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Careers don’t have to be set in stone – why it doesn’t matter if you haven’t got it all figured out yet

Fiona Joyce is an ethical property developer and author from Sussex. Here she shares why you don't have to pick one career and stick to it - you can follow many different paths.

The first time I heard the name of Madonna’s ‘Blonde Ambition’ world tour I thought it was an insult to women everywhere.

Even though I was at school at the time, knew nothing about gender equality and wasn’t a Madonna fan, I still thought the tour’s label was derogatory.

Your career doesn't have to be set in stone says author Fiona Joyce
Your career doesn’t have to be set in stone says author Fiona Joyce

Blonde stereotype

The use of the word ‘blonde’ carried all the clichéd connotations: dizzy blondes, having a ‘blonde moment’, ‘gentlemen prefer blondes’ and, not least, the idea that your hair colour could even be an element, in fact, the most important element, of your ambition.

Why would a woman want to limit herself like that? How was it remotely ambitious? Why conform to stereotype?

Back then, before Ariana Grande or Taylor Swift were even born, and Beyoncé and Lady Gaga were still playing with toys, Madonna had just released her highly controversial album ‘Like a Prayer’ and a generation of young women were putting their faith in her as an aspirational role-model.

At the time, I just couldn’t understand it. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do when I left school, but I knew I wanted to do something amazing, like be an actor, or maybe a famous author.

I definitely didn’t want to be a pop star like Madonna.

Which career path to pursue…

I tried to study hard and thought that maybe if I could become a doctor and find a cure for cancer or something then that would make me famous.

But I was terrible at maths and numbers, which meant that I couldn’t do science either and never even got into a physics class. In fact, I was so bad that the school wouldn’t let me sit a maths GCSE exam and I gave up maths classes after Year 10.

This left me with English and history. I worked hard at the subjects I thought I was good at, and I carried on being ambitious, writing stories that I imagined I could star in when they were made into films.

Then I left school and went to work in a pub and did various jobs which were far from glamorous or exciting and very far from being famous.

I didn’t have very good GCSEs and I hadn’t done any A levels.

Legally blonde

At 26 years old I was in danger of becoming – nothing. It was clear to me that I wasn’t going to become a famous actor. I needed to do something else.

So I enrolled in night school and did two A levels – English Language and English Literature – and applied to the University of Sussex to study for a degree in law.

I was rejected and devastated.

But I didn’t give up, so I applied to one of the ‘new’ universities in London and was accepted.

That university wasn’t very good or prestigious but I thought that if I stuck it out for a year and got high grades then I would try again at Sussex and transfer there.

I did get high grades and I applied again to the University of Sussex and was accepted. Finishing my law degree, I went straight to the University of Law to study for the professional diploma and got a distinction; I qualified as a solicitor and practised law for several years. And that was that.

Or was it?

Something about ambition and dreams was still nagging at me.

As a property lawyer, I became less interested in the law and more interested in the houses that my clients were buying.

Why don’t they knock that wall down, or move that room over there, I’d ask them.

Changing career

So I enrolled on an interior design short course, completed it, and not long after that I gave up law and became a student again, enrolling at the University of the Arts London on a master’s degree in architectural interior design.

A complete change of career, which I enjoyed for a few years.

But that wasn’t really that, as it turned out.

Because although the interior design was certainly more creative than being a solicitor, I knew deep in my heart that designing properties for other people wasn’t really the best that I could be creatively.

I had never stopped writing since school, but equally, I had never done anything about getting my work published.

I no longer seriously thought that I would be famous, but I did think I might be able to work in the film industry, although it was a risk and a leap and I knew nothing whatsoever about the business.

Behind the silver screen

So I enrolled at the Raindance Film Centre in London on a short course and before long I had begun another master’s degree in filmmaking.

And another change of career.

I wrote film scripts and documentaries.

It took a while, but my film Bonfire Hearts premiered in April 2015.

It was probably the hardest I have ever worked in my life, but it was worth it.

I wasn’t the actor, I was the writer and director, and it took me about 35 years to work out that that was the better role.

But making films is a fiercely competitive business. They cost a lot of money to make, and then there is no guarantee of success.

It can be glamorous, but that is usually only a few moments on a red carpet at a premiere compared to the millions of other moments spent sweating and worrying.

Fiona Joyce

Becoming an author

I kept on writing and my first novel, Dirty Weekend in Brighton, was published in 2016 followed by my second, The Atomic’s Wife, last year.

So yet another change of career in a way.

If I’m honest I think I’m happiest writing books. It’s calmer but equally exciting to see your work in print.

I did keep up the interior design with my property development company and also refurbish properties with an ethical focus.

I’m currently writing my third novel. And although I swore that I would never make another film, I was persuaded to adapt my first novel into a film script and it is with producers at the moment.

Future plans

Oh yes, and I’ve also just started work on a PhD combining law and documentary film at Sussex, ironically the place that turned me down all those years ago.

Yet another career, combining everything I’ve done over the years, so none of it wasted.

When I looked in the mirror just now I realised for the first time that the highlights in my hair – once dark – have slowly turned it blonde.

And now I finally get it – there was no limit to Madonna’s ambition and she wasn’t a stereotype, she was turning that definition on its head: by empowering herself, and being blonde, and ambitious, on her own terms.

Useful links

For more career advice, read our feature: How do I decide what to do with my life

For more on Fiona, visit her website.

Charlotte Harding
Charlotte Harding
Charlotte is a journalist and the co-founder of The Women's Work Collective.


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