Multiple Identities a Sane Approach to Career Choice

Are you troubled by the timeworn question – What do you want to be when you grow up? A surprising number of my clients have a history of wrestling with this question.  While asked innocently of children with the openness that you could be or do anything, our culture ups the ante for a single answer as we grow.

Graduating from high school or college, the lack of a singular career choice can feel like failure, especially to those with college majors like English, History, and Sociology. One often feels somehow “lesser than” those who specialized in skilled trades, nursing, or engineering and went on to success in their field.

Career expectations have shifted with the generations. Societal expectations extend to job tenure as well.  My model was of a father who felt he had to switch from the college major of his passion, Forestry, to Business.  He was told all the post-WWII vets would be given a hiring preference for federal forestry jobs.  So he staked himself to a 33-year career for one energy company. This model of success was in turn communicated to his baby boomer children:  stick to one career path and commit to a lifetime of one continuous career, often at the same employer.

Starting in the 80’s, the phenomenon of mass layoffs and downsizing played havoc with job continuity and the economic security of having one job.  Now, the median number of years that wage and salary workers have been with their current employer is only 4.2 years.

Fortunately, Millennials and to a large extent Gen X-ers are no longer plagued by the same message as their boomer parents to stick to one career for a lifetime. But they have it more difficult in other ways. In today’s job market, it’s often tougher to get a job, Millennials job hop more in search of the “best” job, and there’s global competition. As a result, and due to economic necessity, this generation has given rise to so-called “slash careers,” like baker/web designer and grant writer/project manager.

A healthier paradigm.  What if our cultural and societal thinking about one career and ideal career progression, or a best-suited career, represents a flawed and outdated paradigm?  To that end, career counselors like me increasingly steer clients away from finding one’s singular life calling, to acting on the awareness that there are multiple possible careers within each of us.  There is now even an entry in Wikipedia entitled, “Multiple Careers!”

As the authors/college professors of the current bestseller Designing Your Life assert, we all have more than one life in us:

When we ask our students, “How many lifetimes” worth of living are there in you?,” the average answer is 3.4.  And if you accept this idea—that there are multiple great designs for your life, though you’ll still only get to live one—it is rather liberating.  There is no one idea for your life.  There are many lives you could live happily and productively (no matter how many years old you are), and there are lots of different paths you could take to live each of those productive, amazingly different lives.

If this realization of multiple possible careers feels liberating to you, how do you best act on it?

Designing a life around multiple careers.  Knowing you can make your career plural, here are a few practical things to think about:

    1. Careers can build upon one another, such that one track can be a building block for something else, and can help you gain valuable experience that’ll someday boost you toward another career goal. Like in chess, there are many opening moves.  I found starting as a teacher that I did not do well leading a group (classroom management!), but was effective in individual tutoring, hence my segue to a counseling Master’s degree and educating in a 1:1 capacity.
    2. Capitalize on your strengths. Note the plural, strengths.  Perhaps you are not destined to do one thing exceptionally well and find that totally fulfilling because you have multiple interests or disciplines.  For instance, if you like the front end of projects, where out-of-the box thinking and quick acting on idea prototypes is valued, look for roles that combine these and other strengths like those in the arts or marketing or project management.  Running a small business, working for a startup or non-profit organization requires individuals who deploy strengths in multiple areas like marketing, product creation, customer service, etc.
    3. Get feedback, support and initial direction. If you have ever felt as I have that multiple careers were somehow maladaptive or perhaps indicative of ADD, or you are at a loss for where to go next in your career, it can be useful to obtain professional guidance.  Career counselors not only normalize and support multiple careers, they can guide you into a process of identifying and exploring the multiple possible careers within you.

Personally, I’m a poster child for multiple careers. I have continued to pursue and develop my different careers as well as jobs (17 different business cards!), and have realized an even greater appreciation for how they all come together. I never fit a one-track career: sampled being a teacher, therapist, rehabilitation counselor, medical sales representative, higher education director and nonprofit executive, not to mention the trades of roustabout, forklift driver, carpenter and photographer thrown in for good measure!

Now, as a self-employed career counselor, I embrace the many career paths I have established, tapping the diverse firsthand experience to coach clients about these fields.  At this stage of my career journey I am the closest to a “calling” that I have ever felt and experienced.  My wish is that you will explore without limitation and find fulfilling careers throughout the journey of your life.

Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.

Carl Bard


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