What Do You Prioritise In Your Career?
On Being a Shepherd or a Baker
This newsletter features weekly musings about life, career, identity, and behaviour by a questioning African centennial. To get it in your inbox every week, subscribe here ⬇️
In the first edition of Gems from the Web, I mentioned that I was rereading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist not as a novel but as a guide to life. It’s honestly a book worth reading several times. Each snippet is loaded with wisdom that you may only grasp when you reread the book years later.
That was certainly the case for me.
During my most recent read, I came across a dialogue that hit me in ways that it didn’t during my first read. I’d completely missed its significance then. But this time around, that same dialogue spoke directly to an internal career tussle I’m currently struggling with. It made me pause to think about what was driving my career pursuits—a quest for safety or fulfilment.
The old man pointed to a baker standing in his shop window at one corner of the plaza.
“When he was a child, that man wanted to travel, too. But he decided first to buy his bakery and put some money aside. When he’s an old man, he’s going to spend a month in Africa. He never realised that people are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.”
“He should have decided to become a shepherd,” the boy said.
“Well, he thought about that,” the old man said. “But bakers are more important people than shepherds. Bakers have homes, while shepherds sleep out in the open. Parents would rather see their children marry bakers than shepherds.”
Read that again if you need to.
When I read that dialogue, I started wondering whether I was a baker or a shepherd. Was I pursuing a career that was safe over one was fulfilling? Am I sacrificing what makes my heart sing for what makes me feel more secure?
Although both things are not always mutually exclusive, for most people, they often are. That is why when building our careers, we must decide what takes precedence: safety or fulfilment.
Most of us have been trained to build our entire lives around the things that provide us with more safety. We are advised to pursue majors based on their career prospects, not our intrinsic curiosities. We seek jobs based on their prestige, pay, and progression, not their alignment with our mission or a cause we care about. This may not be you, but it’s certainly the case for most of us.
Prioritising safety sets us up for a life that’s considered conventionally successful as we stack up degrees in in-demand majors, a high-paying job at a brand name company, a hefty paycheck, etc. But as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows, once safety needs are secured, one naturally starts to crave higher-order needs geared towards fulfilment.
However, if, as the baker, we’re no longer able to achieve fulfilment because we’ve gone so far down the ‘safe’ path that we can’t make a u-turn, regret is likely to set in. That is why we must choose wisely, decisively, and early too.
It’s tough to do what you love when doing so makes you risk your financial or social safety. For example, being a shepherd would have meant that the baker makes less money, have no roof over his head, and potentially not be able to marry the kind of woman he wanted to. That’s a lot to let go of for the sake of chasing fulfilment in one’s career. But, for some, it’s still worth it.
Chasing fulfilment means prioritising only the things that make our hearts sing and pursuing those risky things we would if we were not afraid. Doing so in our careers may not always provide the same material privileges as chasing safety, but it brings those intangible benefits that make life more meaningful.
However, it doesn’t mean we should forfeit those career benefits that make us stable humans just so we can feel like we’re living our purpose. No. It simply means being deliberate about choosing only those opportunities that take us closer to achieving our life’s mission and having the courage to turn down those that don’t.
There’s not always a tradeoff between both of these priorities. Some people can combine both, and they are the envy of my entire existence. For most of my career so far, I’ve prioritised safety because that’s all I could at the time. I had way too many unmet basic needs that chasing fulfilment was a luxury I couldn’t afford. But now, I can. And I will.
As you continue to build your career, be conscious of what you’re prioritising. If safety is your goal, prioritise that. If fulfilment is your goal, prioritise that. If, like me, you need to prioritise safety for a while to chase fulfilment later on, have a clear timeline on when to make the switch and stick to it.
Either way, it’ll benefit you to decide now who you want to be: the baker or the shepherd. Having that clarity will help you better navigate your career.
❤️ Ask Arinze
This section features questions from readers of this newsletter
Hey Arinze, I'm Juma from Kenya, and I love your work. Does what you read influence your writing? And how can one keep at it while producing content regularly?
Hey Juma! Thanks for your question. Most definitely! What I read influences my writing, as I’m sure you must’ve noticed in this week’s piece. My writing springs from my thinking. My thinking is shaped by what I read. So, they’re all connected.
It’s difficult to keep reading while producing content regularly tbh. But the paradox I’ve noticed is that, usually, if you stop doing one, the other will naturally stop too. That’s especially the case if you’re someone who has a habit of doing both in parallel.
For example, last week, Ali Abdaal, one of my favourite internet people, wrote in his newsletter last week about how he has struggled to be consistent with his newsletter as he’s reduced how much content he’s been consuming via books, etc. I felt seen.
You’d find that consuming and creating content are two sides of the same coin. To be consistent with reading, carve out reading times and actually read. Also, adapt your reading format to your lifestyle. For example, if you’re always on your phone, consider reading more e-books or online articles.
You can also consider joining book clubs. They’re a fun way to read alongside a community of fellow readers who will also help to hold you accountable to your reading goals, even if it’s just one book a month.
As much as you can, never stop reading. Reading begets thinking, which begets writing.