Un-defining Ourselves: Radiohead And The School Careers Evening

Photo: La Caixa Forum, here in Madrid

I hated ‘Careers evenings’ at school. They made me feel suffocated, locked in, stuck. None of the options at the booths set up in the school hall were appealing – law, architecture, medicine, the ‘Forces’ – all these mostly useful, necessary, middle class careers that we were being educated to slot into.

These were the choices, we were all but told, which one are you going to pick?

But I didn’t want to do any of them and they made me feel squashed.

The limits are so clearly (yet invisibly) drawn around our world when we are growing up. Being this type of person, from this type of background, at this type of school, this is where you are meant to go.

Instead of a smart lawyer in a three piece suit telling us how wonderful the world of the law courts was, what I needed at the careers evening was a booth with a great big question mark on the front, with a relaxed guy sitting in a chair shrugging his shoulders and saying, “How should I know what you want to be when you get out of here? The job you want to do may not have even been invented yet!”

And funnily enough, in my case, it hadn’t. I’ve ended up making my most successful living so far as a podcaster and blogger, words that didn’t even exist when I left university, let alone school.

But at our school careers evenings, far from the mystery booth with the big question mark on the front, there wasn’t even a booth for ‘artist’, or ‘writer’, or ‘explorer’. I had a friend called Joe, whose dad, he always told me, was an ‘entrepreneur’. That sounded like the most exciting job I’d ever heard of, but there wasn’t a booth for that either.

So we are given a set of limits, we become ‘the kind of people that do a certain kind of thing’, and either we accept that and it brings us happiness (which is fine!), or we connect with an underlying disquiet, an urge, a non-conformity, and, if we can give ourselves permission enough, we eventually manage to step outside the lines that have been drawn around us.

We un-define ourselves.

The band Radiohead went to our school, I imagine they didn’t find careers evenings much use either, and without a backward glance, they un-defined themselves within moments of leaving school, and did exactly what their hearts told them to.

It took me a lot longer. I had to move to Spain aged 26 to help me step outside the lines. And I’m still working on it. Still working on the permission side of it all. The voices that say, “yes, but you have to be responsible, don’t you?”

One thing I’m absolutely sure of though: if I don’t give all my attention to the nagging disquiet and urges that don’t need the lines that have been drawn around me, if I don’t follow the creative urges that tell me to follow my heart and see where it all ends up, then I end up far from a state of happiness, quite quickly.

Un-defining myself, stepping outside the lines in the direction I want to go, is freedom. Exploring that freedom is happiness. It’s creating the path, step by step, even if I don’t know where it’s going.

And in the face of all the scary uncertainty that all this freedom brings – Hang in there… trust… keep going… see where you end up!

6 thoughts on “Un-defining Ourselves: Radiohead And The School Careers Evening”

  1. I studied engineering at university for three years, and each time I walked into a new course I asked myself, “What am I doing here?” I wanted to be an English major, but had defined college as a means to a profession rather than as a means of discovery. And the jobs were in engineering at the time, not English. Twenty years later (after an attempt to teach English in Spain that was switched to teaching English in China), I am an English teacher. I feel fortunate.

    The temptation to “define” myself was out of comfort, I think. When someone asked, “What are you going to do?” I could answer “be an engineer.” By defining myself I instantly had a narrative that I could tell to others.

    For some, the narrative works. It guides them. For others, though, it’s a jailhouse. I think your post is fabulous inspiration for those who are still unsure of their answer to “what are you going to do?”

    Thanks Ben.

  2. Hi Ben, I’m really pleased that I came across your blog after having discovered notesinspanish (which is, by the way, doing wonders for my spanish listening skills/confidence!). I’m currently in my second year at uni and am constantly questioning whether I should be here and what i want to “do” with my life. When ever I attend a careers lecture and they talk about selling yourself to employers and getting on the job market, I’m totally resistent to the idea of being part of “the market” because I can’t see myself following any specific, pre-made career path that are laid out for my degree subjects. Reading this encourages me to keep striving towards having a job that’s meaningful and true to my interests 🙂

    1. @Immy, I say go for it. I’ve seem to have always ended up outside the traditional careers market and it IS possible to make a very good life here on the periphery! But it’s hard, and often people don’t understand the non-career path and you spend half your life explaining why you aren’t doing/don’t want a ‘real job’. But certainly it’s possible, so don’t be disheartened – keep trying things until your particular path somehow becomes clear. Good luck!

  3. A few years back the very academic and traditional international school I attended in Paris invited alumni back for just such a careers day. I thought I’d test their openness and offered to return to talk about my career (25 years) as a Buddhist nun and meditation teacher. Surprisingly they were very open to the idea and I was warmly invited to come along. I didn’t get to go as I was teaching in Brazil at the time. Your blog post has convinced me to take up the offer next time it comes around!

    1. K.L. – That’s wonderful, what an open school! I hope you do get the chance to do it, I’m sure it would sow some wonderful seeds!

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