Life does not have to begin and end with CAO

As the CAO application process continues, STEPHEN O’ROURKE, a physiotherapist and health writer, recalls the twists and turns of his life and career, and says change can always occur
Life does not have to begin and end with CAO

PRESSURE POINT: Why should you have to define yourself as such a young age? Posed by model

LEAVING Certificate students across the country have begun CAO applications and dreaming of future carers.

Parents and guardians are beginning to foster evening conversations across kitchen tables about course choices and plans, while flicking through university and college prospectuses.

In seven months’ time, some will have taken up employment for the first time, some will begin that apprenticeship training they have always wanted to do, while others will commence their first year at university.

The often limited scope of their CAO application will finally come to fruition while others will be ‘settling’ for alternative choices.

This time of year always brings me back to my own time as a young adult, on the brink of new adventures after 14 years of primary and secondary school institutionalisation.

Looking back now more than 20 years on, I had a limited idea of who I wanted to be, but no idea where that someone would end up. The adventure that ensued was one I would not change in a heartbeat.

I set my sights on becoming an actor, however, this was nearly derailed as I didn’t get a place on my course of choice.

Alternatively, I started an Arts Degree in UCD, but at the end of my first week, Trinity College called to offer me a place on the professional actor training programme.

I didn’t think twice and switched courses, ultimately changing the course of my life for the next ten years.

Society and educational structures encourage us to define ourselves as one thing. Employment labels on our social media platforms, conversations on dating apps or being introduced to new friends, we find ourselves forced to search for easy accessible nouns to name who we are: accountant, teacher, waiter, taxi man, nurse, doctor, journalist… the list goes on.

A job title that exudes security or respect is often met with warmth and interest and one I searched for. I often felt apprehensive about defining myself as actor. 

Once I revealed my profession, it was always followed up by ‘So, what have you done?’ ‘Have you been in any films?’

For some reason, I was being asked to defend my title and take them through my CV.

I struggled with this for many years, the joy of performing often overshadowed by the cloud of rejection I so often faced.

I have had a colourful work life since leaving school. I have been a waiter, English language teacher, voice-over artist, actor, dancer, fire dancer, bar man, drama facilitator, sales assistant, business English tutor, pilates teacher, physiotherapist and writer.

The joy of life is that it is so much more than a CAO application.

The pressure to set sail on a career direction that may define the rest of your life is one that so many struggle with.

Yes, some may complete their studies and work in the same area throughout their work life. But, for many that CAO first choice course might be the beginning of a meandering journey of work and life experience like me.

In my late twenties, I decided I needed to make a change. I went back to university to study a second degree. I interviewed for and enrolled in the Royal College of Surgeons to study Physiotherapy. During my performance career I had always been fascinated by the human body and movement. It was for this reason I landed on physiotherapy after lots more evening kitchen table conversations and soul searching.

I did not take a traditional route to my current job but, like many, I decided to return to studies later in life to redefine who and what I was.

However, recently I have begun asking myself, why do I have to define myself as only one thing?

Why do we have to limit ourselves, often from such an early formative age of 18, choosing a university course and often ultimately a job title?

Life changes, we grow and progress, our interests mature, and the way we view the world alters as we move through it.

Employment and life opportunities are plentiful and by sticking to such strict title- defining boundaries, we can often stifle growth, opportunity and experience.

Our strengths and talents evolve as we learn and improve while navigating life. However, it is also possible for us to start fresh with new ideas or interest at any point along the way. We are all so much more than one course and one job title.

Taking the plunge into a new career can be scary, but one I would recommend to anyone who is feeling unfulfilled in their current situation.

I wish my 18-year-old self knew that endless possibilities to redirect the course of my life was possible at any stage all those years back.

Maybe it would have released me from the stressful pressure of feeling like my CAO application was the only starting point for everything.

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