What were the rules (spoken or unspoken) around work and careers in the house you grew up in?

Image of child

Image: Hamza El-Falah

What did you learn as a child about the world of work? How have these lessons impacted your career choices, and now your decision to make a shift? We asked you to tell us about the origin stories of your work-related beliefs and blockages. Here are some of the (moving, candid, and thought-provoking) stories you shared.

When you think of the story of your working life, you probably think of it as beginning with your first job. 

But it starts much earlier than that.

For better or for worse, it’s likely that a large chunk of your career choices were dictated by the narratives and ideas you grew up around – some explicitly spoken out loud, and others unwittingly absorbed.

And that means they’ve played some part in the fact that you’re reading this today: considering making a career change into something more fulfilling, and at the same time feeling stuck, lost, and unsure how (or even if) you should go about it.

We asked you to tell us about the ‘rules’ of work you grew up with, and below, you’ll find a selection of answers we received. 

Thank you, to all of you who shared. We read every single submission, and hearing from so many of you on this topic was incredibly moving. 

While we work every day at Careershifters with people who feel stuck in the wrong career, we don’t always get a glimpse of the ‘origin stories’ of your stuckness and fears.

By reading the hidden beliefs and experiences of others, I hope you start to feel:

  • A little less alone (because you’re absolutely not alone), 
  • A little more able to see the ‘rules’ for what they are (narratives and opinions, rather than objective truths), and perhaps even 
  • Fired-up to create a new rule-book for yourself (if so, join the discussion in the comments).

Rule 1: R.E.S.P.E.C.T

One of the strongest messages that came through in your responses was that, for many of you, there was a certain ‘type’ of work that was acceptable: impressive, ‘serious’, well-paid. And the route to acceptable work was clear: qualifications, a profession, and a lot of effort.

  • “A profession and a corporate career were the best route to security and status.” – Katharine
  • “A career / job had to be lucrative and prestigious  anything else would be a waste of effort and time.” – Nina
  • “You have to do something sensible and prestigious, and follow the path of your parents – it does not matter what would suit you. Following something that I wanted was ridiculed and considered like a frivolous luxury.” – Lisa
  • “Go to college for at least a four year degree if you want a high-earning, stable, and respectable career. Employers will recognize your hard work and reward you for it in the form of promotions and raises. Creativity doesn't pay the bills. Don't waste your education on artistic pursuits.” – Alisha
  • “Work was done by professionals. If you wanted to do anything, you needed qualifications and experience. No DIY or experimenting. Degrees and formal education were of maximum importance and you weren't qualified to do anything without one.” – MK
  • “That creativity does not pay the bills” – Anusha
  • “Getting a good job means securing a high level job that fits your educational qualifications, pays good money, and sounds respectable when others hear what you are doing.” – Angela
  • “Earning a good living in a respectable job is the most important thing” – Jayne
  • “That some professions are better than others and that I need to pick ‘serious’ subjects, not just fun ones” – Lauren

If these statements sound familiar, then a career change probably feels risky, high-investment, and limited in terms of options. 

You want to do something different, but there’s still a part of you that needs it to be ‘respectable’, so the careers you’ll consider with any level of seriousness don’t look entirely dissimilar from your current one. Even if you’ve always dreamed of a creative career, for example, you don’t fully believe it’s an option. So it stays in the back of your mind, quickly and easily dismissed as foolish or even reckless.

Plus, one way or another you’re going to need to re-train, right? Qualifications are the only way to make sure you end up in a high-enough status position, and that’s going to be time-consuming and expensive…


Rule 2: Keep it real

Many of you were raised with practicality in mind. Don’t set your sights too high; it’s better to be underwhelmed and secure than hopeful and disappointed.  

  • “Do something solid with a perspective. Don’t reach for the stars” – Petra
  • “Be sensible in your career choice… don’t be a dreamer”  Nancy
  • “You will go to university, you will be financially well-off, you will not discuss your ideas, career goals or day-to-day work. Work provides money, not satisfaction or alignment with purpose.” – El
  • “Some people are lucky enough to be born with a particular talent, or a single-minded calling for their life. They are the dream-followers, and even they often fail horribly! The rest of us just need to knuckle down and find something solid to get on with.” – Zainab
  • “Be grateful to have a job. A job is there to pay the bills. My parents got hit hard by the German reunification and the transition from an Eastern social system (and the mentality that comes with it) to the Western capitalism. They weren't used to adapting and creating their own opportunities.” – Maike

As a career changer, this rule might be keeping you silent. 

Perhaps you don’t tell people about your desire for something more fulfilling, because you’ll sound ungrateful or above your station. You’re not some frivolous fantasist, and you don’t want to be seen that way. So you keep your feelings to yourself. 


Rule 3: Your work is not for you

Lots of you, it seems, were the driving motivation for your caregivers’ working lives. They put the stability of the family first, ahead of their own fulfilment.

  • “The main purpose for a career is to provide for a family. Personal fulfilment and purpose in work weren't the primary focus.” – Matt
  • “My dad joked about his “golden handcuffs”. He’s worked in the same company for over 30 years. You don’t need to like your work, you just need to provide – that’s how it felt.” – Riley
  • “Work and money is a privilege. If you are lucky enough to have a job that provides you financial stability you tough it out so you can care for your family and maintain your independence.” – Kathy
  • “Stability for your family is more important than your happiness in your work.” – Elizabeth
  • “You have to work hard to earn money. Work is about earning money…. And most people don’t love what they do but they have to in order to live and pay bills.” – Teresa

It’s a gift and a sign of love, that our family members chose to sacrifice their own happiness for our stability and survival. And those of you who have dependents will, of course, want to prioritise their happiness and safety. It matters. 

But if, on some level, you learned that sacrificing your own well-being is the only way to safeguard theirs, then you’re probably feeling pretty trapped right now.


Rule 4: Tenacity pays

It’s no wonder that making a career change feels so deeply daunting. On some level, many of you learned that change was dangerous, and that you must be grateful for whatever you have. Tenacity, resilience and the ability to ‘stay put’ would pay off somehow in the end.

  • “Don't leave one job until you have another.” – Daniel
  • “Once you find a job don't leave it, grass isn't always greener on the other side” – Bhavik
  • “A job was for life. Same career for life. Same place of work for life. Redundancy was the ultimate shame.” – Diane
  • “Staying in your job, no matter what. It was the only way to reap the rewards of success.” – Alexandra
  • “Stick with it and see it out, don't rock the boat if you're earning a living” – Ian

You know you want to make a shift. But actually taking that step out of the familiar and into the unknown is scary. Doesn’t changing make you flaky, or mean you lack commitment? What if you lose everything you’ve worked so hard for? Maybe it’s better to wait for that next promotion, or see if things improve once this project is over…

Rule 5: It is what it is

Work is work for a reason, right? You need to be realistic about it – expecting it to be fun or fulfilling goes against the very nature of what ‘work’ means. The sooner you accept the way things are, the better.

  • “Work life is hard and that is how life is” – Ibrahim
  • “No one likes their jobs. You just have to do it to pay the bills and then look forward to the weekend!” – Naomi
  • “There was an unspoken rule that work was meant to be endured, not enjoyed.” – Stephanie
  • “When I was little I thought work was a kind of jail. My dad left to go to work every morning, but he always came back grumpy and tired. I didn’t understand why he kept going back if it put him in such a bad mood, until my mum explained that he had to go every day so we could pay our bills. I remember it sounded like punishment.” – Layla
  • “If work was fun nobody would pay you to do it.” – Ollie

This is one of those insidious beliefs that can really get under your skin. Logically you know that there are people out there who enjoy their work, so it can’t be the case that work is fundamentally unpleasant. But knowing something in theory doesn’t always translate to fully believing it’s possible for you. However much you want to shift, this idea can hang out in your subconscious, perpetually keeping one foot on the brake pedal.

Rule 6: Hard, always hard

Few people would argue that throwing yourself fully into what you do is a bad thing, in and of itself. But it seems some of you learned that this was the primary feature of work. You’re not working hard because you love it, and you want to – you’re working hard because you have to, no matter what.

  • “Keep your head down and work hard. Do what is expected of you and don't question authority.” – Ruth
  • “It had to be a good job. You had to be smart and it had to be all encompassing.” – Christine
  • “Work was always the priority. Work long and hard, it comes before anything else.” – Serra
  • “An expectation to work really hard, all of the time.” – Bliss
  • “Get a job early-learn how to work hard.” – John
  • “Work hard and achieve high” – Lily
  • “Pick a career, go to school, and work hard. The harder you work the more successful you will be.” – Christie
  • “You should not be too ambitious and if you just work hard you will get what you want.” – Dan
  • “Safe aspirations, and go to work to work no slacking on the job!” – Carol

Perhaps you’re struggling to make a career change now because ‘hard work’ means incredibly long hours and you don’t have the time. Or maybe you’re always the person taking on more tasks at work, and by the end of the week you’re physically and emotionally exhausted – working even more on a career change is just too much. So time keeps passing, and you never feel able to prioritise your shift.

Rule 7: This is everything

This was a message that hit home hard for us as we read your responses: the sheer weight that some of you are carrying around the idea of work. Work isn’t just a part of life – it’s the heart of it.

  • “Work is the point of life. Without it, you are nothing.” – Danielle
  • “You need to pick a university degree with a career in mind that [the degree] will help to get, and then work hard in that career to progress and have a successful life. In other words, if you make the wrong decision aged 18, you can mess up your whole life” – Anne
  • “What you do for work is who you are. It defines your identity, your position among others, your value to society. Get that wrong and you’ve got it all wrong.” – Isla
  • “You were expected to go to university and get an interesting and well paid job. It was all that mattered in life. My grandfather's dying words to my brother were "get a job. It doesn't matter what it is, just make sure you earn your living." A

For those of you who have this ‘rule’ lodged somewhere in your minds, you’re contending with an emotional double-whammy. Not only have you got this ‘wrong’ once, you’re now facing the risk of ‘getting it wrong’ again – and the stakes are very, very high. 

It’s not all bad news…

Here’s the thing. 

The rules we’ve pulled out from your responses all came from a particular group of people: you. If you’re reading this, you’re likely to be someone who wants to make a career change, but is feeling stuck somehow. 

And one of the fundamental sticking-points for career changers is that we are usually our own greatest obstacle.

So it’s unsurprising that people who are stuck making a shift are also people who are carrying some not-so-helpful rules and restrictions in the back of their minds.

We also heard from some of you who received quite different messages about work as you grew up:

“I think my parents would've supported me "going off the beaten track" but either it didn't occur to them, or they didn't know how.” – Judi

“My dad used to call office workers strip-light zombies. When I was a teenager in the summer holidays I'd help him out on jobs (he's a plumber) and if we drove past a train station in his van at commuter time he'd say something like "there go the lemmings". – Dean

“Work had to be meaningful, and often seemed to involve a level of self-sacrifice. I think the principles were right and with very good intentions, but went a little awry!” – Lizzie

“Do what you love. I just still don’t know what that is.” – Geoff

Whatever the ‘rules’ were that you grew up with, they don’t have to be the ones you follow now. 

A big part of what we do in our workshops and courses at Careershifters is identifying, challenging, and rewriting the ‘rulebook’ about work, careers, and what you can do next in your life.

And naming a new set of rules to live by is the first step to believing them.

So I’m curious: what’s an alternative ‘rule’ you’d love to offer yourself – and others – about careers and work?

If you need some inspiration, you might start your new rules with…

  • “Work is…”
  • “It’s OK to…”
  • “Changing careers is…”
  • “Success means…”

… but don’t feel limited to these – create your own!

Share your new career rules in the comments below…

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is head coach, writer, and experience designer for Careershifters. When she's not working, you'll find her listening to neuroscience podcasts, learning pottery, and dreaming up her next adventure.