My big career decision: How to stay true to myself while ‘selling out’?

Do you have to make a choice in your career between generating a decent income and work that has real meaning for you?  This was a decision I really struggled with until I realised that it was not necessarily a binary choice and I’m reminded of when, 30 years ago, I took the decision to ‘sell out’.

This was huge for me at the time. An arts graduate, I had got off to a great start in my career in a distinguished book publisher, followed by a period as the first PR at The Guardian newspaper.

I could quite easily have stayed in those roles long-term: I was in my comfort zone, working with like minds and finding my work worthwhile.

But I also knew that I was under-paid for my experience.  I was in my early 30s – and definitely wasn’t earning enough to achieve my lifestyle aspirations.

I took a job in the financial services industry: they took a chance on me as their first PR and I took the risk that I could work in what seemed an alien environment. In some ways it was, but the PR issues in retail financial services proved to be fascinating, and I stayed in the sector 10 years, going on to work in leading professional services firms Andersen and Clifford Chance.

It was a move that I really needed to square with my conscience. But it occurred to me that I could continue to be actively involved in the arts world. I took on voluntary PR work at Eastside Arts, a charity developing young people through participation in the arts; was a board member at children’s theatre company Oily Cart; and joined the development board of Dance Umbrella, the international festival of contemporary dance.

It worked for me. I felt I could stay true to myself and it also gave me a stimulating career in sectors which, it turned out, I really enjoyed, particularly the big professional services firms. Importantly, I (gradually) earned a more impressive (and appropriate!) salary, which has given me more freedom in the latter stages of my career than I would have had otherwise.

It taught me that this is, indeed, not a binary choice and, if I’d realised it at the time, the decision could have been taken with a lot less heartache!

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