How Do Many People Choose Their Careers?

 In Careers

Most people choose their careers for totally the wrong reasons and many of them use other people’s personality spectacles. So why is that and what do I mean?

Over the last 25 years I’ve seen thousands of clients personally and spoken to them about their careers. During that time I’ve lost count of the number of people who have said, “I hate Monday mornings!” or some other euphemism for “I’m not really very happy in my chosen career.” The obvious follow on is to ask how they chose it in the first place. Inevitably it wasn’t the result of a rational and informed decision and the villains in the piece often turn out to be anyone but a professional careers advisor!

So eventually in September 2008 as the recession was kicking in we decided to do some research into just how people make their first career decision. We devised a very simple questionnaire; some of the people who saw me for the next three years may remember it. Each month, until August 2011, the first 15 completed questionnaires were collected and scrutinised.

So what did we ask and what were the results from these 540 clients? We gave people the questionnaire with the following question.

Please tick the method that most closely describes where the advice came from or how the decision was made that eventually led to the first job you took after your education was completed?

  1. Took the advice of my parents………………………………………………. 19%
  2. Took the advice of my educators…………………………………………….. 5%
  3. Took the advice of my friends…………………………………………………. 3%
  4. Rebelled against the advice of my parents……………………………….. 0%
  5. A part-time job during education became my first career……………. 8%
  6. It followed on naturally at the end of my education……………………. 10%
  7. I just followed my own instincts……………………………………………… 24%
  8. Responded to my peer group’s ideas and followed them……………. 4%
  9. Took the advice of relations…………………………………………………….. 0%
  10. Took the advice of friends of my family…………………………………….. 1%
  11. First career job occurred by pure chance – serendipity…………….. 18%
  12. Sought professional advice and took it……………………………………… 1%
  13. None of these – if so please describe………………………………………. 7%

I’ve added the percentage (to the nearest whole number) of clients who gave each answer at the end of each option. I won’t comment on the results; they speak for themselves. It wasn’t a very sophisticated study, but it was a bit of an eye opener in many respects. Not least because 33% of the sample, 178 clients in all took advice from other people, but only 5 of them sought the help of a professional.

To illustrate why this is such a disturbing result, let me tell you about John – yes; that was his real name – John came to see me in 2003. He had a brilliant idea for a new business, but he knew it was financially risky to start a new business, so he sought the views of some of his colleagues and friends so that he could make a more rational and informed decision about giving up his profession. He had been excited about the thought of his new venture, but after canvassing the views of other people for a couple of weeks his initial enthusiasm had turned to doubt and confusion. Why? Because they all had different opinions; he just couldn’t get a consensus out of them. The extremes were “That’s an amazing idea, you’ll make a fortune, you’re bound to succeed; I’d certainly go for it if I were you” and “Gosh John, that’s quite impressive, but can you turn it into a successful business; it sounds a bit risky to me; there’s a lot of competition you know, I’d give it a miss if I were you.”

When I then questioned him about his friends, it turned out that the first comment came from a dashing, passionate, high flying young lady who ran her own marketing consultancy; the second was a neighbour who shared John’s interest in golf and he was employed as a stock controller with a local firm and he’d been with them for over ten years.

The basic problem stems from human nature – we all of us, me included, like to have an opinion, but the problem with opinions is that they are nearly always subjective unless you are talking to a professional. Everyone sees your problem, your dilemma, your decision through their own personality spectacles. It goes like this. When someone says, “If I were you I’d….” what they really mean is, “If I had your problem this is what I’d do….”. And therein is the nub of the problem. What they should follow on to say is, “but since my values, drivers, interests, personality and character traits are different from yours, I suppose my decision may not be right for you; perhaps you should go and talk to a professional rather than me.” People, who venture an opinion about someone else’s career, never think to add this little caveat at the end!

Unsurprisingly it didn’t surprise me at all on Monday 4 August when I read a headline in the HR Grapevine, “Half of British workers hate their job.” We just have to do something about helping those at the end of their education to make the right decisions for the right reasons about their future working lives – we just must!

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