Looking for work tends to be a very practical and serious-minded pursuit. We are encouraged to be realistic in our expectations. Don’t shoot too high like applying for a job above your qualifications, or too low – something you’d be bored by. I think professional training and education demands that we be thoughtful and realistic in thinking about a career. Societal expectations are that we take career exploration seriously. As a child we can engage in fantasy, but not as an adult. Recall back in elementary school when “career day” meant adults (sometimes your parents) coming into class and getting you excited about being a firefighter!
But increasingly we are encouraging adults to release themselves from constricted and established ways of considering their lives. We can engage in leisure activities today that defy realism. How about fantasy football? Or an escape room? Neither are realistic, but they allow us to shed our need for pragmatism.
I often encourage my clients to reconsider how they have expected their careers to unfold. Sometimes they don’t recognize the conventional nature of it, and that these conventions can undermine potential and undervalued hidden talents. More importantly, the established path – maybe preordained by family or culture – might prevent us from achieving a dream job. Some of my clients are pursuing careers not because they really enjoy the potential of it, but because of family expectations. How many people are working in the family business and hate it?
The expression “we only have one life to live” can be considered in a career context. We can pursue different careers throughout life, but generally as we advance professionally, we view our choices as more and more limited. These limitations might very well by driven by forces we can’t easily liberate from: family obligations, financial need, and limited opportunities because of training and education.
Given that, I think there is value in a magic wand approach to our careers. I often say to clients, if you had a magic wand and could do anything you wanted in 5 or 10 years, what would it be? (I actually have a magic wand that I use with them that was part of one of my daughter’s Halloween costumes when she was young). This can be hard for someone to do. But with some encouragement, most of my clients do it.
With this approach, career seekers have a chance to dream and embrace the possibility of the alignment of their values, interests, goals, and talents. I rarely find that clients pick pathways that are unrelated to where their interests already lie: I don’t recall anyone telling me they wanted to be an astronaut – I don’t get too many aerospace engineers as clients. But I do have clients who will take an interest, say reading books, which leads them to the dream of owning a used bookshop. This can be a meaningful insight. I then challenge them to rationalize why they are not doing something they have dreamed of.
This process might still result in someone coming back to more conventional pathways. But it can also allow someone to make adjustments in their expectations that allow a bit of the magic to seep into other plans. The dream of a bookshop might actually evolve into starting a book club.
—David J. Smith
David J. Smith (Fulbright Scholar, Estonia 2003-2004) is a career coach and the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He is on the career advisory board of the Peace and Collaborative Development Network. David writes regularly on career issues at davidjsmithconsulting.com. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.