Drive Your Own Career

Drive Your Own Career

Brian (not a real person) was a successful accountant. He made a good living, had been promoted several times and worked for a respected firm. Yet Brian was unhappy and didn't know why. He had done everything he should have, at least according to the messages he'd received from his family. But by following those messages instead of listening to his inner voice, Brian strayed far from his true calling -- carpentry -- and was now miserably successful.

Impossible to Avoid

You get messages from your family from the day you're born. Some of these messages deal directly with work, including:  

  • The jobs that are considered appropriate based on gender or income potential.
  • The circumstances under which it's appropriate to leave a job.
  • The acceptable motivations for working. 

Your family may have clearly stated some of these messages, or rules. For example:  

  • "Of course you'll go to medical school. Your father did."
  • "It's not appropriate for a man to be a nurse."
  • "You can't work for minimum wage!" 

You may receive other messages subtly via comments about other people. For example:  

  • "Can you believe she quit because she was bored? What about her bills?"
    Message: It's more important to earn money than be happy in your job.
  • "Mr. Smith sure is doing well. He owns his own business now!"
    Message: Entrepreneurship is good.
  • "Boy, she's really making a difference in the world."
    Message: Social service is a worthy field. 

These Messages Have an Effect

As you became an adult, you internalized some of the messages from your family. The little voice in your head that tells you to look both ways before crossing the street is the same one that "tsks" when you consider a career that is unacceptable based on the messages you've received from your family through the years. The conflict between these messages and the skills, interests and abilities you possess as an individual can cause lots of stress and, ultimately, lead to bad career decisions.

Let's look at Brian again. His family messages included:  

  • "A good job is a professional job, like a doctor, lawyer or accountant."
  • "It's better to be at the top of the ladder than at the bottom."
  • "Income is the most important consideration."
  • "It's not acceptable for a member of our family to work with his hands for a living." 

It's that last message that's causing him the most conflict. Because Brian is listening to -- and following -- messages that don't match his true desires, it is highly unlikely he will ever feel fulfilled as an accountant.

Get Back on Track

If you realize you've been following someone else's career rules, it's time to get back on track with your own. Follow these steps to get started:  

  • Recognize the Messages: Articulate the messages and rules you carry around in your head. Question every assumption and bias you have about jobs and work. This can be tricky, because assumptions are often invisible to us. Keep asking yourself why, as in, "Why can't a man be a nurse?"
  • Evaluate the Messages You Uncover: Scrutinize every family message you recall. Is it something you value? Is it something you believe? Most importantly, is it a rule you want to keep?
  • Keep the Good, Toss the Rest: Keep the messages that match your values and beliefs. They will serve as a guide in your job search and work life. Toss the ones that run counter to what you believe. They will only get in the way when you try to hear and follow your inner voice.
  • Learn More About What You Believe: You will likely uncover some gray areas where you don't believe what your family taught you, but aren't sure what you should believe, either. This is a good time to do some self-assessment work.

By learning to listen to what your own voice is telling you, you'll be on track to find the career that's right for you.

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[Amy Hume, principal of Hume & Resources, is a career counselor who specializes in working with adults in transition.]