Three Reasons Why Career Counseling Sometimes Fails


I pride myself on having an excellent record of success in guiding my clients to solutions to the full range of career-related dilemmas, whether that takes the form of showing them how to Improve the odds of landing a great job, strengthening their leadership abilities, teaching them how to improve their networking skills, or handling delicate political issues in their organization. But, there's an area of career work where my success rate is somewhat lower, namely in leading clients to the identification of better career paths. Why? I've contemplated and analyzed this question intensively, and I can trace most disappointing outcomes to one or more of three factors:

1. Unrealistic expectations of what to expect from career counseling

Career counseling is NOT job placement. Nor is it just a different version of a personality or career test that purports to provide an answer to the question: "What is the right career for me?" The counselor instructs, inspires, and guides, but in the final analysis it's the client who has to do the heavy lifting. That lifting depends of course on the nature of the client's goal, but you can be sure that in all but a handful of cases a lot of work is required. That fact leads to the second reason for failure:

2. Inadequate or poorly directed dedication of time and energy 

I almost always assign homework to be completed by the next session. Often, though, the next session arrives and the client confesses to having completed only part of the assignment (or, rarely, none of it). " It was a really busy week and I couldn't find the time" is a not infrequent refrain.

I invariably reject that explanation, and explain that it was simply a matter of not giving the assignment a high enough priority. Naturally there are times when unexpected developments derail even the best-intended plans: a sick child, the death of a relative, or a crisis at work. But those instances are unusual and hopefully very infrequent. (Another reason why time and energy aren't optimally directed can relate to one of the conditions listed below).

Another issue that sometimes crops up is the fact that looking for, and applying to, jobs online provides a quick reinforcement to the idea that meaningful action is occurring, even though the online route to career clarity or a job is generally a barren one. Sending in a dozen job applications may feel much more promising than having a dozen networking conversations, but it almost certainly won't be.

3. Behavioral and emotional blocks 

I find that my skills as a psychotherapist get tapped in working with a large proportion of my clients. Just a few of the issues that can stand in the way of success:

  •    Low self-confidence
  •    Shyness
  •    Procrastination
  •    Excessive anxiety or pessimism
  •    Depression
  •    ADD related disorganization
  •    Peer, familial, or cultural pressures

Exploration of alternatives is an absolutely essential element in making a wise career choice. That exploration should be undertaken with curiosity, openness, diligence, creativity, and some boldness. The factors listed above (and many others) can stand in the way and lead to a suboptimal outcome if not addressed. Just to take a few examples, shyness will inhibit the essential networking component of exploration; pessimism can lead to hopelessness and a loss of energy and enthusiasm; peer, familial, or cultural pressure can push someone down paths that their heart isn't in to, but which they feel obliged to pursue, resulting in half-hearted effort.


A Trip Through the Upper Midwest

I had intended to write about either the right mindset to approach the development of a Career Plan B, or about half full and half empty glasses, but I spent such a wonderful and fascinating 5 days in MN, IA, SD, NE, and ND that I'm going to share some of my many thoughts with you here.

There were many truly awesome (in the literal sense of the word) sights (a bit about them below) but most striking to me was the enormous distance I observed between life as I and my friends and clients live it in DC, and the vastly different reality lived by so many of the people I encountered on my trip.

In town after town along the way (and I made it a point of passing through and stopping in many) there was a palpable sense of hopelessness, reflected in the shriveled Main streets having fallen victim to Walmarts, Dollar Stores, and a bewildering variety of fast food outlets. I now understand in a way I didn't before why Trump (and to some degree Sanders) have done so well. Their voters are rightfully angry that their futures, and perhaps even more sadly that of their children, are bleak.

I truly believe that many of the privileged group who are reading this post can't understand the depths of the problem these millions of left-behinds face, and the extent of their anger. Their jobs, and indeed perhaps their entire industries, have evaporated, and they simply don't have access or the means to retrain. So they anesthetize themselves with fried chicken, burgers, meth, coke, booze, and cigarettes. It's easy to laugh at their obesity and their "cluelessness," but they've been screwed. Mostly not being their fault at all so please excuse my preachiness and try to understand them with a greater degree of compassion and hope/pray/work for their economic and, perhaps more importantly, emotional "salvation."

Highlights of the trip: Mt. Rushmore and the entire Black Hills region of South Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota (with its wild horses, buffalo, prairie dogs, and magnificent views), Chimney Rock Nebraska, where the Oregon Trail, the California Goldrushers, and the Mormon migration all passed, the stunning architecture and gorgeous lakes of Minneapolis (contrasting with the devastated precincts of neighboring St. Paul), and the delicious 50 cent cup of coffee I had in Buffalo, SD.


"Why You (May) Marry the Wrong Person"

Saturday's New York Times contained an opinion piece entitled "Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person." I'm not quite as pessimistic as the author (Alain de Boton) but I thought that some of his observations were definitely worth sharing, particularly the closing one.

"In a wiser, more self-aware society than our own, a standard question on any early dinner date would be: “And how are you crazy?” (note from JW: as opposed to only asking about shared interests).

Perhaps we have a latent tendency to get furious when someone disagrees with us or can relax only when we are working; perhaps we’re tricky about intimacy after sex or clam up in response to humiliation. Nobody’s perfect. The problem is that before marriage, we rarely delve into our complexities. Whenever casual relationships threaten to reveal our flaws, we blame our partners and call it a day. 

Our partners are no more self-aware. Naturally, we make a stab at trying to understand them. We visit their families. We look at their photos, we meet their college friends. All this contributes to a sense that we’ve done our homework. We haven’t. Marriage ends up as a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of.

For most of recorded history, people married for logical sorts of reasons: because her parcel of land adjoined yours, his family had a flourishing business, her father was the magistrate in town, there was a castle to keep up, or both sets of parents subscribed to the same interpretation of a holy text.

The marriage of reason was not, in hindsight, reasonable at all; it was often expedient, narrow-minded, snobbish and exploitative. That is why what has replaced it — the marriage of feeling — has largely been spared the need to account for itself.

What we really seek (in marriage) is familiarity — which may well complicate any plans we might have had for happiness. We are looking to recreate, within our adult relationships, the feelings we knew so well in childhood. The love most of us will have tasted early on was often confused with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his anger, of not feeling secure enough to communicate our wishes. How logical, then, that we should as grown-ups find ourselves rejecting certain candidates for marriage not because they are wrong but because they are too right — too balanced, mature, understanding and reliable — given that in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign. We marry the wrong people because we don’t associate being loved with feeling happy.

We make mistakes, too, because we are so lonely. No one can be in an optimal frame of mind to choose a partner when remaining single feels unbearable. We have to be wholly at peace with the prospect of many years of solitude in order to be appropriately picky; otherwise, we risk loving no longer being single rather more than we love the partner who spared us that fate.

Finally, we marry to make a nice feeling permanent. We imagine that marriage will help us to bottle the joy we felt when the thought of proposing first came to us: Perhaps we were in Venice, on the lagoon, in a motorboat, with the evening sun throwing glitter across the sea, chatting about aspects of our souls no one ever seemed to have grasped before.... The good news is that it doesn’t matter if we find we have married the wrong person.

We mustn’t abandon him or her, only the founding Romantic idea upon which the Western understanding of marriage has been based the last 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning.

We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without any malice) do the same to them.... But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.

This philosophy of pessimism offers a solution to a lot of distress and agitation around marriage. It might sound odd, but pessimism relieves the excessive imaginative pressure that our romantic culture places upon marriage. The failure of one particular partner to save us from our grief and melancholy is not an argument against that person and no sign that a union deserves to fail or be upgraded.

The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition."


How to Answer the Key Interview Question Impressively

Very often the first substantive statement that an employer will make in a job interview is “So, tell me about yourself” (or words to that effect). The way that this question is answered sets the tone for the entire interview. Unfortunately many inexperienced interviewees answer in such a way that puts them immediately out of contention. They essentially recite the information contained in their resumes, which suggests that they have some combination of timidness, lack of imagination, and cluelessness.

Few people like to interview prospective employees. It’s time they’re not devoting to their jobs (unless they’re in HR) and it’s a process that’s generally ill-defined, but that requires a lot of focus and attention. So the key to successfully responding to this request lies in engaging and impressing the interviewer.

I coach my clients to respond by beginning with a little (I emphasize LITTLE) personal information: "I was born in Lima, Ohio and had a pretty typical childhood until I went out-of-state to George Washington, where I decided to major in finance, primarily due to an awesome professor I had freshman year. I was lucky enough to land a summer internship at Bank of America two years later, and that really hooked me.” Then I suggest that they pivot the conversation to what the interviewer really wants to know: “Is this a person we should hire?” The pivot can be accomplished smoothly by saying something along the lines of “But let me tell you what I think it’s most important for you to know about me.” And here’s where a version of the elevator speech comes in; stating the key talking points that align with the job specs. I say a version of the elevator speech, because the pitch needs to be tailored to what the employer needs. This is where the concept of “personal branding” can cause trouble, because the interviewee may focus too much on repeating selling points that may be appropriate in a general networking situation but not sufficiently attuned to the job being sought. 

The pivot suggests boldness, initiative, and efficiency: a non-nonsense approach that is pretty much universally valued. Now if the interviewer is someone who’s particularly chatty this might not be the best approach to use; successful interviewing requires the ability to “read” the interviewer and adjust style accordingly. But in most instances the approach I recommend will be impressive. 

In addition to the primary issue of qualifications, a candidate's likeability is such a core component of a hiring decision that it is also important to try to inject an element that will ideally result in the interviewer connecting on a personal level. This might take the form of a "coda" to the recitation of the key talking points. For example, after reciting the qualifications* it could be engaging to say something (with a sort of wink of the eye) like "and maybe not quite so important for you to know, but I'm a rabid Redskins fan," something distinctive and therefore memorable.

Whether "So tell me about yourself" comes up or not, the points I've made above are adaptable to almost any interviewing situation. Keep them in mind!

*Except in entry-level kinds of situations, don't just talk about what you managed or were responsible for in your work history. Anyone, good or bad, who holds a particular position can claim with equal validity that they managed or were responsible for something(s)/someone(s). Talk about end results, achievements, accomplishments, demonstrating the value that you've created in previous jobs.


Career Exploration - Early On and Later


Last week the New York Times published an article by Jeffrey Seling entitled:

"Will You Sprint, Stroll, or Stumble into a Career"

Seling describes the sprint as follows:

"Sprinters start fast right out of the gate.  They pick a major early on and stick with it, enabling a progression of internships that look more and more impressive with each year.  Some have the perfect job lined up on graduation; others are laserlike in their focus, moving from job to job up the career ladder.  They have little or no student-loan debt, freeing them to pick job opportunities without regard to pay."  Sprinters are a distinct minority of twenty-somethings (many of them have no student loan debt because they come from well-to-do families). The truth is that most people graduating college aren’t sure of what they want to do.  As a result, far too many of them enroll in graduate programs simply because that’s a structured next step rather than because they’ve desired to deepen their involvement with a particular field.

How to find clarity? 

The answer is wide-ranging exploration, exploration that can (and should) be conducted in numerous ways. Through exploration (primarily conversation with those with experience) a sense can be gained of what various career paths involve, their plusses and minuses, their typical trajectory, their income potential.  Ideally a plan should be created that calendars career exploration activities on a regular basis.

One of the best ways to conduct career exploration is NETWORKING.

The term strikes fear into the hearts of most young people, but the fact is that older adults generally enjoy giving guidance and advice to their juniors.  And actually networking for most can be easier than they might imagine:  friends of their parents*, parents of their friends, and alumni of their colleges are all fairly accessible targets.

My favorite source of networking utilizes Linkedin - see my blog post:

By utilizing people with whom they already have a relationship career explorers can connect with, and learn from, hundreds or even thousands of people who have walked the path they are contemplating.  Career testing is widely considered a great way of choosing a career path, but I see its role much less (if at all) as concretely indicative and more as suggestive. Turning to a career test to provide "the answer" makes little more sense than asking one's parents - tests and parents both understand the subject well, but can't begin to get at what really makes a person tick.  My prejudice against the likelihood of career testing providing definitive guidance is confirmed by the absence of any data showing that career tests lead to career success.  However, these tests can certainly be valuable in suggesting paths for exploration.  Career counseling can be a very valuable way of exploring if one works with experienced and successful, "real world" career counselors.  The perspective and experience they have accumulated from working with hundreds of clients allows them to shed light on numerous paths.  Furthermore, if they are successful it is likely attributable at least in part to an ability to read personality and psychological issues that can have an important bearing on career choice. 

There are several other great ways of learning what a career might feel like.  Going to Meetups of people in a chosen field (Meetups are an easy place to strike up conversations about careers because attendees are there because of their interest in the speciifc subject).  Joining online discussion groups and posing questions to the members.  Attending lectures or seminars and interacting with participants.  The purpose is not to land a job (although that could be an outcome of a well-handled conversation), but to gather as much information, and to get a feeling, for what working in a particular career would be like.

In the article mentioned above, Seling quotes Jeffrey Jenson Arnett, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri, about the early stages of career life: 

“Emerging adulthood is a time of life when many different directions remain possible,” Dr. Arnett wrote, “when little about the future has been decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course.”  Today the period of emerging adulthood is even longer than it was when the term was coined in the year 2000.  Fortunately (and hopefully reassuringly to those uncertain of their career path forward) the average worker will 

experience several different careers over a lifetime (seven is the often quoted, but not substantiated, number). I myself am on my fifth.

*My interest in marketing, the launching pad of my first career in advertising, began as a result of the experience I had working in the marketing department of Ronson (the lighter manufacturer) one summer between junior and senior year of college. The stint was arranged by my Dad with a neighbor of ours who was a VP at the company, and consisted of my spending a week in each of 6 areas of the company. Marketing was the one that turned me on.