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My career soundtrack: 8 songs which accompanied my working life

We usually associate music, particularly popular music, with leisure time, relaxing, partying, or just escapism. It often stands in contrast to the perceived seriousness of professional life. We certainly wouldn't consider taking business advice from pop songs; what would Taylor Swift have to teach me about organisational effectiveness? Yet, for many of us, our heads are filled with songs we've listened to - or heard - along the years, and which carry different meanings. Situations or feelings may bring some of these songs to the front of our minds, leaving us humming, or repeatedly singing some of the words, out loud or in our heads. In the process, they may also help us process some of our thoughts or feelings, as trivial as some of the lyrics appear to be. This happens to me a lot, and in this article, I wanted to share some of the songs that pop up the most in certain situations, and explain a little what they mean to me, and how they can help.

I have put these tracks together on a Spotify playlist if you'd like to give them a listen separately.

1. Gloria Gaynor - I am what I am (although I do want praise, thank you)

Let's start with a little self-acceptance and self-affirmation. "I am what I am" comes to mind when I need to give myself a boost of confidence, remind myself that I am enough, and the uniqueness of being "my own special creation". The meaning of the song has however evolved much over the past 20 years, as it has taken me nearly that long to genuinely accept that I am what I am, and move from trying to merely convince myself through this song, especially when facing new, potentially hostile, environments, to using this song more as a reminder or celebration of remaining true to myself. Of course it is also a gay anthem, and it brings me a degree of comfort and reassurance. Most importantly, to me it is about re-centring yourself on what you stand for, accepting your quirks as fundamental parts of who you are, and celebrating them rather than trying to change them. As Gloria says about banging her own drums, "some think it's noise, I think it's pretty".

2. Taylor Swift - Shake it off (Haters gonna hate, I'm just gonna shake...)

This is going to be a popular one for people who face adversity and just want to look past it and move on (that and "Let it go"... which is now stuck in your head... you're welcome). Although the reason it tends to come to my mind is generally for another popular part of the lyrics, "haters gonna hate (hate, hate, hate, hate, hate..)", which I think about when I need to remind myself that no matter how convincing I think I might be on a particular topic, some people will come to it with deeply rooted positions, personal views, or pressures, which will make it difficult for them to buy-in to my view of the world. It isn't so much about hate, than it is about understanding that circumstances and context can bring people to be entrenched in their views, and learn not to take it at a personal level, "shake it off", and adjust to move forward.

3. France Gall - Résiste (When 80s French pop comes with deep meaning)

Next is the only French song from this list, and one that has become a bit of a personal anthem over the last couple of years. As it will be obscure to many, here is what it says in a nutshell: it is a call for people who do not feel in control of their own life, feeling like they live to fulfil others' aspirations, and find no personal meaning in it to resist, refuse living in a selfish world and relentlessly seek happiness. Resistance has become a critical word for me recently, mainly due to the way in which my recent studies, one or two lecturers in particular, opened my eyes on the challenges existing with mainstream ways of approaching our economic model, social inequalities, and morals. I used to consider resistance to such issues as pretty much pointless, if not counter-productive, and now believe it to be absolutely essential if we are to have a chance in a fairer and more sustainable society.

4. Kylie Minogue - Better the devil you know (and my next board meeting outfit)

This one is (obviously?) about job changes. And I won't go much further than the title in my reference, as a more in-depth study of the lyrics may prove them not to be a great model of female empowerment. Still, this expression, and song, has come up on different occasions, when it came to the point of deciding whether to leave a role for a new opportunity. The "devil you know" in question would refer to the current role, as imperfect as it might be, and its environment, as imperfect as it might be, which you've however learned to live with and make the most of. And the risk that change might bring, weighing up the possibility of a great improvement, against the risk of finding a much more difficult environment than what you currently experience. It is an absolutely healthy and natural thing to think through, and I have done so on many occasions. What I find is that quite often, just getting to the stage of going through that thinking process would mean that I was ready and positioning myself for a change, and already put the wheels in motion. Just like when you listen to Kylie and think "Kylie, you clearly need to move on.."

5. Heather Small - Proud (What have you done today?)

Anyone who knows the sitcom "Miranda" will instantly recognise this song, quoted in pretty much every episode, while displaying a cardboard cut-out of Heather Small's face. It has almost made the question "What have you done today to make you feel proud?" loose some of its meaning. Yet it is one that is very important for us to ask ourselves, and one I have often asked myself, especially at times when I had a long commute which gave me an opportunity to reflect back on my day. It relates to the idea of "purpose", which has become increasingly popular, to the risk of becoming gimmicky in the way it is sometimes used, and the desire that more and more people have to do something which brings good to the world, in one way or another. For me, this question sometimes brought up some further thoughts about what was getting in the way of me feeling proud of what I do, or what I had achieved, and triggered another thought process about how to get to a place where I can feel proud.

6. Wilson Phillips - Hold on (When one more day is all you can commit to)

I have shared my experience with burnout in an earlier article, and this was when this song was a regular feature, as background music in my head during my morning routine. My way of getting ready and going to work every morning was to, literally, take it one day at a time, and in the morning, just aim to get to the end of the day, and trying to rationalise that it was just one day, and seen in isolation, wasn't that much of a big deal. Of course, this is a technique which can help in the short term, but not as a sustainable way of living when there is no change or improvement in sight. I could tell that things had improved after I made some changes, as Wilson Phillips weren't inviting themselves in my head anymore every morning (neither were my other top songs of the time: "One day more" from Les Mis, and "Tomorrow" from Annie).

7. Paloma Faith - Make your own kind of music (On writing your own melody)

Another song that comes to me in times of changes, and this one probably more so when I reflect on bigger career decisions. Like many, I started my career with the thought that success meant a rapid rise through the ranks, that an upwards career trajectory was what I should aim for. And it worked for a while, enabled me to gain some great experiences, with the support and encouragement of some great people who saw some potential in me. For a large part though, this was at the detriment of my wellbeing, and the satisfaction I was gaining from it couldn't make up from the hardship which came from the stress of living up to certain expectations. And I learned eventually to listen to my own personal motivations when making choices. The song says that you have to make your own kind of music, "even when nobody else sings along", which is the part that really resonates. Some choices are atypical, and will go against what others expect, or simply what they know. But that's what makes it an even more beautiful melody.

8. Kylie Minogue - Your disco needs you (In case of emergency, click here)

The final song of my selection isn't in there because of its particularly profound meaning. It is very simply and unashamedly one that is there to lift me up when I need it. As a lifelong fan, I have tended to "activate" Kylie when I needed to lift my spirits, get a sense of warmth, or forget about other things. This song, another gay anthem, is there to give you energy when "darkness comes to kick your ass", it's almost a mandate to stop and dance. And while I am not a great dancer (indeed rare are the people who have seen me on a dance floor), it still makes me pause from other troubles and worries, and remember that, as difficult as it might be sometimes, what we should really seek as a priority is that feeling personal content, whatever it means for each of us.

Here you are, I hope you've enjoyed a little musical trip through the songs which have been, and still are, with me at different times of my career. What does you career soundtrack look like?

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