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Pondering Careers – Edition 37 – Taylor Swift and ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’

Welcome back to Pondering Careers, where we talk about all things career education and development, and when I say ‘all things’, I mean literally anything – including how a pop princess is influencing a whole generation of young people and reshaping expectations about what might be possible.

If you’re in Australia then there’s a good chance that you’re aware that the world’s biggest superstar is in Australia for the next leg of her record-breaking Eras Tour.

And, as I am obviously ‘Mother of the Year’, I took my 14 year old daughter to the concert in Melbourne last Friday.

Needless to say, we had a blast.

But it’s also got me thinking – what impact is Taylor having on the choices young people make about their careers?

Rosie’s starting to think about work and what she might do with her one precious life, and we had quite a few Taylor-inspired conversations while we were down there, and it certainly seems like Taylor and other entrepreneurs like her are making a difference.

In particular, I’m interesting in the impact she’s having at such a scale and so quickly to change perceptions about what might be possible in a world where we know that “you can’t be what you can’t see”.

It’s very difficult to move towards pathways when you can’t see anyone who looks like you in those pathways, and strong role models can play a pivotal part in showing the way.

Jen Wittwer, CSM, FAHRI is a friend and a scholar with a strong background in gender diversity and inclusion and her approach is that we don’t need to see people doing exactly the thing we want to do, instead:

“Young women are looking at women leaders for inspiration, not imitation, a carbon copy, or a reproduction.”

So in this article I’m not suggesting that Taylor is inspiring millions of young women to become pop stars, but rather that her success expands the range of what could be possible.

What role does media play in career development?

This is not a simple question to answer, as you can’t just carve out and measure the impact of one influence on the decisions made. When it comes to the role of career information, as Steve Roberts and Ben Lyall put it,

“…the variety of formal and informal sources pursued and accessed by young people forms a relational ‘ecology’.”

And we need to recognise that nothing happens in isolation. Taylor isn’t necessarily going around handing out career advice, or talking about the labour market, so she may not feature in surveys on career development information, but that doesn’t mean she (and other megastars or world events) don’t have an impact.

I’m not alone in thinking this – Swiftposium 2024 brought together academics to discuss the impact of her popularity on a range of fields (read a recap here), and it’s important that we talk about this because we need to think broader when looking at what influences career decisions.

Taylor resets expectations

At the core of this issue is the fact that Taylor Swift resets expectations, and not just for young girls.

People across the globe are swiftly waking up to the fact that she just took complete control over media surrounding an event that had been previously considered a bastion of masculinity, and all she did was watch.

To put this in context, Taylor’s boyfriend received $164k (USD) for his part in winning the superbowl, and Taylor made around $13.6M (USD) the night before at her concert in Japan. She’s on track to be a billionaire before she finishes her tour in June.

Taylor says that it’s OK to be beautiful and young and creative but also intelligent, driven, and savvy. She says that it’s OK to make money, and be in control of your own personal brand.

Her fans are all well aware that she took back control of her earlier work after a nasty dispute with her label, and that she had to display patience in waiting to re-record her albums, but she’s now turned it into a marketing triumph by getting to re-release all her early albums with just as much fanfare as the first time around.

All of this sends a message that it’s OK to respect yourself, to stand up for yourself, to be clever about how you do things, and it’s a message that resonates with young people.

She represents what’s possible

Taylor does a really great job of making the process visible.

Obviously not all of the process, and I’m sure what comes through is a carefully curated version of what actually happens, but she uses all her channels (including various movies) to speak directly to her fans.

In demystifying the process, particularly in showing her struggles and how hard she has to work, she breaks down assumptions that you have to be ‘lucky’ to get to where she is.

In Grit, Angela Duckworth talks about people who are ‘naturals’ – those who are insanely good at what they do, to the point where the rest of us justify it by saying that they must be a natural.

Angela goes on to say that, actually, these people work incredibly hard. They’re the ones who are training before everyone else, travelling further, doing the work that they need to do to get to where they want to go, and Taylor makes this work visible.

Not long after I booked the tickets for the concert, Rose shared an article with me about Taylor’s training regime for her tour – it’s a long concert, at around three and a half hours, so to get in shape she would run on her treadmill and sing the entire set list out loud every day:

“Every day I would run on the treadmill, singing the entire set list out loud,” Swift told Time. “Fast for fast songs, and a jog or a fast walk for slow songs.”

The kids who love her see all this, and it makes them rethink what could be possible.

Role models have a role to play

Mark Savickas’ Career Construction Interview asks the student/client to nominate their role models – people who they admire – and then explain why they admire them.

It’s a question I’ve sometimes used in my own guidance sessions, and I find it’s a great way to get people to think about what they really value, because they often articulate traits they would like to emulate, and this then gives us a starting place for more conversation.

The specific questions I ask depend on the client and the conversation, but here are some ideas for questions I use:

  1. Tell me about someone you admire, and why you admire them…
  2. Think of someone you admire who’s faced challenges – what happened, and what do you admire about how they handled it?
  3. If you could swap out your life for anyone else’s, who would you swap with and how would this change your life?
  4. Pick three people you admire, then tell me what they have in common…

The aim is not to find someone to become a ‘template’, or someone to copy, but rather to find inspiration.

Exploring the values and aspirations that drive someone is key in career counselling. When we chat about role models, clients often share not just who they want to be like, but also how they might get there.

This kind of yarn is brilliant for helping clients figure out what they really stand for, what they’re good at, and where they might need a bit of a hand, setting the stage for a career plan that’s as unique as they are.

Who do you find inspiring?

Personally, I find there’s a common thread in the people I find inspiring:

  • They aren’t afraid of working hard to get where they want to go
  • They ask for forgiveness, not permission
  • They serve others and bring value wherever they go

We watched Hidden Figures again last night, and the three incredible women who helped NASA get to the moon personify these values in the face of discrimination and adversity.

I’m also inspired by people close to me, like my parents, who gave up everything to give my brother and myself a better life, and I’m even inspired by Rose, who’s navigating the world in her own way.

I want to know who inspires you – who do you look to as a role model, and why do they inspire you?

And thanks for joining me again for another edition of Pondering Careers, can’t wait to see you again next week!

You can read past editions of Pondering Careers here.

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