Transforming Regrets Around My Career Choices

Photo by Killian Pham on Unsplash

I’ve carried a secret shame around my career choices for years. As someone who made straight-As in school, you’d think I’d have the typical career paths that my brother and cousins have taken, climbing the corporate ladder. No, I wanted to throw up at the idea. I’ve always been the dreamer of the family.

When I was a girl, I loved Disney movies and dreamed of becoming an artist, specifically an animator. As a teenager, I discovered writing abilities and was absolutely certain I’d be a published novelist by the time I finished college, living happily ever after as a writer. Then it became clear that writing a novel was more work than I thought, and my interest in writing wasn’t strong enough to keep me going. In my late twenties, I pursued my passion in the metaphysical field and tried to start an energy healing practice, only to give it up because I had too much social anxiety to work with clients.

In my thirties, I found that I enjoyed budgeting and bookkeeping, and I thought maybe it was time to do something I was good at. I left the creative paths behind and dove headfirst into something normal and respectable — completely surprising my family. I spent two years learning to be an accountant and a third year of having zero social life to pass the CPA exam. If all my passionate dreamer ideas didn’t work, maybe this was it.

When I was learning accounting, I felt ashamed of my college self “wasting” time on impractical subjects that had few career prospects. I kept expecting things to magically work itself out, but it never did. If only I were more practical, I would’ve experienced in my field by now instead of starting all over.

I’ve never been the person who let fear stop me from doing what I really wanted, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have regrets. Over time, I had less shame and thought of previous career paths as experiences I learned from, there was a part of me that still thought of them as “mistakes” I had to avoid in the future.

When I decided to be an accountant, I read several books on choosing careers and took personality and aptitudes tests. I asked my psychic if it was going to be a good fit. Then I took a basic accounting course to make sure I actually liked it. I was determined to make sure this was the right path, the one I would love and stick with forever.

At first, it seemed like I had found it. I enjoyed accounting because I loved learning about systems, and accounting and tax knowledge are useful in so many ways. I excelled in my classes, but intellectual subjects were never a mystery to me. Listen to the teachers. Do the work. Ace the tests. A + B = C.

It didn’t hurt that this was the most socially acceptable career choice I’d ever made. I wasn’t afraid to tell people for fear of judgment. I didn’t have to explain what it was. Nobody worried about my not making enough money. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a relief.

But studying accounting theory in the classroom was very different from doing the work day in and day out. Instead of learning something new everyday, the work was more about enforcing rules, correcting other people’s mistakes, and rearranging data. It was fun when I had compatible coworkers, managers I respected, and a company I believed in. Without those things, I quickly felt lost in the sea of paperwork.

I realized I didn’t know myself as well as I had thought.

Every time I changed my mind, I always felt I should’ve known better. I thought it meant the previous path was a mistake. Where I used to berate myself for following impractical paths, now I felt bad about not staying with the creative path and figuring it out. If I had stuck with writing, I would be happier and have a successful career by now.

I felt like I’d wasted so much time. In my twenties, I could justify my pursuit of passions because there was still time to experiment. I also had no doubt I would get rich pursuing whatever I wanted. The money would come, right?

Age thirty was the time I should’ve had my act together, and I didn’t. With each change in direction, I felt myself falling more and more behind. I was thirty-six with a newly minted CPA license when I realized I didn’t want to be an accountant anymore. I understood business enough now to know how hard it is to make money, and I’ve never been that motivated by it anyway. Rather than proving myself with wealth from my passions, my life was looking more like a flakey drifter playing around on her husband’s dime.

Even though I kept going, the lost time haunted me. It weighed me down made me second-guess myself. It’s not that these were conscious regrets that I agonized over, but they were subtle things like being embarrassed to talk about what I’ve done before, seeing my past as “wrong,” and needing to prove that what I do matters.

I had to grieve and forgive myself for the time and energy invested into that path, for the years I spent away from the creativity that my younger self knew was hers, and for thinking I was ever wrong for any of it.

Our culture tends to base our value as human beings on our careers and how much money we make. While making a living is necessary, it has nothing to do with the value of a person’s life. Do we value a mother less because she stays home or works part-time in order to spend more time with her children? Do we value the life of a veteran less because they live on disability? Do we see someone with Down syndrome as less than because they need to be cared for? On the other hand, is someone who made billions through exploitation of workers, natural resources, or animals a more valuable human being? Is someone who gets paid six figures playing games in the financial markets more worthy of respect?

But of course we see people who earn less money as less than people who make more — I wouldn’t be struggling with these questions otherwise. As someone raised in Chinese culture, I was taught to value everything by how much it cost. I regretted my past career choices because they didn’t “lead to anything,” meaning a career that made me an acceptable member of society and earned a respectable income. Despite knowing otherwise, I measured my value as a human being by how much money I made on my own.

I think we’re also at a crossroads of understanding that we and our experiences have inherent value beyond our monetary value.

When I interpreted the value of an experience only through the lens of how much money and respectability it produced, it flattened the experience, and me, into a single dimension and definition. My past was always a wrong that I had to correct and hide.

The truth is I am a lifelong learner and experimenter, and I can’t force myself to work in a job if it feels meaningless. The truth is I get bored easily and had to learn to stick with one thing long enough to build something. The truth is working for myself is actually my “dream job.” The truth is being an accountant gave me room to learn about business and leadership while I gained confidence dealing with people. The truth is I am the artist and the writer and the healer and the accountant; they are all facets of me rather than one being more “right” than another.

My dance through different career choices was a beautiful process of learning and discovery. There was never anything wrong with me.

Originally published at https://www.soultoworld.com on December 16, 2020.

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Writer. Creative. Healer. I write about creative living and learning self-acceptance. More at www.soultoworld.com

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Diane Ho Buxton

Diane Ho Buxton

Writer. Creative. Healer. I write about creative living and learning self-acceptance. More at www.soultoworld.com

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