An estimated 12% of all humans who have ever lived are alive today. This slice of humanity has more life choices available to it than any previous generation. Four generations ago, the average European worker had about five-to-ten obvious occupations to choose from. Today we have tens of thousands of choices, but we don’t have the thinking tools to match.
The idea that people should match themselves against jobs is relatively new, and mostly based on military recruitment. However Frank Parsons — an engineer, lawyer, and early champion of what was then called “vocational guidance” — argued in 1908 that there are three steps to selecting a career path:
- A clear understanding of our “aptitudes, abilities, interests, resources, limitations, and other qualities.”
- A knowledge of the “requirements and conditions of success, advantages and disadvantages, compensations, opportunities, and prospects in different lines of work.”
- “True reasoning of the relations of these two groups of facts.”
Parsons’ phrase “true reasoning” is interestingly opaque — something that speaks to us of the late Victorian mindset, the optimism that any problem can be solved if, like Sherlock Holmes, we weigh up the evidence with our rational minds. Yet, as we will discover, logical thinking is only modestly helpful when it comes to choosing a career. I am interested in how we actually make those choices, because they matter. Twenty years ago we had time to experiment with a range of work and lifestyle options. Today, the rising burden of student debt and the tightening of economies means we have to choose earlier.
We start by looking for jobs that resemble activities you enjoyed in school, whether this involves writing papers or handling test-tubes. You look for a sector that will be like something you have already enjoyed or shown some talent for. This approach fails to alert us to the thousands of sectors available, and fails to show us that there are few people practicing “pure” geography, history or mathematics in the world.
We don’t face occupational choices as a blank slate. There are powerful influences: parental jobs and expectations, peer pressure, the media, jobs we see as children (if you spend a lot of time in hospital chances are you will want to work in healthcare). High status occupations hold great sway, so top graduates still aim towards medicine, accountancy or law. We are shown a tiny, biased selection of jobs in TV and film (when was the last time you saw an order picker or a quantity surveyor working on TV?). We believe we are making informed choices but in fact most of us are sampling through half-closed eyelids, even mid-career. We need to build better maps.
David and Fiona, two recent clients (names altered), are good examples of two different approaches to career-focused decisions. Both clients were kind enough to run their decision process past me in slow motion. David has just taken a job offer he is uncertain about, while Fiona is partway through a very different process:
David: Making a Routine Career Change
- I feel trapped in job without any choices.
- I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I have a limited picture of what is out there.
- I waste time trying to think about plusses and minuses, picking ideas up and then dropping them again when something puts me off.
- I have a broad, slightly undefined range of options in mind.
- Something comes along which is a rough match for one of these options, so I decide to take it.
Fiona: Running a Controlled Experiment
- I feel trapped in my current role but I do what I can to fix the job I’m in before I turn to the job market.
- I start a conscious program of mapping, finding out what’s out there without worrying too much about whether it’s an exact fit.
- I put research before job search. I keep asking questions, keep meeting interesting people.
- I develop a very good map of what’s out there. I develop a range of well-researched options, so I know what I am looking at and I know how to get there.
- I meet interesting people and they remember me.
- I match job offers carefully to ensure that I get at least 6 out of 10 from my wish list before choosing one.
These two processes are not just about different thought processes, but about mapping opportunities, gaining confidence, and making lateral connections.
My advice for anyone caught in career choice dilemma is this: stop trying to decide. We believe we’re choosing thoughtfully but mostly we just go round in circles, shooting down ideas one after another. Put your energy into idea-building. Imagine you were doing research for someone else — keep digging, keep making connections.
All work is a compromise between your longings and what someone else needs. We all need to think differently about the way we choose career paths, and learn to find the “almost exactly right” job, not just the next thing that comes along.