How We Choose Our Careers

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John Lennon perhaps said it best: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” And for many, that about sums up how career directions come to be. Life requires making plans, both large and small, and among the big ones is how one is to make a livelihood. It’s surprising given the enormity of such a life decision and given the fact nearly everyone needs to make it, a clear and customary process to career decision making is not commonly accepted. Most often it seems that people just fall into careers, which sometimes work out splendidly, but can often lead to years of wasted potential.

So, how do we end up doing the work that we do? And since we as a society cannot seem to agree on a single career-choice process, how are we to impart useful information to others, both young and old, in need of assistance? I’ve been tracking for some months now threaded discussions on the topic of career choice that have run on some of my career counselor groups in LinkedIn. I have identified some recurring themes that may of interest to those of you who are also intrigued by the forces that are at play in career determination. Here is what I see at present:

Childhood-Clues for future career direction are often detectable in childhood. There can be obvious signs like the little girl mixing and matching her mother’s clothes while playing dress-up, who goes on to become a fashion designer, or the little boy consistently organizing his playmates into undertakings of one sort or another, who in later years works for the YMCA as an activity director. Although the innate interests in children may not be readily predictable as career catalysts, chances are quite good that future competencies are beginning to be played out in the activity choices occurring in kids’ lives.

Influencers-Career guidance often originates with individuals who hold significant value in one’s life. Family members and good friends, among other high-quality role models, provide direction and powerful suggestions about career goals. Sometimes this is intentional, but often it is not. The feedback and observations given to us in the natural course of having relationships from people we honor and respect can carry a huge amount of weight.

School-the subjects you liked in school, the encouragement you were given by teachers, and the observations you made about what defined success among your peers in an education and social setting can all play a part in how you structure your world view. As you assess the functional parts of the world, you begin to see how you might fit within it. In my judgment, schools, in general, don’t emphasize career development strongly enough. The good news, however, is that by their very nature, schools provide an environment where careers can be made in spite of their other priorities.

Practicality-It’s been said that when young, we use our heads to choose work, but that when we are older we are driven more by our emotions in choosing jobs. Using your head means that you are looking at career pragmatically, i.e. as a means toward an end. And that end typically involves considerations such as rate of pay, working conditions, commuting distance, benefits, childcare availability, and whether or not you can take the dog to work. These concerns are important, but they begin to pale somewhat as we mature and start realizing that concepts like career/life fit, advancement, professionalism, and retirement planning are as or more important.

Happenstance / Opportunity / Luck-One of the most powerful drivers of how our careers develop, if not our entire lives, has nothing to do with planning. It can be just dumb luck. Being in the right place at the right time, being born when you were, or living where you do can position you for taking advantage of a confluence of events that makes great things possible. Knowing that luck can always be just around the corner makes successful people ever mindful and open to positive circumstances.

Despite the fact that there is an entire profession dedicated to career decision making not many people take advantage of it. Doing so would certainly help greater numbers of people land in more meaningful and fulfilling sooner. But nevertheless, it’s worth knowing how career selection occurs for many of us, because these ways can also hold value.

William W. Ryan is a Concord, New Hampshire based career consultant specializing in customized career coaching, resume and cover letter writing, and personality assessments.

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