A high-flyer stuck in a holding pattern

Catherine was a high-flyer. She excelled at all subjects in school, without ever having to try too hard. But being a polymath who can cruise through life comes with its own set of problems. Catherine struggled to specialise when it came to narrowing down her A Level subjects. Eventually, she settled on English, maths and geography for a little “light relief”.

The careers advice she received at school was virtually non-existent. Given her academic prowess and the fact that her parents had both been lawyers, Catherine decided to go into the family business and forge a career in law. So it was, she aced her A Levels and breezed into a red brick university to study law.

From Catherine's very first day in lectures, she realised she'd made a huge mistake. She had nothing in common with her peers and found that her course, the gargantuan textbooks filled with a never ending supply of case law to memorise, and the superior attitudes of the Law Society’s movers and shakers, all left her feeling cold.

But Catherine was no quitter and she felt the pressure to achieve. She was willing to dig in and call on her deepest reserves of stoicism to show her parents that she could carve out her own niche career as a high-flying solicitor. So, she ground her way through university until she eventually graduated with a first-class honours degree. Her parents were thrilled. Her lecturers lavished her with praise. Everyone was delighted.

Everyone except Catherine…

Burnt out and disillusioned

Despite her growing reservations, Catherine pursued a place on a graduate scheme at one of the most prestigious law firms in London. She knew her heart wasn't in it, but she diligently threw herself into it nonetheless. Tirelessly doing the paperwork, the research, the leg work and – of course – the long hours. She did everything she needed to do to get noticed by the partners and move up the greasy pole.

After two long, arduous years of a training contract, Catherine found herself thoroughly burned out. She was more convinced than ever that the law career she thought she wanted simply wasn't for her. So now what? Well, the first step was to hand in her notice at the legal firm. The partners were astonished that she was willing to let such an opportunity slip through her fingers but, begrudgingly, let her go.

Despite her qualifications and obvious capabilities, Catherine found the job market tough. There were plenty of other highly-qualified graduates vying for a small pool of jobs. So she found herself flitting from part-time jobs to temporary hour contracts until she could decide what she wanted to do. All the while, she was terrified about what her parents would say about her change of heart.

After her third temporary contract in six months came to a head, Catherine decide to confide in her mother. When Catherine decided to follow her parents into law, they were delighted. After all, as lawyers themselves, they had enjoyed a nice lifestyle and respected positions in the community. They were reassured and encouraged by her logical career decision.

But, in reality, Catherine’s mum didn’t enjoy her law career. She could see what she’d missed out on during much of life. When confronted by Catherine’s decision to walk away from law, she was worried for her daughter. But on reflection, she was secretly pleased for her. Envious even, of the courageous decision Catherine was making. She was pleased that Catherine had a plan. One that would make her happier and more fulfilled. A decision she wished she’d had the courage to make too – but they were different times.

“Follow your heart”, said her mother. “Do what makes you happy, not what you think will make others happy.”

Having the bravery to step out of your lane

Catherine's choice of geography at A-level stemmed from a deep longing to travel. So her first decision was easy. She chose to backpack around Southeast Asia for three months (back in the days when you could do such things!). Of course, three months of travelling won’t solve the average person’s career dilemmas. Catherine didn’t so much “find herself” but did find inspiration. She met a guy on her travels who worked for an NGO, a career choice that intrigued her. (t sounded really interesting and worthwhile – far better than working for a law firm.

So on her return to the UK, with the NGO discussion still whirring round her memory, Catherine mentioned it to her NINETY career coach, who advised her to find out more about it. So began Catherine’s real journey of discovery. She knew that grinning and bearing life at the law firm wasn’t the answer. But she’d also come to realise that neither was starting again from scratch. Dropping out would involve working for minimum wage and wasting all her years of training.

In reality, Catherine discovered through her conversations with her career coach that she didn’t actually hate law. What she hated was working in an aggressive culture. The law firm simply didn’t suit her. She hated the competitiveness, the ruthless back-biting, and the nepotism of her peers working their way up to partner. She checkout out other law firms, but their cultures were all very similar. However, now she had other options. The NGO route meant spending her working days with other caring and like-minded people.

So Catherine’s travels helped broaden her mind, see options, and use her training and skills to pivot into a more caring environment. A career path that would allow her to use her legal knowledge and experience, as well as earn a good salary and – more importantly – achieve a deep sense of satisfaction that she was making a difference in the world. This may seem obvious now, but it wasn’t at the time. It took a great deal of exploration with her career coach, not to mention deep thinking and research, to finally find the best job she’d ever had.

It's safe to say that Catherine has finally “cracked it” after many years of grinding out studies and work experience in a field that never truly inspired her. Not to mention a string of dead-end jobs just to pay the bills and maintain the holding pattern she’d inevitably fallen into in. After all those false starts, you could say Catherine was lucky to have gotten out when she did and find her passion. But Catherine made her own luck. She had the bravery to step out of her lane and question the status quo. Something her parents were never able to achieve. Now, she's not only happy, but Catherine is deeply fulfilled. That elusive gold standard we all strive for when searching for greater meaning in our lives.

If you’re finding it difficult to settle into a career you love, and have niggling doubts that your current choice of job just isn’t for you in the longer term, we’d love to hear from you. Our experienced career coaches can help you to achieve laser-like focus about your passions. And use those to develop a career that brings you deep fulfilment, which goes far deeper than the typical pursuit of wealth, possessions and promotions ever will.

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