Your profession matters: Be relentless in its pursuit

I was born in 1979, right at the tail end of the Generation X (those born between 1964 and 1979). I am very much a Gen X in my mindset and approach to life but I am often around millennials aka Gen Ys (born between 1980 and 1994) and so I have spent considerable time especially in my mid 30s wanting to take more risks, only do what makes me happy, be an influencer and other things that characterise millennials. In my 40s, I am very much back in the Gen X mindset (with some millennial sensibilities) which is about being career oriented, having financial security but also making social impact. So, this is why I want to talk about professions because I want to offer a different perspective to Gen Ys and Gen Zs (our tik-toking, socially-inclusive, environmentally-conscious, border-line fragile group born between 1995 and 2012). I believe that having a solid career is important for your sense of identity and the financial security that comes with that provides a pathway to pursuing other passions and filling other needs that you may not be getting from your day job. Let’s get into it. 

That Sense of Identity – the first 10 years of your career.

I take tremendous pride in introducing myself as a Ghanaian economist working for the past 20 years in international development mainly in Africa. That said, there are a lot of people who change course for various reasons or step back from careers. There is nothing wrong with that. But I don’t recommend doing this in the first 10 years of your career and especially if you’re not financially secure. In the first 10 years, you would have built a solid CV which gives you room to make changes later in your professional life. In those 10 years, you would have also learned to “endure” which sounds like a nasty word, but life is about endurance… don’t kid yourself. In the 10 years, you have become a senior specialist, mid-level manager or the equivalent. If you work in international development, which is the field I’m familiar with, you would be earning somewhere between $5k and $8k monthly with an international contract (in other words, working outside your country). This is a comfortable place to be able to pay off your car, get a mortgage, start a family, and enjoy certain luxuries like travel.

Important things to consider.

Now that you have 10 years under your belt, and you are in your early to mid 30s, you may start to feel unhappy in your professional life. I’ve been there. I started thinking about becoming an entrepreneur and an academic because I wanted more freedom. I thought about teaching a few courses, while making and selling chocolate, writing books, living of the land… very millennial. I still love the idea. But I was always nervous to take the risk especially as a single parent. I know several friends who made career changes also at this point. Some became stay home mums, some switched fields, some moved to another country, and some quit their jobs with no viable plan and struggled to get back in the market. I also came to the realisation that my endurance threshold is relatively high if I feel financially secure. The big message that I want to convey is this blog is that we need to get over this fantasy and pressure we put on our jobs to make us happy. There are only a few people who looooooove their jobs – most are entertainers. “Like” should be enough. You shouldn’t be miserable day in and day out. But it’s not so important to feel fulfilled by your job. It’s not a marriage. You are hired to provide a service; you do it to the best possible professional standards between 8 and 5pm and then find fulfilment after 5pm and on weekends. Your job should bankroll your passions. Eventually your passions could be monetised like writing, photography, a small business … When these earnings outgrow your 8 to 5 cheque, make that career switch.

Is financial security everything though? 

I’m emphasizing financial security a lot, and this is where I will probably lose the Gen Ys and Zs who see things differently. The problem is when you start caring about career and money in your late 30s; it is too late in my opinion. In your late 30s and 40s, you are in investment mode because you might want to retire early; you might want to take a sabbatical (one of the perks of international development jobs and academia… you can take a year or two off to do what whatever you want but you have to save for that) and you may need finances for fertility or adoption costs. No woman is thinking about this in their 20s and early 30s but the fact is 70-80% of my friends, including myself, have had a miscarriage at least once. Obviously, we don’t talk about this publicly because its deeply personal. I may address this in a very nuanced way in a separate blog.

If I am to recap the smart decisions that I have made to date, I would say the following:

– Getting a master’s degree at the London School of Economics. It was smart for two reasons, it’s a one-year programme and it’s a name brand that will look good on your CV and be attractive to recruiters. I encourage young Africans I mentor to get postgraduate degree from the UK. I took a bank loan of £26k to attend the LSE and it took yeeeaaars to pay it off, but it was worth it because I had an international career in mind as my goal.

– Getting a PhD while working full time. Name brand didn’t matter to me at this point. I studied at a decent university in South Africa. I knew having a PhD would fast-track my career and give me the option to enter academia later in life. 

– Staying the course… starting off as a research intern, then research analyst, technical advisor and then programme manager. All in the international development industry. 

– Building my first home as my dream/forever home in Ghana before turning 40. On an emotional level, it was important for me to have roots in my home country as I have been living the expat life for 20 years. It’s important for my son to connect emotionally and culturally to Ghana (on this topic, check out my blog on “where do you call home”). The home is also an investment as a short-term rental property. 

– Planning my retirement life in my 40s. I purchased a 10-acre farmland and working to transform it into a community-centred smart sustainable, agrotourism farm.

I will conclude by encouraging young Africans (my target audience for this post) to move away from the pursuit of happiness. Happiness is a temporary state of being. Pursue meaning. Be very strategic in your decisions after your first degree and learn to stay the course while pursuing your passions in your free time. I recognise that there are many paths in life that could be just as or even more rewarding. This is just one perspective and food for thought for early career professionals.

As always I would love to read your comments and feedback.

Peace and love!