A thought for July

July – the wonderful month of Henley and Wimbledon. Schools are in the exciting time of celebration of achievements, sports days, school plays and concerts; pupils preparing to move on and we are all looking forward to holidays. This year we have a heatwave which most people seem to like (I am not good in heat, so I am the odd one out). Depending on when you are reading this you might be getting all patriotic about the World Cup. As I write we are enjoying the victory over Colombia, but the pressure is already being applied for the Sweden game. I could spend the next few minutes writing about focus, leadership, teamwork, the psychology of achievement or realistic goals but I am not going to!! The media is having a field day doing just this. Instead I want to think about how we choose the work we do.

This week we welcomed a new curate to our church community and on Radio 4 there was the start of a series called The Wrong Job in which Emma Kennedy is investigating why as many as 75% of us are doing jobs with which we are not happy. Alongside that, with the other three judges, I am starting the judgment process for The Inspire Initiative. All this has made me think about how we choose what to do with our lives.

Choosing to be a priest is an unusual process which I have observed on many occasions but never experienced. Most denominations wait for people to come forward, thinking they have a vocation to priesthood and then there is a long period of discernment – trying to perceive what God is saying about the right way forward. The emphasis is on the person considering thoughtfully what their future holds often when they have already committed themselves to a career path. At various stages along the way they are interviewed by different people from different backgrounds, all testing these feelings of vocation.  Eventually they might be selected for training and throughout that period there is more soul searching and the person can pull out. One of my teachers was a lovely man who taught me Religious Knowledge and the basics of Greek; he had pulled out of ordination within weeks of it happening. When I knew him he was recovering, refocusing his life and testing what he should be doing whilst teaching sixth form women.

This is a very different process to being asked at school what you want to do and then being forced into making decisions about appropriate exam courses. The time for convenient academic decisions is often not the moment when we are ready to decide which hole is the right shape for the peg we are! I admired hugely the school friend who having chosen her A levels did a year and then chucked it all in to start again. Suddenly at age 17 she realised she did not want to be a lawyer; she did want to be a vet. Forty years later she has had a wonderfully happy career as a small animal vet. It took huge courage for her to decide her decisions were wrong and then have the strength of conviction to stop the academic wheels rolling and the parental aspirations hardening. All she had to go on was her persistent gut feeling that what she was doing was wrong and what she wanted was right.

She was incredibly fortunate that she could address being on the wrong road because she knew which path she did want to take.

All this can be made even more difficult because someone’s skills do not necessarily give them satisfaction when they use them. My husband was a born salesman. He could talk to anyone, question what their needs were, listen carefully to the answers and then sell them the right product. There was only one problem, it was not his favourite thing; he wanted to be a journalist. Now as you read this you know that talking to people and asking questions would have made him equally good at both. However, he came from a background and a school that could visualise him being a salesman but would not have known where to start in helping him to be a journalist. That was a time when once you started you were on the road and the future was fairly well cast in stone.

Our lovely new curate is in his forties and has had a very successful career in education. He has been brave and taken his time to make this change of direction. He has observed the role of parish priest and got a real sense of what the job is all about. The process the church offers for selection is a pretty good one and does not rush people.

However, for the rest of us there may not be this luxury. How do we discern what our skills are and how we might use them?

Identifying talent is tricky. Often we know far too little to know whether we have any skill. I may love to sing but my untutored voice may not have the natural tone to be worth listening to or hold a tune! The people who watch us and might make a judgement have a natural bias. They may be sure we will be a lawyer because we are a family of lawyers. My builder always wanted to be a builder but comes from a family of farmers and that took some managing. People may see in us either what they expect to see or only apply what they see to a very narrow range of possibilities.

In looking at the entries to The Inspire Initiative I see women who have been in this situation, channelled into certain careers but also there have been women whom someone saw something different in and encouraged that seed to grow.  We all deserved good parents and first-class teachers and those that had them are hugely fortunate and may have been steered in the right direction but what if we did not?

My thought this month is all about helping others have the courage to change direction if they need to. If 75 per cent of people are unhappy at work no wonder our productivity is low as a country. As artificial  intelligence grows and inevitably reduces the number of full time jobs let’s help people find the right role for them. If we cannot see a round hole for this round peg then let’s look further. Let’s look widely at possibilities and push the boundaries. Let’s accept that a job choice may be right for now but at some stage we may want to go back and start again on another road.

Most of all let’s be honest with our children about what jobs involve so that they can start to narrow down what appeals and what does not.

If we are responsible for other people’s development then let’s take that very seriously and give them opportunities to explore what might be possible for them. And do not be confined by our own view of the world; some boxes do not have firm sides!! Helping people find the right place for them is one of the joys of what I do – how fortunate am I? And of course helping people find the right role is only part of it; we need then to find a place where the culture is the right one for the person. This can be a complex process but will allow us to be happy. To leap out of bed in the morning excited by the prospect of work.

None of this is original. But think about where you will work best and happily. If you need some help to do the thinking let me know. Help others to be brave and if they are in the wrong place support them in making a new decision and starting again. And think of our new curate as he does just that.

If this has been interesting, please share it. If you are thinking of working with a mentor, please chat with me about what you are hoping to achieve. I might be the right person for you or I can help you find someone who is. In the meantime, life is good; let’s live it to the full and be the best we can be.

Elizabeth Toogood

About Elizabeth Toogood

Elizabeth is a mixture of mentor, coach and non-executive director. She meets face to face with individuals and gives each of them total focus; there are no matrices or models into which they need to fit. The ethos of Elizabeth Toogood is to offer a high level of support and serious intellectual challenge.
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