ID #5379

Career Guidance for Dummies like Myself, Alan McIver, Cape Town, South Africa

I can recall being asked, as a child, what I wanted to be when I grew up. The adults who asked seemed amused by my answer: “I want to be a pea farmer”. By the time I went to university my ideas had changed – I wanted to study chemical engineering. Interestingly I never changed my mind – not for a moment. Nor have I ever regretted this decision.

After leaving university I decided to try to get a job at Sasol – the oil from coal plant in Sasolburg. This choice was not popular with most of my colleagues who seemed to prefer working in environments with which they were more familiar – e.g. employment in predominantly English-speaking companies close to Johannesburg. In spite of such jaundiced views I was once again satisfied with my choice. Nor have I ever regretted this choice.

You may by now have noticed a familiar pattern. I do not seem to struggle with such choices. Perhaps it was because I grew up in an environment in which we had relatively few choices so we just got on with things as best we could under the circumstances. And learned not to look backwards. I don’t know.

Subsequent generations however seem to be plagued with doubts about where they are going, what career they choose to pursue and so on. Interestingly they seem to be quite sure what they don’t want to do but unsure what it is they do want to do. Perhaps my own experience in later years might help here.

When I joined Sasol I was asked by one of the HR personnel what my career objectives were. I knew full well what he wanted me to say: “I want to rise up the chain of command, become the managing director and change Sasol into a world-class, global organization”. Instead it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea -- that the question itself was daft. Who on earth could forecast 40 years into the future with any degree of confidence? However, while I might not be able to forecast the future, I had a very good idea what I wanted to accomplish in the shorter term – i.e. say 3-4 years in advance. So I decided to divide my career into phases, each phase being subject to a few simple rules as follows:

•    Having made a decision, do not question the merits or otherwise of one’s decision until the phase is finished. No wavering between decisions whatsoever irrespective of the obstacles and difficulties. It is imperative that one finish what one starts. “A rolling stone gathers no moss”
•    Choices made in earlier phases should not be allowed to influence later decisions. One should be free to change direction dramatically between phases without regard to earlier choices. The decisions should not be coupled.
•   Formal Education: it is important to try to get one’s education (at the undergraduate level anyway) out of the way early on because it becomes progressively more difficult as one gets older.

This approach has several advantages. Firstly, each decision is not as earth-shatteringly important as would otherwise be the case. One has several bites at the cherry so to speak. And if a few turn out to be less than ideal that is about par for the course. Secondly I am surprised at the extent to which what I learned earlier has been of benefit in later years – in some instances many years later. Lastly one never ends up too far off course insofar as what one’s heart is telling one to do. Listen to your heart. Because, while money is important, life is not only about money and “things”. Much energy and enthusiasm is required to achieve one’s goals – such goals cannot be achieved without being passionate throughout one’s life.

This approach has helped me. Hopefully it is equally helpful to others struggling with such issues.

Alan McIver, Abu Dhabi, November 2012

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Last update: 2014-03-10 11:30
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.9

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