Choosing a Career

Choosing a Career – The Proven 100 Year Old Method

This post first appeared on LinkedIn.

If you are having thoughts about choosing a career there should be one concept at the front of your mind.

The concept of career alignment goes all the way back to the start of what we now know as career advice. The industrial revolution of the late 1800s led to ‘needs for information about how persons could identify and access emerging jobs’.

Frank Parsons died in 1908, yet his highly influential book ‘Choosing a Vocation’ was published one year later and became a guiding force for choosing a career for decades thereafter.

His opening paragraph to this incredible book reads as follows:

No step in life, unless it may be the choice of a husband or wife, is more important than the choice of a vocation. The wise selection of the business, profession, trade, or occupation to which one’s life is to be devoted and the development of full efficiency in the chosen field are matters of the deepest moment to young men and to the public. These vital problems should be solved in a careful, scientific way, with due regard to each person’s aptitudes, abilities, ambitions, resources, and limitations, and the relations of these elements to the conditions of success in different industries.

Choosing a Career based on Alignment

The idea of aligning or matching your job and career to elements that help define you has been there right from the very start.

The downsides of poor alignment were also clear to Parsons:

An occupation out of harmony with the worker’s aptitudes and capacities means inefficiency, unenthusiastic and perhaps distasteful labor, and low pay.

Replace ‘inefficiency’ with ‘poor performance’, ‘unenthusiastic’ with ‘low engagement’ and ‘distasteful labor’ with ‘low job satisfaction’ and you can see that the problems that we face today with choosing a career, were firmly in the mind of Frank Parsons at the start of the twentieth century.

Choosing a Career – Three Step Approach

Parsons also outlined his three step approach for choosing a career:

Step 1: “A clear understanding of yourself, your aptitudes, abilities, interests, ambitions, resources, limitations, and their causes.”

Step 2: “A knowledge of the requirements and conditions of success, advantages and disadvantages, compensation, opportunities, and prospects in different lines of work.”

Step 3: “True reasoning on the relations of these two groups of facts.”

This approach of starting with self-analysis and then using those findings as the basis for how to choose a career has changed very little since Parson’s time. Techniques to assist in this self analysis have developed and various automated tools have arisen to support either parts or all of Parsons three steps.

John Holland developed his widely used theory of career choice based on matching personality types with industries / professions. These Holland codes which represent the various personality types form the basis of many online career assessment tools in use today.

Today’s popular career books such as ‘What Color is Your Parachute’, (Richard Bolles) include exercises (the Flower exercise) that essentially help the reader work through Parson’s three steps outlined above.

From the outset, aligning your work to your strengths and interests has been a core component of successful career choice and advice.

So if the concept of alignment has been there since day one, what has changed?

Today’s Challenges with Choosing a Career

The biggest change in choosing a career today has been to step two of Parson’s three step process. Parson’s labels this as ‘The Industrial Investigation’ in his 1909 book. This is the process of finding out about industries, companies and jobs and what sorts of skills, strengths, values and personalities will likely prosper in each. This task has become both easier and more complex.

There is vastly more information available nowadays with regards to each job. Employers state exactly what it is that they are looking for and what they believe are the traits required for success. This is often readily available in job advertisements and role profiles. Tapping into this information in a structured way is one of the key ways in which you can test the alignment of various jobs before taking the plunge.

However, organisations themselves have become much more complex, larger and diverse. General statements about an industry, company or role are no longer valid as there can be vast differences for seemingly similar roles within the same industry and even in the same company. The internal workings of multi-national companies can look (and act) like a series of seemingly different organisations, each with their own sub culture.

With great advances in information availability comes greater choice. With greater choice comes greater confusion for the employee struggling with their own career and alignment challenge.

What is clear is that alignment and self-analysis are still at the heart of choosing a career. What is also clear is that the challenge of choosing a career still remains for a lot of people and the importance has not diminished over the last century.