This Year’s Word Podcast Shownotes: Episode 10, How to figure out what to do with your life
Hello and welcome to This Year’s Word Podcast, I’m your host, Courtney Symes. I’m an author, entrepreneur, mum, and wife. In this podcast series, I will share my Word of the Year experience as I explore the meaning of the word “Love” and how you can use this word to change your life, one day at a time.
“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
Today’s episode is the first in our next mini-series, Love What You Do, where I’ll be covering ‘life after school’, including going to university, starting a first job, and navigating the workplace.
In today’s episode I’ll be taking a journey back in time to when I was sixteen and selecting subjects for my HSC (Higher School Certificate).
After weeks of deliberating, I had narrowed my list down to six subjects, when I was struck with an unsettling realisation: I was never going to be one of those people who had a single calling in life.
I had interests in too many areas, which sounds like a quality problem, right? Surely a broad interest in life would equip me with a sound general knowledge and curiosity for the world. Wrong. At age sixteen, an interest in so many diverse areas left me unfocussed and confused. So much so that the task of selecting subjects that funnel into a university degree or career path felt impossible.
In the end, I selected six different subjects across the fields of English, maths, science and textiles and hoped that I’d narrow it down in the last couple of years of high school. The day when I had to decide if I was going to university drew nearer, and I met with my career adviser, again. We discussed various options and what “lit me up”. When we touched on the subjects of textiles and anthropology, my advisor said my eyes instantly began to sparkle with excitement. So, I narrowed my options down to two: archaeology and fashion design. Thank goodness for Arts Degrees!
The pressure from starting university straight after school was alleviated when my best mate and I were selected for a GAP year program at a school in Devon, England. I applied and was accepted for a Bachelor of Arts Degree at University of NSW in Sydney, and then deferred my start for 12 months. This break from education was just what I needed to consolidate my thoughts about my future while becoming independent.
Our year abroad was more action-packed than either of us could imagine, and within nine months of living there, I could see myself staying for more than a year. In fact, despite the dark and cold (we arrived in early January), to me, this country strangely felt like home.
As the end of our adventure loomed, I started researching university degrees in both my areas of interest – archaeology and fashion design. There was an abundance of choice for both – London was one of the major fashion capitals, and the UK was home to a plethora of archaeological sites. So, I tried to picture my future for each career path; archaeology, hanging out in a basement wearing a white lab coat, dusting bones, or fashion, attending glamorous fashion shows with a fancy cocktail in hand. As a fashion-obsessed 18-year-old, the decision didn’t take too long to make, and I began to apply for fashion degrees around the country.
In the meantime, I organised some summer holiday work experience at a bridal boutique in the town closest to the school I was working at on my Gap Year. The owner of the boutique was a vibrant young woman and an excellent mentor. She also had another intern who was about to embark on a degree in patternmaking at the end of summer. Both offered excellent advice on which universities I should apply to, but most importantly, their encouragement and enthusiasm roused in me a burning desire to pursue this path.
Work experience wasn’t new to me. In fact, I had done work experience for a couple of weeks at a local fabric boutique when I was seventeen, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was encouraged to get as involved as possible (not just make the tea), and learnt so much. In fact, I believe it was this experience that drew me towards textiles and following a creative path – I even received a glowing reference, which I have kept with pride to this day.
Work experience is something I would highly recommend to anyone starting their career, or contemplating a career change. A couple of weeks of your unpaid time is still considerably cheaper than investing in a course to retrain in a field you’ve never worked in before. A quality work experience placement will give you hands-on experience (with supervision) in a field that may seem more glamorous on the outside than it really is – fashion is an excellent example.
Work experience also provides excellent networking opportunities. When you are a “new face” in the industry it is nice to meet some new friends who share your passion. If you work hard on a work experience placement, at the very least you’ll come away with a glowing reference or referee you can call on in future. Impress the pants off them and you may walk into a new job!
Following my work experience stint at the bridal boutique, I was unstoppable. I received offers from a number of different universities, and while London would have been the obvious choice, I knew the accommodation and cost of living would be expensive. I also wanted to continue my adventure by getting to know different parts of this wonderful country.
So, the University of Wales College Newport it was!
My university degree was simultaneously one of the hardest but most rewarding things I have ever done. Anyone who ever thought a Fashion Design degree is a ‘cop-out’ or ‘bludge’ never met any of my lecturers. Because fashion sometimes has an ‘airy-fairy’ stigma, it felt like they worked us ten times harder than students on other courses just to prove a point.
The following three years of my degree were like a boot camp. In the first semester, I tried to make the most of my uni life by making friends and socialising, which involved numerous pub sessions. I finished the first semester with a grade C, and my parents, who were supporting me at the time, told me in no uncertain terms that if there were any more Cs, I’d be on the first plane home. After that, I pulled my socks up and became a hermit for the rest of my time at uni.
I started commuting to London every month to visit my boyfriend (now husband), who I had met earlier that year – this was the only time I took off. I also secured several part-time jobs throughout my three-year degree to help pay for my cost of living and uni supplies. As I progressed in my course, the cost of fabrics and other materials increased due to the complexity of the pieces we were creating.
Once again, good old work experience came to my rescue! Throughout my degree, I focused on securing as many work experience placements as possible. I started spending all my holidays in London, and arranged as many 1 to 2-week work placements with fashion companies as I could. In such a competitive industry, I knew that experience and connections were essential. There were many talented students who graduated a year or two ahead of me at uni who simply couldn’t find work. I knew moving to London when I finished my degree would be as vital as building my connections while I was studying.
In my second year of uni, I did a summer work placement with a top trend forecasting company, WGSN (Worth Global Style Network). Trend forecasting uses carefully curated data to forecast the direction of consumer and designer trends. It is used by designers and retailers to predict, for example, what colours people want to wear or use in their homes, as well as their lifestyle habits, and most importantly, consumption habits. WGSN offered an online subscription service for businesses and offered a free service for students and educational institutions.
I developed a great working relationship with my boss and the team at WGSN. When I finished my placement, I was offered more paid work with them over the next uni holidays and eventually a full-time position. This was one of the biggest career dilemmas I have ever faced: finish my degree, or accept my dream job. After many weeks of deliberating, I decided to complete my degree. I wasn’t a quitter, and if I changed jobs in the future, I would need my full degree to secure employment. To this day, I always wonder ‘what if’, as it was such an incredible opportunity. However, I wouldn’t trade the learnings and growth I have experienced on my current path.
If you ever find yourself in a similar predicament, I would recommend casting your eyes forward to the future. If you are given the choice of your dream job or completing your studies, my advice would be to imagine your life after your dream job. Your dream job may turn out to not be that ‘dream-like’, or may end quicker than you expected if the company needs to restructure like so many did during the pandemic. If you find that not completing your studies will hold you back on future job prospects, I’d finish the studies first and then go back for your dream job. If you’re the right person for the job, chances are you’ll get another shot further down the track.
My third year of uni was one of the toughest years of my life, with an immense workload and limited sleep to get through it. I frequently burst into tears for no apparent reason – probably from lack of sleep – and often found myself fantasising about sleeping for an entire day. But I was so determined to finish with First Class Honours (a High Distinction) that I pushed on. I also knew it wouldn’t be forever – the end was in sight. My course leaders were clear that High Distinctions were elusive and usually limited to one student per year, but only if the candidate was worthy. In my final year, three of us had our ‘eye on the prize’, so competition was stiff. My grit, determination, and lack of sleep paid off that year when I was awarded the coveted High Distinction.
It was a bitter/sweet victory, as the other students vying for this award were my two closest friends, and I felt we had all worked equally as hard as each other. At the time, one of these friends had young children the same age my children are now, so in many ways I felt she had worked the hardest, trying to balance home and uni life simultaneously. I honestly don’t know how she did it.
I was, and still am, incredibly proud of this achievement. When times get tough, I reflect on the strength I mustered during this period. I know if I could make it through this, I can get through other challenges too. A High Distinction was also viewed favourably by future employers, so this was a wonderful way to start my career.
One of the work experience placements I had completed was in the buying office of the British Department store, Debenhams. Happily, the week I returned to London after my husband and I got married in Australia, I received an email from one of the buyers I had done work experience with at Debenhams. A junior position had become available, and they encouraged me to apply. The opportunity came at the perfect time, and serendipitously, I was offered the role.
After a lot of hard work at uni and completing work placements, my career had started to fall into place. In the next episode I’ll talk more about my fashion career and (spoiler alert) why I don’t work in the fashion industry now.
When I was at uni I remember a friend asking me about my career aspirations and where I saw myself in ten years. I told him point blank, I won’t be working in the fashion industry in ten years’ time. He was horrified, and to be honest I think my conviction surprised myself a little too. My friend couldn’t understand why I would spend all my time and money doing a course that had no longevity past ten years.
He made a good point, but I assured him that completing my degree wasn’t just about acquiring one skill I would perform in the same job over and over for the rest of my life. Whilst I personally thrive on spontaneity and new challenges, I believe that everyone needs some variety in their life, and their career.
We spend so much time at work during our adult life. I believe it is important to find work which challenges and engages us, because this is where we experience growth and personal development. I talk about this more in episode 2, Find your Flow where I discuss finding our flow “sweet spot” without feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
My university degree and subsequent work experience had equipped me with so many transferable skills, such as working with other people, communicating verbally or in writing, problem solving, and applying creative solutions to various scenarios. I felt confident that no matter which path I followed, my degree had set me up for success with a tool kit of skills that could be applied to any role.
My advice for anyone in a position where they have completed a degree or studied in a particular field and feel hesitant to pivot or change direction from their field of specialty is to take stock of all the skills they’re acquired throughout their studies. Provided you’ve engaged and done the work, no learning or study is ever wasted. The skills you’ve acquired completing your studies are just as important as the subject you’ve learnt about.
I have zero regrets about the fields I have studied in, as I have come away with invaluable experiences and skills I have been able to apply in countless other situations in my life. Although not every hobby or interest is our calling, some are. It’s ok to spend some time working this out. We may also have more than one purpose in life, and that’s completely fine too. At the end of the day, it is not the destination in life that matters, but the journey.
I hope this episode has assured you that it’s ok not to have a defined career path in life. In my experience, it is more important to identify our values and goals, as well as the things we’re good at and enjoy. The Japanese word, “ikigai” which means “reason for being” captures this perfectly. We can then use our career as a tool to explore different options in our areas of interest.
Be sure to check out my new book, A Year of Love: Finding peace one day at a time, where I share more of my career journey, as well as tips and tricks to help you love what you do. You can find it at alittlepinkbook.com/books.
Thanks for listening, and I hope you can join me next time.
I’ll leave you with today’s manta: We all have a purpose, and part of our life’s journey is discovering what this is.