Finding Work That You Love: Myth or Magic?
It is said that life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards. Now, in the early days of retirement, I have come to realise that the same can be said about one’s working career.
But to begin at the beginning; by the last few years of my schooling I knew that I wanted to be a schoolteacher. But an admired teacher advised against it, telling me that if I planned to get married and have a family, this was not achievable on a teacher’s salary.
I foolishly took this advice at face value and began examining my options. An appointment with a career counsellor, followed by an aptitude test, pointed towards engineering or accountancy. I had always been fairly numerate, so along with a few good friends from school I enrolled on a degree course in accountancy.
I had made the fatal error of confusing aptitude and attraction; whereas I could ‘do’ accountancy, I never particularly enjoyed my studies, apart from peripheral subjects such as industrial psychology, which I found fascinating. Nevertheless, I steadfastly ignored the signs and ploughed on to obtain my degree, followed by a professional accounting qualification.
I was now well qualified for twenty-five years of misery. To say that I hated my work as an accountant would be an understatement. Sunday nights became times of deep gloom, only the prospect of Friday keeping me going. By the time I realised I had to make a change, I had a wife and mortgage and two children. A quick escape did not seem possible.
This was not my only problem. While I could speak the language of accountancy and pass as one of them among my accounting peers, inwardly I felt like an imposter. I could not understand how intelligent men and women could be so enthusiastic about dry figures and dull concepts. Although I was fooling them, I hated myself a little more every day.
By the age of 48 I held a senior financial position in a small company. I was earning a decent salary and drove an expensive company car, but hated the job as much as ever. Then, fortuitously as it turned out, I was held up in an armed robbery and almost shot (this was in South Africa). In fact, the gun jammed and my deliverance bordered on the miraculous.
Before the hold-up I had a vague vision of retiring in my mid-fifties and trying for a teaching job at a college or university. Now, it occurred to me that fifty-five might never come, and that if I was to escape accountancy, I should do so immediately. The day after the robbery I telephoned a local university and was asked to drop in for an interview. This culminated in the offer of a lecturing post at the start of the next academic year. I gladly accepted, at a salary slightly above one-third of what I was currently earning. Six months later I was teaching, and loving every moment of it.
The last twenty years of my career were spent in academia. From feeling like a fraud as an accountant, my self-esteem improved and I knew I had found my calling. I also discovered that it was possible to improve my earnings by doing extra teaching, and external consultancy and training. This brought home the realisation that one should be wary of untested assumptions – I could have broken the shackles many years earlier had I properly investigated the teaching world.
Not everyone has an instinctive sense of the type of work that will fulfil them. But in my opinion, everyone should make a decent effort to find work that feeds the soul as well as the body. Failing to do so can result in a life of unhappiness, as opposed to a never-ending journey of self-discovery and growth. My only regret is that I came to this realisation so late.
I am nevertheless grateful to that fellow with the gun, who was eventually caught and jailed. His intentions were hardly honourable, but he improved my life in ways that my career counsellor could never have imagined.
Accounting and Finance