Choose life, choose a job, choose a career…

The concept of the bucket list is now well-established; climb the Himalayas; perform a sky dive; swim with alligators. All experiences without which we might feel our lives had been wanting when we finally shuffle off the proverbial mortal coil.

As someone who generally subscribes to the idea that you only regret what you don’t do, I completely empathise with the desire not to fill ones last moments ruefully wishing we’d gone on that balloon ride/taken that trip to Kathmandu/married the girl from the fish shop when there was still a chance.

However, if there is one area where people tend to be most risk averse, then it is probably in their working lives. The job for life has long been a thing of the past and currently the average British worker will probably have at least six different roles over a lifetime, but that could still mean a stretch of eight years or more. Given that we spend the majority of our waking hours at work, doing something meaningful or with purpose or possibly – whisper it – that we might enjoy, is probably more critical than whether we spend our fortnight’s holiday walking the Great Wall of China rather than the pier at Southend.*

So how do we choose a career that won’t leave us wishing we’d occupied our working hours doing something more fulfilling or productive? Emma Rosen was just 24 and at the beginning of her career when she felt she had made the wrong choice. Academically successful at school with a degree in history and international relations and an MA, Emma was looking for security and job progression which led her into the civil service.

However, after working in several different departments she became conscious that none of the roles were giving her the job satisfaction which was important to her.

‘I wanted to make a positive impact, but all the roles were the same and I couldn’t make a difference, which was why I was attracted to working in government in the first place. I expected to follow my parents’ example into a secure job for life, but I wasn’t happy. I felt like everything I’d studied and prepared for the past five years had been a complete waste.’

Emma spent a year thinking about what to do and finally wrote a list of all the jobs which had ever appealed to her for as long as she could remember. There were 25 in total. Her 25th birthday was 12 months away. She decided she would try them all before she turned 25 and then she would know which she wanted to pursue; 25 jobs in one year.

Her first job? She contacted her old university and asked if they needed anyone to work on an archaeological dig. They did; for two weeks in Transylvania digging up a Roman palace. That was followed by two weeks working as a wedding photographer in Ibiza, dressing interiors for a property development company, as a film extra, for a company creating crisis simulation exercises to train government officials for deployment in hostile environments, which turned out to be a favourite, and placements and shadowing in a variety of roles and sectors.

Emma rated each job against a list of criteria which were the key things she was looking for in a job; things she enjoyed like problem solving and the opportunity to travel, the opportunity to be creative and feel she was making a difference in the world.

Emma says:

‘Very quickly I established that I didn’t want a nine to five office based job and the work environment was very important to me. I realised I liked doing lots of different things and wanted the opportunity to travel. Of course these criteria could apply to very different jobs, but what I did learn is that even in seemingly very different professions, you’re often applying the same skill set.’

So which job did Emma plump for in the end? Well she currently has several roles including as a speaker in schools and colleges, sharing her experience with students, and as a travel writer – a direct result of one of her 25 placements. She’ll be working for 360 Expeditions writing about their upcoming expedition to the summit of Stok Kangri in India in September. She is also author of a book, to be published in January, sharing anecdotes and insight from her experience, questioning the nature of careers guidance and providing practical and realistic advice for young people looking for their own career. Just in case she isn’t busy enough, Emma will also be a member of the ‘Sir Edmund Hillary of swimming’, Lewis Pugh’s team on his next swimming challenge.

Emma says the most important thing she learned during the year was ‘to embrace uncertainty, which is terrifying when you’ve been used to always knowing what’s coming next.’ She agrees with me when I suggest that some young people might not have the social capital, background, funds or general wherewithal to try a similar experiment, but has lots of practical tips for people to get experience in industry, build up professional networks and find opportunities to try different jobs.

She says, ‘Careers education makes you narrow down and focus, but young people need to be exposed to the biggest and widest range of careers, not just the obvious ones. I think that multiple work experience placements in a diverse range of industries at several different points from age 14 upwards should be mandatory so students get an opportunity to try as much as possible. School holidays can be utilised much more.’

Certainly our education system is very subject driven and with an expectation that those subject choices will take you to a related career. However, the choices students make aged 14, may not equip them for the jobs they may be applying for in their early 20s, especially given the pace of technological innovation. Developing work ready skills and giving young people proper insight into the world of work is probably the best way to prepare them for a rapidly changing digital world.

Emma’s story is a fascinating and inspiring one, but also has lots to offer, not just those in their 20s who may feel they are floundering in their search for the perfect career, but anyone who wants to make sure they’ve ticked their career bucket list.

*The author wishes to make clear that they have not walked the Great Wall of China, but heartily recommends Southend pier as a seaside destination.