Vocation, vocation, vocation: Part 2, the rungless ladder

‘Standup comedian and writer Sarah Sheldon talks us through her bumpy road to figuring out her life purpose, or career, or just a job to pay the rent

Counting out vocations with cherry stones

Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor. What will I be? Laura Lloyd 2016

‘Careers’ education: How I got dubbed a perfect air traffic controller

I’m not sure how seriously “careers” was taken at school. The “careers” teacher Mr G also doubled up as R.E. (religious education); P.S.E (personal and social education) and P.E. (physical education) teacher – it seemed he was qualified to teach anything with an acronym. And careers.

Our lessons would consist of filling out questionnaires, ticking boxes of relevant personality traits from which the ideal career for each student would somehow mysteriously be extrapolated. Mine was air traffic controller.

Occasionally Mr G would mix up the lessons and might show us a video about Divali or 14 year olds addicted to crack and smack after trying their first cigarette at the age of 13.

Unable to counter arguments from Emma Philips who would stand on the window sill for no apparent reason and ask what was wrong with weed as it just left you really mellow, sometimes Mr G would forget about teaching altogether and talk wistfully about what a great leader Mrs Thatcher had been.

Misunderstanding industry

As we got older, the school did try and give us a taste of what it meant to be out in the real world. We were obliged to take a module in “understanding industry” on Wednesday afternoons where we would do things like visit the headquarters of Norweb, the North West Electricity Board, to learn about what it means to work for a British electricity supply and distribution company. The talk was such that Emma became hysterical when someone dropped their whole biscuit into a cup of tea by accident.

Wasted work experience

We were also obliged to do work experience. I found a placement with a lawyer unwilling to delegate too much responsibility despite the fact that I had bought a new satchel and was not wearing trainers. Instead we spent most of the time travelling up and down the M1 as he visited clients, chatting to me about third party accident insurance. On the days we didn’t spend on the motorway, I would go into court and feel alternately bored by cases of minor soft injury and whiplash and intimidated by expensive perfume.

I would spend my lunch breaks with my friend who somehow managed to get a placement in Waterstones so had full access to the teen fiction section which she would diligently read from 9 to 5 with an hour for lunch while being stalked by someone in a Trilby who would loiter in the self help section.

Learning by vague example

It was not only my own lack of clearly defined career path but also that of my parents which became apparent to me at school. In foreign languages for example, you were expected to produce parents who were postmen or teachers. My dad’s particular career has eluded definition since he stopped working as a teacher and started doing ‘community development’ whatever that is. My sister recently got married and at the registry office, she and her husband-to-be went off to talk to the registrar before the service. They were gone for a really long time. We were starting to worry. It turned out neither were able to answer the question of what my dad does.

These experiences might have been formative – I still have the satchel and a suspicion of self help – but they did not leave me with a clear sense of vocation. I was painfully aware of the need to have a career but clueless as to what that career might be. Could I be interested in teeth?

Hard to prioritise

University provided no further clarity. While there I became even more acutely aware that I should find something worthwhile to do, like become a domestic violence victim support worker. I did manage to get accepted onto a training course for volunteers seeking to train as domestic violence victim support workers in my free time but found it clashed with rehearsals (I was a tree in a Midsummer Night’s Dream) and for the best part of a month my free time was spent at home drafting letters to the course coordinator Sue trying to justify my departure.

Withering work experience

Internships I also tried, although by this point I had become aware that all I was qualified to do was read and write. I did a month long placement at a contemporary culture magazine while housesitting for my cousin in Arnos Grove. It was so cutting edge that there was no heating and the company faced the constant threat of legal action for failing to pay photocopier repair costs. There were no tables or chairs for the never-ending stream of interns and I was told to leave after requesting that the music be turned down as I was unable to hear anything while trying to complete my one assignment – transcribing an interview on hub caps for the ‘car culture’ supplement. I was also anxious that the staff might find out what I was doing in my free time i.e. going back to Arnos Grove and making my way through my cousin’s entire ‘Friends’ video collection.


I did manage to get a job reading and writing albeit reading and writing about the Central and Eastern European pharmaceutical sector. Resigned by now to the fact that there would be no glittering career for me in clinical obstetrics or as a human rights lawyer partnering up with Matthew McConaughey in some southern US state to work on a pivotal race relations case, I would receive emails from the Vice President complaining about the “chewing gum wrapper” left in the ladies (which might or might not have been a euphemism) and attend away days at Southend council or conferences about pharmacy display counters.

It was only when I realised the necessity of abandoning any sense of “career development” that I became open to other forms of development, seizing an opportunity which came up in Central America to work over there as a journalist, a job I was expected to do without a desk, chair or computer or in fact any sense of job security; one of my co-workers there was seemingly sacked for wearing a “Winnie the Pooh” sweatshirt and another for getting through to the second round of Latin American Pop Idol.

Peace in no purpose

While pangs of purpose persist and I have since attended the odd open day at Birkbeck (resulting in nothing), perhaps the most useful advice gleaned from a one-off overpriced afternoon class on how to find your vocation (albeit with unparalleled refreshments) was to pursue different interests side by side and have the courage to see where they lead you like my Latin American Pop Idol colleague; For the time being a return trip to Norweb is not on the cards.

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Do we need a sense of purpose at all? Is it a goose chase? Comment thread awaits you, Reader