Last night, my new friends, an American couple and I were sitting at a table in a restaurant in Burma, deciding what we wanted for dinner, chatting and getting to know each other. “Where are you going after Burma?” they asked. I answered that I wanted to visit Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. They quizzed me further; “And after that? After travelling? What do you want to do as a career?”
“Not sure” I grinned. “Shall we get two dishes of rice or three?”
And just like that, the conversation turned back to food. I’ll admit, this is a question that up until the last few weeks paralysed me with fear. I absolutely dread this question. Unfortunately, meeting new people all the time means that on average, you’ll answer this question about 2943834857 times per day. I have a well-rehearsed script that begins with a quick reference to my degree (as if this somehow cements the fact that one day I will be in a respected, full-time job), then goes on to mention my love for children (and thus opens conversation up to the possibility of teaching) and how I want to help people (effectively making me sound like a hero). It concludes with me enthusiastically adding in something about how exciting it is to have so many options and some babble about how interested I am in so many things. I like to think I pull off the speech convincingly, but to be honest, it’s all a complete load of waffle.
That’s not to say that I don’t care about the future, I do, deeply. In fact, for the last four years, since graduating, this speech has been my lifeline. When I finished university, I knew only one thing. I wanted to travel. To raise some funds for this venture, I took on a temporary job at a cocktail bar. Temporary turned into four years when I realised the benefits that it came with. I worked. I travelled. I was fortunate enough to return to the same job as manager. I travelled again. I returned and then travelled some more.
Looking back, the job came with all sorts of advantages; flexible hours, a built-in social life, reasonable money (when you count in tips, and I worked my arse off for those), fantastic colleagues, creativity, opportunities to better your confidence, your organisational skills. In the future, I know I will remember only all of the ridiculously funny nights, the lock-ins, the private jokes, the pranks we played on each other. The wonderful memories we made. But, at the time, this is not enough. Working in the bar/restaurant industry is just simply not recognised as a career.
Unprompted, every day customers would ask me what I wanted to do with my life, and every day I would smile through my speech, convincing both them and myself that I am destined for bigger things than pouring pints and layering coffees. (I would like to add, I think I am excellent at both.)
In a glaring contrast to my life, some of my oldest and dearest friends are doctors, lawyers, therapists and hotshots in the city. They have excelled in every area that they have turned their hands to, swanning through with ease. And by ease, I don’t for a second mean that it has been easy; they have worked countless, long hours most likely tinged with doubt, stress and worry; but to the outside observer they have made it look like child’s play. I am in constant awe and admiration of their dedication and tenacity. And although they have never, ever made me feel any less of a success than them, it is hard not to compare yourself with their achievements. Which are you more impressed by? “I saved a life” vs “I changed a keg”
A while ago I went on a date with a guy I’d met through some mutual friends. He has been steadily climbing the career ladder since university and now holds a very high position in the company he works for. He was excitedly telling me about furniture that he had just purchased for his new (owned) flat. I listened with interest but could only tell him similar stories that my friends had told me about their flats. “That’s nice that your friends still think you have something to offer even though you aren’t a working professional”, he said after I finished. I am genuinely sure that he did not mean to sound like such a tosser – he did, after all, invite me to go out with him despite my lack of palace and Phd. Needless to say however, I did suddenly become very busy after our first date and couldn’t possibly find the time for a second. Shame.
I know that I am extremely fortunate to have such supportive friends who do not measure success by level of education or salary. This support extends to my family who have been endlessly encouraging with my various other achievements – such as the aforementioned beautifully layered coffee. Ha ha.
Anyway, I digress. Back to the restaurant, back to ordering dinner and my two-word answer for “What do you want to do as a career?” Genuinely, now, for the first time in the last five years, I haven’t felt the need to spout off all of the potential careers I could go into. I haven’t felt the need to justify working in a bar with “Yeah, but I was manager for several of those years”, I haven’t felt the need to embellish any of the jobs or experiences I’ve had. I’m not sure what’s changed.
Perhaps it’s Burma. Burma seems to be the first country I’ve visited where nobody has asked me what I do, (or, more irritatingly, what my father does), or how much money I make. Nobody cares. The people here are content enough with you smiling at them. The only time of the day that has been important to me for the last few weeks (apart from breakfast time, of course – but that goes without saying), is what time the sun sets. (I’m gaining quite the collection of sunset pictures) There is that lovely sense of everything being okay and that things will just work themselves out.
As I write this, I am sat in a little coffee shop; it is the only café in the whole of the town that does real espresso. The reason? The owner is an incredibly serene Australian woman, possibly in her late sixties who’s been all over the world, and decided to set up shop a year ago. She’s lived here for 14 years, but decided it would be nice to open a café. So she did. Talking to her made it all seem very simple – I told her I wanted move to Australia after South East Asia and she replied with genuine delight “Ooh! Marvellous!” I told her that New Zealand was on the cards too. “Yes, marvellous there, too!” Of course, five minutes after our conversation, the words “Open a coffee shop in Burma” was quickly added to my (never-ending) bucket list. Because hey, why not? It’s a marvellous idea.
I don’t know what I want to do. I don’t know where I want to be. I don’t know if this feeling of happy contentment will lift the second my feet touch western soil. All I know is that I need to finish this coffee soon – the sun is about to set.
Have you felt this way? Do you know what you want to do with your life? Any tips for me? Leave me a comment and maybe I’ll even buy you a coffee.