How to Stay Stuck in the Wrong Career
October 4, 2012 7:58 AM   Subscribe

How to Stay Stuck in the Wrong Career (PDF) (non-PDF version requires free registration): Conventional career change methods...are all part of what I call the “plan and implement” model of change. It goes like this: First, determine with as much clarity and certainty as possible what you really want to do. Next, use that knowledge to identify jobs or fields in which your passions can be coupled with your skills and experience. Seek advice from the people who know you best and from professionals in tune with the market. Then simply implement the resulting action steps. Change is seen as a one-shot deal: The plan-and-implement approach cautions us against making a move before we know exactly where we are going. It all sounds reasonable, and it is a reassuring way to proceed. Yet my research suggests that proceeding this way will lead to the most disastrous of results, which is to say no result. (by Herminia Ibarra, who expands on these ideas in her book Working Identity)
posted by shivohum (13 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
The three case studies Ibarra includes boil down to "these people checked out some alternative careers, but none seemed to be as lucrative and stable as what they already had." That is not surprising, given that the three individuals she profiles are successful MBA-carrying mid-career corporate professionals. I suspect she would observe very different career tactics in individuals from more varied backgrounds. This analysis is an interesting take on organization behavior, but it seems to have a limited range of application.
posted by Nomyte at 8:15 AM on October 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Interesting. The thesis in the paragraph above looks very similar to that main thrust in the argument in Roman Krznaric's How to Find Fulfilling Work. I'll have a closer read of both later on to see if either one references the other...

(disclosure: am part of same group as company that produces above book)
posted by ominous_paws at 8:17 AM on October 4, 2012

Executive Summary: How to stay stuck in the wrong career: be me.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:26 AM on October 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

How I wish that article had been more helpful.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 9:04 AM on October 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Well, this article appears in the Harvard Business Review. It's not surprising that the author identifies a proposed solution that is most appropriate to her cohort of readers: "For many of the people in my study, an executive program, sabbatical, or extended vacation improved their capacity to move in a new direction."
posted by Nomyte at 9:10 AM on October 4, 2012

I would love to read a version of this study that has a broader range of subjects. There's some interesting stuff in here, particularly with regards to the idea that we often try to make big life decisions without actually having enough information about what it is we're trying to do -- the temptation to have everything figured out ahead of time, instead of experimenting and gaining first-hand experience.

What I'd be interested in learning more about is how this process looks for someone who isn't quite so corporate.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Industry City Distillery here in Sunset Park, a recent-ish startup which makes beet sugar vodka. None of the men who founded it had any experience in distilling. One was an industrial designer who'd gone to art school but never really enjoyed sculpture, who then built on a family background in machining to become the machinist who designs and creates custom fittings and equipment. One was a visual artist with some experience in printmaking, who bought a letter press to make their labels and then designed and built a machine to put those labels on bottles in bulk (standard labelers require that the paper be on spools, instead of the individual pre-cut rectangles the ICD was printing.) One was working with terrariums and needed something to create carbon dioxide, and originally learned how to grow yeast for that purpose. They each had an indirect skill to contribute, and as a group they taught themselves everything else they needed to know.

I want to hear more about people like that, basically. Their experiences tend to be a lot more applicable to my own career decisions, and those of the people I know. Because we're mostly poor, vaguely artsy, over-educated weirdos, I guess.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:30 AM on October 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

Narrative Priorities, the difficulty with that kind of research is that it's very difficult to find groups of individuals like that that are big enough to generalize from. In the case of corporate professionals, a researcher can approach the career development and management training divisions at large companies and get connected to groups of people with roughly similar backgrounds, skills, and education, who are all at a roughly similar point in their fairly predictable careers. Your proposed set of people would need to be collected one by one, at the risk of extensive self-selection bias, and would consist of one-of-a-kind unicorns. Sometimes, necessary and interesting research is also impossible research.
posted by Nomyte at 9:37 AM on October 4, 2012

Maybe, but on the other hand, it's not like I didn't see a lot of really applicable stuff in the linked article -- despite the fact the profiled careers were largely alien to my experience, the basic conclusions drawn as to which strategies were helpful and which were not still rung true to what I've seen in my own life and the lives of my peers. This leads me to think that there must be a way to take the experiences of one-of-a-kind unicorns and glean some larger, more universal lessons from what did or did not work for them.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:29 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I recently spent a month in Asia, and at the end of that trip was ready to start a new career. It gradually wore off, however. I've got $50k in debt and tenure, so end up feeling terribly guilty about even considering another career, as if I'm betraying my coworkers and the sacrifices of those who helped me get here. I came for the article but stayed for the free therapy.
posted by mecran01 at 10:29 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I must laugh. So the take away from that article is:

Make a change, rue it instantly. Do something similar but slightly different, until that really great thing comes along.


Make drastic change, it's a disaster, recover somewhat, decide I'm happy enough.

Okay. Done and done.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:37 AM on October 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

I want to hear more about people like that, basically. Their experiences tend to be a lot more applicable to my own career decisions, and those of the people I know. Because we're mostly poor, vaguely artsy, over-educated weirdos, I guess.

I feel like I have read a lot of those kinds of case studies (didn't Po Bronson write a book of these, for example?), and personally I find them frustrating because they are so specific that I don't see connections to my own life. (And worse, when you look closely a lot of them come down to how it is great to have family money or tech stock options. Sure, I'll get right on that...)
posted by Forktine at 5:10 PM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I have to agree with Forktine that when you read profiles like in "What Should I Do With My Life?" (the Po Bronson book), and other books I've read, they are so super specific that while they are interesting to read, you can't apply them to yourself. Like that guy who got chosen by the Dalai Lama to be a monk when he was a teenager in the Bronson book--who relates to that? On the other hand, if you are doing something "out of the box," there really isn't a way to give you a specific life plan to follow, which is why this author is mentioning role models. Role models may be as close as you can find to a "how to do this" road map. Of course, if you don't have a specific goal/role model, or what you want to do doesn't exist in the real world yet, it's a real bitch.

I think this woman has a point in that if we sit around and analyze shit and take the tests and talk to our loved ones who are biased about us staying where we are, we don't move. I decided I was going to start looking for something else to do in 2007 and yeah, I haven't done shit since then, and any job changes I've gone through were put upon me by others and are similar to what I was doing then. There's a lot of stuff I've researched the shit out of, got paralyzed by the overload or the "this sounds too hard" of it, and then given up. On the other hand, "taking a leap" may very well screw you too.

In my personal life, I definitely have dabbled in stuff here and there on the side. So far I don't want to do any of it as my livelihood, which is kind of sad since I always figured I'd do stuff like write books and have a craft business. But I lose energy after 30 days on the books (and let's face it, I ain't the world's best plotter and don't bubble over with plots like most writers) and craft sales just get me depressed, and either way I don't really have the interest to maintain a side job/freelance career. There are some things I wish I could do, but they don't really fit well with dabbling "on the side." Like even if I could get myself cast in a play (so far, no good), I'd have to give up every other obligation I have going to have rehearsals every night, and nobody's going to be okay with me saying, "I'm busy X nights a week already." Can't exactly put on a one-woman show alone without any theater experience either. Sure, I could go to open mike night, but man, I don't even want to WATCH open mike night. So, I dunno. Some things are easier to dabble in than others.

And I do think it's frustrating that the examples in books are either too one-off to follow or Bored Middle Aged Manager Who Makes A Lot Of Money. I can understand the logic of career writers using the latter, but I don't relate to them too much. But I think the whole problem is that nobody can really relate to your career angst. If you can't find another box you want to fit yourself into--if you want a circle, if you want an amorphous blob--then you are just going to have to make it up yourself, without a vision, plan, or help from others. And that's another way to get you all stopped and confused.

I hate figuring out the whole career thing. Why can't I just be fine with my Harvey Pekar Life Plan already, you guys?!

Related link: has career counseling ever helped you?
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:36 PM on October 4, 2012

I've done this. So have a number of friends and family. As far as I know, none of us planned or thought very much about what we were doing, we just went ahead and did it. Here's what we did:

1. Be a Mum
A stay-at-home mum who studied for a degree, and was ready to re-enter the workforce when the kids went to school; another mum and self-confessed wheeler-dealer, who quit a high-flying industrial engineering position to start a small business from home;

2. Change the environment, not the job
an engineering designer who became a maths teacher for a while, before returning to heavy engineering, this time running a sales consultancy from home;

3. Retrain:
a former creative media professional who studied law and is now a barrister specialising in human rights;

4. Skip the country:
an emigre to a new city who blagged her way out of engineering and into web design just before the first dot-com boom.

While this is total anecdata, I am trying to identify what we might all share in common that forced us to make these choices. I think personal circumstances had a lot to do with it, as well as a modicum of self-confidence, a high tolerance for risk, and a willingness to change the scene when things didn't work out. And some dumb luck. Gender might be a factor: four out of five of this sample are women. But I do believe we were all motivated by the recognition that we had to bear the personal cost of spending our tiny lives on something fulfilling (work or family) rather than make ourselves miserable doing lucrative things we didn't like.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 6:15 AM on October 5, 2012

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