committed and dedicated than the other 199 people who will have also applied to work in the café. If you don’t mind what you do as long as you can start it at 9AM, finish it at 5PM and make enough money to pay your bills, start saving and go on holiday occasionally, you’re out of luck.
In 2012, when I left my full time magazine job, “Millennial” was a word for the giddy, shimmery naffness of the post Y2K world — it alluded to frosted make up and barbecues with a Balearic soundtrack. It was a little while before it would become a term for a generation who have come to be defined by their ambition. I think we are the most educated, examined, qualified, and fretful people to ever enter the workforce. We began our working lives under enormous pressure to excel, with everything to lose. (If you start with a student loan, you’d better do something spectacular in order to justify the thousands of pounds you borrowed when you were 18.) When people want to criticise us, they like to say that we’re the generation that demands a medal for showing up. They don’t understand that we have all grown up believing that we have failed if we’re not in first place.
While it’s easy to blame social media for the fact that we all want careers worth bragging about — have you even been promoted unless your old Year Six frenemy ‘likes’ it? — we have to look at the fact that many of us have been groomed for these careers since school. Our generation were promised every opportunity by our Boomer parents but being average was never an option. I think many employers were quick to exploit this, working out that we were enthusiastic, that “passionate” means cheap. How many bosses have complained about how entitled we are, while expecting a recruit who is prepared to go ‘above and beyond’ for £14,000 a year? It’s no wonder everyone wants to go freelance. Why wouldn’t you, when the alternative is barely earning minimum wage in an office where you’re expected to show your devotion by being the last one to leave?
We’re in the throes of a career crisis, and I think that even the most resourceful Millennials are starting to feel burned out by it. Anne Helen Peterson wrote about the scope of the problem for Buzzfeed, asking “Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time.” Work is the cause and the cure for our problems. Sometimes I wonder whether influencer culture is rooted in the idea that we’re so frightened of what will happen when we stop working for a second that we have to turn our lives into a job. Going out to eat at the weekend? If you document the event properly, there’s a chance that you can turn the experience into a lucrative brand partnership, and you won’t just be another lazy Millennial spending money on an unnecessary luxury like food. Do you like buying and wearing clothes? Until you manage to save the necessary £100,000 for a house deposit, it’s burlap sacks for you — unless you can turn your hobby into an unpaid modelling opportunity. You’re working, so it’s allowed!
It’s flattering when people ask you about your career. It’s a privilege to do a job that people are curious about, and one that some people are interested in doing themselves. Also, I’m very interested in the disconnect between perceptions of success and reality. It is very important to me that anyone who meets me and wants my career knows that I’ve made several false starts and mistakes, that I’ve been fired, I’ve fucked up and I’ve cried in the toilet.
I graduated 12 years ago, and all I could tell my 22 year old self is that the first 5–10 years will feel like being repeatedly flung off a theme park bucking Bronco, waiting for your bruises to fade and then going off to wrestle a bear. There will be blood and tears and near death experiences, but if you keep showing up, the bear has to get tired at some point. The best career advice I have ever received comes from Amy Poehler’s book, Yes Please. She compares careers to “bad boyfriends” and explains “there is no career mountain”. There is no point of our professional lives in which we will feel as though we have reached the summit, and we’ve finally been rewarded for all of this hard and horrible work. When people ask me for advice — and usually, it’s not a specific question I can answer, just “can you give me any advice?” I get a sense that snow-blindness is setting in. They feel as though they have been on the mountain forever, and it’s only getting rockier and steeper with every step. The summit isn’t just far away — it isn’t visible.
I don’t think I want to collude with the career economy any more. I’m starting to believe that we’ve been sold a lie, and that ambition — that which we all believe in so fiercely and fervently — has been redefined as a convenient way to exploit us. If you were really ambitious, you’d stay in the office until they turned the lights off, even though you’re not getting paid one per cent of what the CEO makes in bonuses. If you’re ambitious and use your platforms to plug our products, we’ll send you a free phone — because you have just saved us hundreds of thousands of pounds in advertising fees! I can’t participate in creative cannibalism any more. I can’t keep speaking at these pyramid scheme style events, where sometimes people who have made a career out of giving questionable career advice exhort their dedicated followers to do the same.
Instead, I want to be part of a conversation in which ambition is redefined. I want us to be ambitious for our own happiness and wellbeing first. And I want more thinking and dreaming space. If you long for more creativity in your work, you need to make room for it — not by working out how every spare second can be harvested and monetised, but by finding nourishment through listening and observation.
How people ‘got’ their jobs is much less interesting than why they choose the work they do. The most successful work experience students were the ones who listened and learned, and who understood that they wouldn’t have a story to tell before they worked out what made them so curious about other people’s stories. When it comes to your own career, it’s natural to be narcissistic. We’ve all grown up believing that we have to operate in an economy driven by scarcity. We cannot allow ourselves to fail, but we know there simply isn’t enough success to go around, so we hoard advice. When we see success, we have to work out a way of seizing it for ourselves because it’s the only survival technique we understand.
Perhaps ambitious Millennials can be saved from ourselves by changing our mindset. What would happen if we believed in abundance, and convinced ourselves that there was enough success to go around? I think we might make better decisions. I think we might stop frantically hoarding advice and start to think about how we can achieve what we really want, instead of attempting to replicate someone else’s work by following a safe and proven path. I think we would reconfigure our definition of success, and measure it in feelings, not likes and follows. I’m sure that our work would become more challenging and exciting — and most importantly, that we would become a much happier, less anxious generation.