Emotional Factors to Consider When Exploring Career Options

The majority of the work that I do with clients involves helping them to first identify and then explore promising alternate career paths. To give structure to this process I frequently use one of several career exploration books that contain what I have found to be useful exercises. These exercises identify factors that I then explore with my clients through questions and dialogue, clarifying, and narrowing possibilities.

There are 5 books that I particularly favor: Roadmap (by Roadmap Nation), Designing Your Life (by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans), Getting Unstuck (by Timothy Butler), The Startup of You (by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha), and I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was (by Barbara Sher). Based on my assessment of my specific client's background, career history, and personality I will recommend one of these to utilize. They each come at the question of "What's the best new career direction for me?" In different ways, but what they all have in common are probes to illuminate the likes (and dislikes), strengths (and weaknesses), and values that will help pinpoint the right next career direction. Some use the concept of "flow" (first identified by Michael Csikszentmihalyi), asking readers to think about situations or activities in which they were so engaged that they had little sense of time passing.

There is one area that they don't explore/explain as well as I’d like them to, though, and that is the core EMOTION that is triggered by certain work. Likes and strengths, for example, are generally focused on things like specific fields (e.g. business, education, travel, politics, or science) functions/activities (e.g. analyzing, writing, designing or organizing) or outcomes (e.g. contributing to the creation of a finished product, advancing a cause, having a positive impact on others, making a lot of money). 

As a result of many years of self-examination and working with many hundreds of clients, I have come to realize that what may really be central to figuring out the optimal career direction for some folks is identifying the feeling that underlies their enjoyment of various fields, functions, and  outcomes. Barbara Sher calls it your Touchstone. Roadmap Nation terms it your Foundation. In my own case, I have quite recently come to realize that what brings me the most enjoyment is just about anything that makes me feel smart. Over my lifetime that has manifested itself in numerous forms: raising and waving my hand frantically because I had the answer back in elementary school (yes, I know, obnoxious!), often speaking first during a case study class at Harvard Business School, taking particular pride in my win on Jeopardy, and currently absolutely loving the work I do instructing others on ways to improve their careers and more broadly their lives.

I'm not sure how many people have this kind of significant underlying emotional touchstone but my guess is that it's a fairly substantial number. This is something I will be exploring going forward, but I would ask you to contemplate whether such an emotional touchstone could exist for you. Think about those situations, those moments, when you felt particularly great about what you were doing - not just in your work life, but in life in general. Then try to discern what emotion was triggered. Perhaps you felt brave, noticed, or superior. Helpful, popular, or inventive. Put your candidate emotion to the test - see how broadly it applies to various circumstances of your life. You may uncover an important key to helping you discover the ideal ultimate calling for yourself, and an aid in chart a nearer-term career path forward. 


You’ll Only Get Hired If They Like You

Perhaps one of the most underestimated qualities necessary to being hired for virtually ANY job is likeability.  No one hires a candidate that they don’t like.  What’s more, a reasonably qualified candidate stands a far better chance of being hired than a superbly qualified one, if the difference in likeability is significant.  After all, would you want to work day in and day out with a person who rubs you the wrong way, no matter how well qualified? 

If you think that likeability is a fixed personal quality (some people have it, and some just don’t), you’d be wrong.  Certainly we all are born with basic personality types, and if you’re a pessimistic introvert you’re less likely to connect with the average employer than if you’re an optimistic extrovert (though in some cases the opposite will be true).  However, there are a number of factors within your control that can significantly raise your likeability.  Some, like the way you dress, are very site and situationally specific.  Others, though, are universally applicable. Here are eight (which will be of particular use in a job interview):

Body Mirroring:  Pay attention to your posture, gestures and facial expressions.  Try to reflect at least to some degree the body language of the person you’re speaking with without directly mimicking. If you're being interviewed by someone who's stiff and expressionless rein in a tendency to be highly mobile.

Voice Mirroring:  If you’re being interviewed by someone whose speech comes off as a bit stiff and formal, don’t use slang.  If she is very soft-spoken, avoid raising your voice too much.  Speak with energy, and ALWAYS use correct grammar and pronunciation.

Dress:  Needless to say, dress appropriately for the organization with which you're interviewing. How you're attired will make an immediate first impression, one that you of course want to be favorable. Dressing too formally may suggest a coldness or stiffness; too casually might imply a lack of seriousness or even sloppiness. None of those characteristics will endear you to a potential employer.

Attentiveness:  You certainly want the person who’s interviewing you, or someone you’re simply chatting with, to feel that you’re listening carefully.  That can be most clearly communicated with eye contact (use a lot of it without staring the other person down).  Using phrases such as “Let me make sure that I understand you correctly” or "That's really interesting" also signals attentiveness and engagement.

Watch Your hands:  They play an important role in communication.  A firm handshake is always appreciated.  Placing your hand(s) on your face is generally interpreted negatively: it says you’re bored, disinterested, or judgmental.  Fidgeting (excessive movement of the hands, legs, or body) is very off-putting.

Empathy:  This quality is cued primarily by mirroring, but empathy is not merely a behavioral trick.  It needs to be genuinely felt (see below).  Practice building your ability to be empathetic by taking the time to think about the unlikeable actions of others, and trying to find logical reasons why they might be acting as they are.  For example, someone who’s constantly boasting is probably deeply insecure; someone who’s quick to anger probably feels somewhat powerless.

Being Positive: Positivity isn’t agreeing with someone all the time.  You should certainly feel comfortable expressing your own opinions (see Genuineness below).  Avoid, however, gratuitous negative comments, even about such non-controversial topics as the weather.  No one likes to hear a complainer, and virtually any negative comment that you make can be taken as a complaint.

Genuineness: There has to be a careful balance between implementing the suggestions above and remaining true to whom you fundamentally are.  Very few people can pull off insincerity with success.  But practicing the above suggestions will, over time, allow you to carry them out in a way that rings true, at least on some level.


"What's Your Greatest Weakness?"

This is an interview question that causes more consternation than just about any other. Here are some suggestions that will help you give an outstanding answer:

1) Like all other aspects of a job search, tailor your response to the specific job you're seeking.

Just like you shouldn't have a "one-size-fits-all" resume, you shouldn't have a "one-size-fits all" weakness. If you're interviewing for a job that's heavily dependent on teamwork you probably don't want to specify something like "I wish I were more comfortable asking for help." If it's a data-heavy job, "I sometimes rely too much on my gut" would be an inappropriate characteristic. And if the job involves supervising a number of people "difficulty in delegating" might not be the best choice to mention. Ideally you should select a weakness whose antidote process speaks directly to the kind of strength that will be particularly valued by the employer. For example, if the job requires the processing of a large number of requests from multiple stakeholders you might mention "a difficulty with time management" while noting that the time management challenge has taught you a lot about setting priorities and establishing realistic deadlines.

2) Focus on a physical, rather than a personality or style, characteristic. 

You might say "because I'm young-looking some people don't take me as seriously as I deserve to be taken;" or "because I'm older some younger employees start off thinking that my ideas are dated;" or "because I have a somewhat high-pitched voice men tend to think I'm inexperienced." The advantage of citing a physical characteristic and then describing steps you've taken to address it (e.g. if young-appearing "I dress a little more formally than I otherwise might," if older "I pay particular attention to my dress and speech being contemporary") shows you are able to make the most of the cards you're dealt. That's a quality all employers are going to value.

3) Cite a trait that is clearly able to be improved upon, vs. one that is more intractable.

"I'm not as comfortable with technology as I'd like to be"" is obviously a weakness, but it's also one that is easy to improve upon (e.g. "I've hired a tutor to teach me html; I've enrolled in a social media certification program"). Same with "I tend to get nervous when I need to speak in front of a group" (solution: "I've enrolled in Toastmasters and have already seen a difference in my confidence level). Contrast those weaknesses with ones related more to your basic personality, such as "I tend to be very impatient" or "I dislike confrontation" - weaknesses that would be a lot harder to convincingly improve upon.

A couple of additional points:

- Make sure you have an anecdote that illustrates your weakness and the improvement that you claim to have made.

- Avoid the temptation to cite a weakness that is actually a strength in disguise. "I'm a perfectionist" can be easily flipped to the strength of turning out superior work, and "I sometimes sacrifice my personal life for my job" suggests exceptional dedication to the employer," but they're clichéd responses that most interviewers will see right through.

Remember that the employer is probably looking less at which particular weakness you cite and more at your self-awareness and the process you've undertaken to address the weakness.





Psychological Blocks to Pursuing a Better Career

I recently met with a client who stimulated my thinking for this week's post.  She's a very successful lawyer who has "burned out" on her profession, but has been unable to move forward pursuing alternatives without really understanding why.  She keeps promising herself that she will take steps to network or research her way into new career choices but finds she keeps putting off those steps.  In my first meeting with her, almost two months ago, I had detected some guilt surrounding her consideration of alternatives to the law, but in our session last week we were able to pinpoint the source of much of it.  Her mother raised a family (with modest means) of three gitls, sending two to Ivy League schools.  The third child, however, suffered from such severe developmental problems that she needed virtually constant attention, and the mother sacrificed her career in order to provide the disturbed daughter with the required care.  My client felt that it was somehow inappropriate or selfish of her to be unhappy with her career situation given all that her mother had been through, and the sacrifices that her mother had made in order to provide her with a top-notch education.  Guilt stood in the way of her taking the steps she needed to in order to find greater fulfillment in her work life, guilt of which my client wasn't even really aware.

There are several other kinds of psychological / emotional barriers that a not insignificant number of my clients encounter as they explore career options.  A common one is perfectionism - the search for exactly the right combination of elements that will virtually guarantee happiness at work.  This is a pursuit that is almost certainly doomed to failure, for several reasons.  First, and most importantly, there are far too many variables in a work setting to be sure that all of them will align in the way one would like.  Think, for example, of the importance of interpersonal relationships on the job with one's boss and co-workers.  As pleasant as they might seem in an interview kind of a setting, what kind of interactions will there be six weeks or six months, not to mention six years, into a new career?  What if the boss you went to work for quite or is fired and you wind up reporting to a tyrant? How political will the place of employment turn out to be?  How can one know in advance whether a company or organization will thrive or wither long-term?

Second, work that might be engaging initially might become tedious over time, and there's no way to ascertain the probability of that happening with a great deal of accuracy.  Yes, due diligence in asking people in your targeted career about what they like and don't like about their work, and how the work "wears" with them over time is helpful. But what may hold another's intterest for the long-term won't necessarily hold yours.

Third, one's interests change over time as well, so a field for which one had passion at age 38 might turn out to be distasteful at age 40 due to changes in personal circumstances (for example the death of a parent, sibling, or spouse).  That was exactly what happened to me at the end of my career in the advertising world - work that had previously felt exciting and stimulating became superficial and essentially meaningless.

Related, but somewhat the inverse, is the fear of making the "wrong" choice (rather than the perfect one). People who have had previous work difficulties (e.g. getting downsized or fired) are often overly particularly anxious about the possibility that they will find themselves in the same situation again.

Another psychological / emotional factor that can stand in the way of pursuing a more fulfilling career is the hovering presence of expectations: the perceived expectations of parents who have worked hard to ensure their child is successful, or of peers whose opinion of one's success is judged important, success most easily measured in monetary terms.  Or of a family line that has always worked in a particular business or profession. I say "perceived" because many clients misinterpret their circle's expectations.  In my experience people who care about you are able to sense when you are truly happy, even if you're not earning the amount of money that they think would be necessary for their happiness, and seeing that you are happy is what's most important to them. If it isn't perhaps you should reexamine the value of their friendship.

The very important first step in eliminating the blocks I've cited above is the simple recognition that they are there. Unfortunately, most people are unable to look at themselves objectively and analytically enough to be able to detect the presence of these barriers.  That's where someone like me can be invaluable - someone who's knowledgable about both career counseling and psychological variables.  




Lots of Ways to Make Your Current job Better - Part 3

This third installment of suggestions on improving your job focuses on things that will enable you to experience the job as it is more positively, as opposed to changing aspects of it. The ideas below are primarily from the Positive Psychology movement, a paradigm that stresses increasing the focus on positive aspects of life rather than emphasizing  discovering the causes of negativity, as much of psychology has traditionally done.

1. The Three Things List:

At the end of every work day, write down (by hand rather than type)* three things that went well at work that day. Ideally they should be things in which you had some role. So, for example, a water main break that caused the office to close early might be considered a positive development, but you had nothing to do with it, whereas a co-worker complimenting you on your outfit would be something you had a hand in.

2. Reframing

If something bad, or even mildly annoying, happens to you on the job try thinking about how that might represent an opportunity. For example, if an overbearing boss has returned something to you with a load of corrections, you might look at it as a chance to practice reacting less negatively (you might say to yourself “that’s just the way she is” rather than taking it as a personal indictment or attack), or look at it as a way to improve your writing skills (if you can remain open to at least some of her suggested edits).

3. Practicing strengths

Make a list of five of your greatest strengths. These could range from clearly job-related ones (analytical ability, attention to detail, organizational ability, critical thinking) to more broadly applicable ones (compassion, optimism, generosity, authenticity). Then select one of these strengths and for one week look for opportunities to apply that strength each day. Keep a written, daily record of the way you found to do so.4. Identify ways in which the work you do is beneficial to others

4. Identify ways in which the work you do is beneficial to others

Even if you feel that you’re just a cog in a gigantic bureaucratic wheel, you are making a contribution to some outcome that will positively impact a group of people. Think about (and then write about) that impact. So if, for example, you’re a statistician at the census bureau you could focus on your helping to create data that will be used to more equitably distribute government resources. Or if you’re a paralegal just reviewing documents in a patent case you could focus on your contribution to greasing the wheels of the justice system. Granted, identifying your contribution can be a big stretch…..but through stretching you can grow.


From the world of cognitive psychology comes a technique that can be helpful in turning around negativity. It requires you to analyze upsetting events in five steps, in the following manner:

A. ACTUAL event (what happened?)

B. BELIEF (what does it mean?)

C, CONSEQUENT FEELING (how does holding that belief make you feel?)

D. DISPUTE THE BELIEF (what evidence is there that your belief could be wrong or too narrow?)

E. EFFECT (what is the effect of disputing the belief; how do you now feel?)


An example: Your Christmas bonus is a lot smaller than you thought it would be (A).

B. I’m not doing well at this job

C. That makes me feel crappy

D. Maybe the bonus pool shrunk this year

E. Relief that I wasn’t singled out for negative treatment.

This technique is not designed for you to keep your head buried in the sand; there may be negative developments that call for prompt corrective action on your part. But in general people tend to “catastrophize” far more than is actually warranted.

*Handwriting has been shown to have a deeper and more lasting impact