An Exercise In Career Exploration

One of my favourite workshops that I facilitate centers on the topic of career exploration. It’s designed for people who either haven’t got a clue what they’d like to do or be well suited to do, and as well for those who need to change careers and are stuck.

Just as sitting down to write a resume without knowing what job you are applying to is a bad decision, it’s equally a poor decision to think about jobs and careers without first really knowing who you are. In other words, until you know your skills, strengths, areas needing improvement and think about what matters to you, it’s going to be difficult to find a good match. Is it any wonder then why so many people who think this first step is a waste of time end up continually taking jobs that are poor fits and go through the job searching process frequently?

One exercise or activity I do with my clients gives them a chance to think about careers and jobs which they would otherwise entirely dismiss. For the person or people who will tell you they’ll do anything, it’s a great exercise in showing them that,’anything’ perhaps needs a re-think.

Now my workshop happens to be five days in length, and it follows a typical pattern of doing 16 self-assessments essentially taking a self-inventory of who you are right now in 2014. It’s more than just defining strengths and weakness, it also includes work values, the kind of supervisor you’d perform best under, your problem-solving style, transferable skills, preferred learning style etc. By first learning really more about yourself, you can then in the latter half of the week turn to examining careers and jobs where people with your general characteristics are best suited to thrive.

Can you already see the difference in this approach instead of just running to a job board, throwing a dart and applying for a job with a generalized resume?

But to the activity I mentioned. On the morning of the second day, participants walk in the room to find 40 large envelopes on the 4 walls all around them. Some are quite close to where people sit, and others naturally on the other side of the room. Some right at eye level, and some near the floor or the ceiling. In other words, randomly placed. There is no rhyme or reason to this placement, but participants definitely notice them and start talking among themselves and guessing what they are all about.

In each envelope is large colour photograph of a person with a career. They are dressed in their work clothes, sometimes photographed in their surroundings performing their job, and above each photograph is the name of the occupation. However, I say nothing whatsoever about what’s inside the envelopes, only saying that we’ll be using them later and please don’t peek inside any of them.

Well, nothing more happens with them on day 2. Usually what happens at some point someone asks when we are going to use them, or if no one says anything, I’ll bring it up perhaps just after lunch. “No one has looked in the envelopes I hope.” And that’s it. During the next day, the middle day of the week, I finally announce we are going to use the envelopes. Funny how a little anticipation gets them to buy-in, pay attention, get their curiosity answered, and as a facilitator, that’s exactly what I want.

One by one, each person is selected to reach inside and pick a career. They have to announce it to the group, show the picture, and they’ve got a career. Some are glad with their choice, some disappointed, some shrug and have little reaction and some – like the Pest Control Technician holding the dead rats are revolted and shudder. (But they laugh too!)

When everyone has a profession or job, I hand them a sheet of paper with a number of questions on it. Some relate to annual salary, educational requirements, required training, what is appealing and unappealing about the job, potential growth, the skills required. Also included is a section for the person to then say what skills the job requires that they themselves have. Listening skills, communication skills and other transferable skills in addition to job – specific skills.

Once the sheet is filled out, a discussion ensues. It’s interesting to ask how many randomly selected the perfect job; one they’d actually be happy in and have the requirements for. And of course the next question is how many are dissatisfied and have a job or career that isn’t of interest to them or they are totally unqualified for. By in large, some are happy, most are not. And this reflects the reality of picking a job without first doing much research. Suddenly most get what they’ve been doing and why the results have been less than satisfactory.

After this I fire everybody. I collect all the pictures and give them a second blank sheet to fill in and they repeat the random picking. We talk about how some jobs appear lofty (top of the ceiling), some are easier to get than others (right behind their seat), and some seem beneath us (nearest the floor). However, all jobs have merit and are perfect for some people. The real key is to find the job you are most happy with because it fits your interests and abilities.

Or, they could continue to just choose anything.

What If I Don’t Love My Job?

If you are a parent, one of the things you’ve probably done is tell your child or children that the one thing you want them to be in this life is happy. You may have even gone so far as to tell them that they can do and achieve anything in their lives if they put their mind to it. So in doing so, have you inadvertently set them up with unrealistic expectations?

This idea that every job should be immensely satisfying and if it’s not people should quit and move on is an interesting topic. To believe that every person on the planet should find great satisfaction in the job that they do has to work on the premise that because we are different, every single job is a dream job for somebody. If that’s the case, why are so many people performing jobs that if you asked them, they would tell you it’s in fact NOT their dream job, it’s, “just a job”?

I think the answer to this is in fact a myriad of reasons, rather than one simple one. When a person is young, they may be in a job they don’t love, because they are trying different lines of work to see what they do and don’t like. A more mature worker might be working a job they don’t love just to keep the money coming in to pay bills and support a desired lifestyle outside of work. And of course some people may not love a job, but lack the courage to do something about it and look for another job. I also believe you may know someone who is staying in a job they don’t find fulfilling anymore just because of the seniority, the accumulated vacation, the benefits etc.

What I find interesting is the apparent contradiction of advice that young people in particular are given with respect to work and happiness. On the one hand, they are told that the world is their oyster; they can do anything they put their mind to and because they are going to spend a huge chunk of their life working so they’d better be happy. On the flip side, they are also told that spending too much time looking for the perfect job is unrealistic and having a job of any kind is better than not having a job at all.

I personally think it’s good advice to tell a young person that focusing on finding the perfect fit the first time is highly unlikely, and that it is wise to try a number of jobs. Finding out first-hand what you can do, like and dislike is important. Every job – even the ones we don’t enjoy – is an opportunity to learn something of ourselves and provides us with an opportunity to gather information we can then use to look for work that is an ideal fit for us.

Truth is, I think there are many jobs that are a good fit for most people; not just a single job. In fact, if you are at all like me, you might find that you’re good at several things, exceptionally good at a few things, and probably not so good at other things. You might even find that while you can do some jobs very well, they just don’t provide the satisfaction you want over a long period of time, but in the short-term, are worth doing in order to get references, income, and experience.

Jobs provide us with experience more than anything. As a worker in your 40’s for example, you can probably look back, think about your first couple of jobs after high school, and what you’ll remember first is the satisfaction of the work, how you liked it or not, but how much you actually made in wages isn’t so easy to recall. And that’s a key point; it’s not about money really, it’s about what we DID and how we FELT. Those early jobs gave us clues about what to look for or avoid in future jobs. If we worked in a factory setting as a teenager, we may have learned we hated the hot temperature and the drudgery of doing the same thing over an over. But we just as easily might have loved the routine of doing the same thing again and again, and found consistently performing repetitive tasks a good thing where we were sure what was expected of us.

Look at your work life this way for a second: you’ll be work from about 20 years old to 65 years old – give or take a few years at either end. So for 45 years, you’ll be working and it’s extremely unlikely all those years will be spent doing a single job. 45 years of a person’s life is a long time, and therefore let go of the unrealistic expectations that you must get it right immediately and find the entire 45 years immensely satisfying. Spend some of those years trying different jobs, switch careers, stretch yourself a little, push yourself to acquire different skills. Why? Because you’ll become diversified, multi-talented, gain a broader perspective, see the world in general and the world of work in particular through different eyes.

Happiness means different things to different people. For some, work provides money to live a life outside of work that is fulfilling. To others, work itself must bring happiness itself. We’re all different with differing needs.