An Interpretation of the Life-Work of Sue McKay
“And the day came when the risk
to remain tight in a bud was more
painful than the risk it took
to blossom”. (Anaïs Nin)
Work means different things to different people. For some people work is simply a way to earn money to survive. For others, like Sue McKay, work is what you are passionate about, what you dedicate your time and energy to, and what you do in order to live a meaningful authentic existence. Understanding the influences of a person’s life-work choices is not so simple since there are many factors that influence and determine the type of work an individual does and how they incorporate work into their daily life. This paper will briefly examine the life-work story of Sue McKay through two theoretical lenses. First, a developmental perspective later followed by an existential perspective. It is necessary to state that it is not my intention to capture the vastness and breadth of Sue’s extraordinary life-work story, but rather to provide my interpretation and a short glimpse into her life-work history.
The Person and the Career
It is important to state at the beginning that an individual cannot be separated from their work or career. Truly, especially in Sue’s life-work story, it is difficult if not impossible to separate the person from the work and to separate the work from the person. Sue’s sexual orientation and experiences with being a sexual minority has played a significant role in both her personal and professional life and has contributed to her life of work extending far beyond just doing a job. Petersen & Gonzalez (2005) state “work role and sexual orientation cannot be completely detached from each other” (p187) and “for all the eagerness of gay, lesbian, and bisexual employees to detach sexuality from work, the task becomes difficult because work is largely a social activity and personal and professional roles become as firmly intertwined as they do for heterosexual people” (p 190). With this in mind, Sue’s life-work and work-work are deeply connected and forged together with a sense of meaning, intention and purpose.
Developmental perspectives on vocational/career related choices “presume that one’s self-concept – how an individual sees herself or himself – changes over time as a consequence of age and life experience” (Petersen & Gonzalez, 2005, p 168). Aspects that make up one’s self-concept include abilities, traits, values, self-esteem and self-efficacy (Giannantonio & Hurley-Hanson, 2006). With Donald Super’s Theory of Career Development the idea of self-concept is central and assumes that individuals attempt to coalesce their self-concept with career choices (Giannantonio & Hurley-Hanson, 2006). In Sue’s case, her self-concept has changed and evolved over the years with each work-related, academic, and personal choice and accomplishment. For instance, as she changed teaching positions from one school to another it became easier for her to be open and “out” about who she was.
Developmental perspectives also presume that “the role of work in people’s lives begins in childhood as a reflection of expectations placed on children by adults who regularly interact with them” (Petersen & Gonzalez, 2005, p 168). Aside from the huge impact that culture and society has on a person’s view toward work, one of the most important and influential contributors to how a person perceives work stems from parents and their views and attitudes toward work. As a child Sue was exposed to and learned her parents’ work attitudes and behaviors and although family influence can be subtle, “many young people mimic the behaviours and attitudes toward work that they see in the adults around them” (Petersen & Gonzalez, 2005, p 153). Having a mother with the nurturing qualities necessary for a neo-natal nurse and a father who supports and advocates for at-risk youth, it is no surprise that Sue has dedicated her life-work to helping, educating, and empowering people by boldly speaking up about social issues such as gay rights, inclusion and social justice. At any rate, another significant adult figure and powerful role model for Sue was the schoolteacher whose teaching style and demeanour inspired her to become a teacher.
As with most human behavior, there are multiple contributing factors and layers involved that influence and explain why people do what they do. Developing a work identity, like a personal identity, is a life-long process that is continuously changing and evolving (Petersen & Gonzalez, 2005). It may be the case that a person’s work identity begins to develop before they enter the work force. In Sue’s case, her work identity began to develop at a young age when she began ‘working’ at home helping her parents with siblings and as a camp counsellor at age fifteen. Throughout the span of Sue’s development there are patterns of resilience, determination and resourcefulness in her life and work-related choices. During her development and life-span stages she has remained undefeated by challenges, obstacles and adversity and continues to dedicate her life-work to informing and empowering people for the betterment of society.
Existential theory is primarily concerned with meaning or finding meaning and “suggests that the search for meaning is basic to our lives and that each individual has to find his or her own meaning. Vocational choice can provide a powerful sense of meaning and purpose in our lives and aid in the search for an authentic self” (Petersen & Gonzalez, 2005, p 164). Furthermore, Maglio, Butterfield & Borgen (2005) claims, “career is a project of one’s adult productive life in which the struggle for authenticity is most acute” (p 79). Below I will discuss the four-stage career-decision making model proposed by Cohen (2003) in reference to the life-work of Sue McKay.
The first stage in Cohen’s model involves the awareness of the responsibility and freedom that is associated with making career related decisions and choices (Cohen, 2003). “This freedom often produces anxiety, but responsibility emphasizes our accountability for ourselves, our future” (Petersen & Gonzalez, 2005, p 164). From a young age, it is apparent that Sue already had a foundation of values and ideas of what constituted important work for her and her job as a camp counsellor at age fifteen demonstrates her early sense of responsibility and accountability to herself and others. Furthermore, this sense of responsibility and accountability has continued throughout her personal and professional life.
The next stage in Cohen’s model is the evaluation stage where an individual evaluates their career choices in terms of how it may be contributing meaning and to an authentic existence (Cohen, 2003). Living an authentic existence means living a life where you feel free to be who you are and live true to yourself. For a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person an important part of living an authentic existence is not living in secrecy or “in the closet” about their sexual orientation. However, as Sue experienced with her parents and places of employment, “coming out” and being your authentic self may result in unwanted consequences and negative outcomes. Sexual orientation has an impact on career and life planning and, unfortunately homophobic attitudes have been identified as being “rampant in the workplace” (Petersen & Gonzalez, 2005, p110). Petersen & Gonzalez (2005) state “lesbians have two specific work-related concerns: disclosing sexual orientation to others and experiencing discrimination based on sexual orientation. Workplace discrimination – be it sanctioned or illicit – based on sexual orientation is a very real challenge for lesbian’s career development and satisfaction” (, p 155).
In addition to living authentically, Sue’s work choices have continually reflected her beliefs about what makes work meaningful and what is meaningful work: helping people to live a better (empowered) life through education. In deciding whether to pursue a career in journalism or teaching, Sue weighed teaching as more effective way of reaching people thus contributing to her sense of doing meaningful work and living authentically. In my opinion, meaningful work to Sue might include educating and informing individuals for the betterment of themselves and society as a whole. Since an early age, which may reflect the learned parental beliefs and attitudes about work, Sue has made work choices that speak volumes about what she values and what is meaningful to her personally: This is evident not only in her decision to be a teacher or educator, but also to work as a camp counsellor and at a group home for at-risk youth.
At any rate, Cohen’s third stage is the action stage where an individual must choose a job based upon their authentic goals and desires rather than from a place of impulsitivity or compulsitivity (Cohen, 2003). It seems evident that it is important and meaningful for Sue to contribute to the betterment of individuals and society through being an educator. She not only fulfills these personal authentic goals in the classroom and in a full-length novel about the experiences of lesbian educators but also in the courtroom when she challenged provincial adoption laws for same-sex couples.
Finally, the last stage of Cohen’s model is where an individual re-evaluates their vocational decisions and choices to “determine if they provide both personal meaning and opportunities for authentic existence” (Cohen, 2003, p 197). In existential theory, work or vocation is a means of expressing one’s authentic self and living an authentic existence (Maglio, Butterfield & Borgen, 2005). Above all, in her life and work Sue is an educator and it is in being an educator that she finds meaning and purpose in her life and work and is able to live authentically. In addition, being able to “make sense” and make meaning of her life-work experiences Sue has attained what has been called “psychological success” by “achieving goals that are personally meaningful, rather than those set by parents, peers, an organization, or society” (Mirvis & Hall, 1996, p 251 as cited in Lips-Wiersma, 2001, p 499).
In this paper I have offered a brief look at Sue McKay’s life-work history through two different theoretical lenses. I choose to include the quote by Anaïs Nin at the beginning of this paper since I believe that it accurately reflects a momentous point in Sue’s life and work. In my opinion, it was a crucial moment when Sue took the brave risk with her parents and “blossomed”, only to be left invalidated and emotionally devastated. Further, it was this life-changing day and this painful experience that highly influenced the direction and motivation of Sue’s life-work and “calling”- being drawn toward a career that “an individual sees as meaningful and that promotes the greater good in some way” (Duffy & Sedlacek, 2007, p 591). “Personal meaning can transform external instability and uncertainty into internal focus and determination” (Maglio, Butterfield & Borgen, 2005, p 80). Personal and work-related past experiences with heterosexism, discrimination and rejection have given Sue the motivation, focus, determination and courage to pursue and choose a career where she could live an authentic life and find meaning by challenging the status quo and pushing the envelope in order to inform and educate people about important social justice and equity issues.
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