Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Valuing values.

I've just read The best career advice you'll never hear at a graduation speech by William MacAskill and found it particularly interesting given some of the well publicised sayings that will supposedly lead you to the job of your dreams.

Follow your dreams
Do what you love
Set goals and stick to them
Have a five year plan
The world is your oyster
Dream big and success will come your way
You could do anything you want

So much advice, yet so much of it is confusing and often conflicting. And what of the people who simply don't have goals, don't know where to start, don't know what interests them at all? They chop and change, feeling inadequate and unsettled as if they're deliberately being difficult by rudely flouting received wisdom. After all everyone else seems to know what they're on about, they've set GOALS, have made beautiful dream boards - in fact they have a PLAN.

In reality, not everyone is going to make it big, no matter how many wishes they make, no matter how bright and colourful their dream boards. Some of those who do "make it" will find they're still empty inside, but don't know what they're seeking.

MacAskill talks about doing something meaningful or valuable:
What it does mean is that you should start finding out what’s valuable, and get help working out the ways in which your career can make for a better world.
In my experience, not everyone is interested in, or able to focus on making the world a better place - it's too big to comprehend. There's so much to do, but you don't do anything because it's overwhelming and you have no idea where to start. However, when we focus on what we value and what we can do in our own little corner of the world it becomes more achievable.

Some years ago, I worked with John the accountant. John was in great distress as he told me he hated his job. There was nothing for it but to retrain, but how would he do this with a mortgage and family to support? He wanted to work in medicine. He dreamed of helping people and supporting them through their illness, but instead felt doomed to an unfulfilled life with periods of being bitterly unhappy. He was completely demoralised and felt his family was suffering as a result of his misery.

After a while it became evident that it wasn't accounting he hated with such passion, but the company where he worked. He was privvy to some of their ways which didn't sit well with him.  The company didn't act ethically or in the best interests of its clients or the community in which it was located. He valued honesty and integrity. He wanted to be proud of the company he worked for. He valued his family and wanted more balance in his week rather than working long hours and being on call 7 days a week.

We talked around his core values and needs (there's more about values here) as well as his skills. Discussions like this can sometimes feel unsettling; we're not used to talking about what's deeply important to us, so we're hesitant and unsure. We feel the way cautiously. It can also seem like you're circling round the issue and as if it's not really related to your career - but it is! Making career decisions based firmly on your values is life affirming - the outcome doesn't have to be grandiose or world changing to be of value in your corner of the world.

Career exploration based on values is not what the "received wisdom" at the top of this post supports. You're not starting with wishes, or dreams or goals. You're starting with self knowledge, and an understanding of your unique blend of values and skills. You're starting with you, and what's important to you as an individual. It's not the quick fix mix and match: "if you are good at xyz, then this career will suit you".

Once John stopped focusing on his anger and the distress he experienced at being expected to act unethically and being unable to change the situation, he was able to see that he genuinely enjoyed accounting. Allowing space and time for the negative feelings to rise and be accepted without fighting them was an important step in the process. That negativity was clouding his judgement and colouring his attitude towards his profession.

Retraining wasn't necessary! John brightened up considerably as he realised that working as an accountant for a doctor, a medical testing laboratory, or in a hospital would support his values and make use of his original training.

And whilst job hunting, cold calling, writing letters of application and making your resume sing aren't always the most beguiling of pass-times, when they're conducted with a view to supporting your core values it feels like your time is well spent and your decision will be based on a solid foundation.


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What is career development and coaching?

I received the following question last week and thought that my response (extended for this post) could be interesting for those whose experience of career counselling is a ten minute appointment with someone at school when they were in year 10 discussing work experience, or during year 12 when they were granted a few rushed minutes to discuss "life" plans and their post-school options.

The question:
What would you advise an ex cop, local government councillor and youth worker who wants to be in the social and environmental development industry?

My answer:
This sounds like a magic wand request!

What happens during a career development session is generally quite different and no crystal balls or magical wands are involved! It's a lot more complex than some of the ads you might have seen make it appear, and more complex than some people are prepared for.  It takes time, and the ability to self reflect to get the most from the investment.

Generally, my work with clients is firmly based on values, so we begin with an exercise to help them clarify what's important to them as an individual and to help them think and see their life from a different perspective.

Many of us bumble along, fall into our first job without thinking too much about what's important to us, and stumble haphazardly from one thing to the next with no particular idea what we're searching for.

The values exercise is, for most people, surprising and grounding. They often say, "I'd never thought about it like this before." It helps them see where their values may be at odds with their employer and vice versa. When values aren't compatible, or worse, completely at odds with your employer, it's no wonder you're unhappy. (The mini documentary Green Generation introduces a young man whose values led him from an arguably desirable job where his values weren't met by the company to completely new challenges. There's a bit about it here)

Working within the reality of your situation
Sometimes bitterly unhappy people know what the issues are, but for financial or other reasons are unable to change careers or workplaces. We then work within the reality of that situation and look at ways to support, and possible expand on, the positive things that are happening in their lives so than an unhappy work situation doesn't overwhelm them.

This might include support in more effective communication strategies, assertiveness training, or tactics to deflect the undermining aspects of bullying. It could be looking at spending more time on significant relationships outside work, finding new hobbies, getting more exercise or eating with a mindful attitude. There is no "one size fits all" quick fix response.

Simultaneously, we could be looking at a 5+ year plan, working towards a career theme (not a specific job) supporting your values, skills and interests, which will be more fulfilling while meeting current family and financial commitments. 

Then of course, there are the challenges of location. It's not always possible to work locally, and this can be an uncomfortable issue when an hour plus commute through heavy traffic is at odds with valuing environmental responsibility. For that one, there are no easy answers.

I hope this doesn't sound like a cop-out response. Any superficial reply would be ultimately unhelpful, and doesn't allow for the nuances, contradictions and complexities of a real person.

I do so wish I had that magic wand, I'd have made a fortune by now!

A quick fix is less satisfying than deep reflection
... But, just thinking on that, I doubt my clients would be better off if I waved a magic wand. Whilst the journey of looking deeply into their values isn't for everyone, and can sometimes be challenging and confronting, most people are grateful for the experience, and they are enriched by the process.

While none of us have the ability to see into the future, our values stay with us for life. The people I work with want to live with integrity, and when decisions are made thoughtfully and based on the solid foundation of values, they have much more chance of living a rich, full and meaningful life, no matter where they end up working.

As you can see,  what you might have experienced at school will be quite different to what I've described here. Career Development is often a life-long process, evolving as our interests and needs change, and in response to economic conditions and environmental factors. It's something most of us will revisit time and time again as we respond and adapt to real events in our lives right through to retirement.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Attending the ACT Boot Camp in the USA

I've just been to the USA - well to be honest, just a tiny portion of it, around Reno, Nevada and just a few small areas of California.

Like many professionals, to remain registered with our associations we have to accrue a certain amount of PD (Professional Development) points per annum. This is to show that we're up to date, moving with the times and not allowing dust to gather under our feet. For my association, (the CDAA - Career Development Association of Australia) we can include attending relevant training or conferences, writing articles which are published, reading and mentoring among other things.

I enjoy conferences, it's a great way to meet with colleagues from around the country and share experiences - both the joys and frustrations of our work and learn new things in a concentrated environment.

This year, however,  I wanted to extend my skills in a specific area, so when information about an ACT Boot Camp in the US appeared in my in-box I was delighted ... except that ... well ... it was in the US, and that's not just down the road. A 15 hour direct flight isn't something to be tackled lightly when you're travelling economy, even when the fares are heavily discounted. That's fifteen, long, boring hours, with crying babies, coughing adults and smoking deprived addicts, cooped up, farting, twitching, and generally desperately wishing they were somewhere else, mostly safely on the ground at their destination. QANTAS is a good airline, but 15 hours is stretching the friendship quite a bit.

But four days of intense training in ACT was extremely attractive! My training so far has been with Dr Russ Harris, (there's more about him, his books and work here) and he's great. But this boot camp would give me the opportunity to meet Dr Steve Hayes and other influential people in the field, learn more, and would be relevant for both my clients and myself.

Core Values:
Encouraging clients to think about their core values is how I work. When you know what's important to you, it provides a solid basis on which to make career and life choices, and ACT is both mindfully and values based. It complements career development for those wanting to make decisions which will support their life goals and values. Perfect!

Four solid days of training were offered, 8:30 am till 9:30 pm, an hour for lunch, and a dinner break of 1 1/2 hours - a couple of meagre tea breaks were included. That's full on! Would I have the stamina to last the distance? I could see why Dr Steve Hayes called it a Boot Camp, even though that's not an expression we use frequently for anything other than extremely demanding exercise classes.

Reno has never been on the short list of places I wanted to visit, but with the Yosemite, Sequoia and Death Valley National Parks not far off, I decided to extend the trip and have a bit of a holiday as well (after all it is such a very long way to travel if you only stay a few days!). This is the land of the TV shows I watched as a child, the wild west, rugged landscapes and familiar place names. (More about this over at jumping aground soon.)

And it was fantastic! More than 360 people attended, mostly from the US, but also from Belgium, France, Israel, South America, Ireland, London and of course Australia!

A casino seemed to be an unusual place to hold the training, but the facilities were excellent and we fitted comfortably into the conference room.  I'd rarely go into a casino as they remind me of a large parasite, sucking the lifeblood out of their victims who have been enticed into the lair. The machines seem like voracious pulsating stomach and intestines. This casino was huge; multi levelled, glittery, maze-like, airconditioned and soulless. Few gamblers appeared happy and seemed to be in a zombie like state. I wonder if they go home after a weekend of gambling and eating and say they've had a fantastic time? There must be some attraction I'm missing or the places would go broke and that never seems to happen!

I'm told the Boot Camp attendees stood out like the proverbial sore thumb as appearing very different to the gambling patrons, perhaps it's because many of us not only dressed for comfort and had note books and name badges, but showed complete disinterest in the "attractions" on offer.

But I digress; back to the ACT Boot Camp! There were so many benefits to attending training out of my own country. I didn't know anyone so couldn't take the easy option of sitting with people I already knew. Every person I met was interesting and generously shared information about their work life and the challenges which are so different to what I experience in Australia. The training was structured so that we quickly dropped the facade of "all is well" and shared information about fears, insecurities, and the personal challenges and hurts which affect us all ... we all have some sort of demons to contend with.

Whilst Australia and the US share a common language (more or less), we don't appear to share similar work experiences or opportunities. The bulk of the attendees seemed to be social workers and psychologists working in government departments or institutions of some sort, and I was certainly in the minority being a career counsellor working privately - yet in Australia, this isn't uncommon. It seems that the closest work title to being a career counsellor for adults would be a life coach. Specific career development discussions seem to be provided mostly for students or through companies providing outplacement services for redundant workers (a term that was considered quite harsh by the Americans) or for veterans (who we refer to as returned service personnel).

I talked with those at my shared table about how I already use ACT in career development work with my clients. Much of what I learnt at the Boot Camp is applicable to people who are unhappy in their careers, who are the targets of bullying, seeking a new direction or who are uncertain about course choices - it's definitely not only for people struggling with PTSD, addictions or abuse, although it's been consistently shown to be of benefit to those groups.

I'm glad I went. ACT complements career development beautifully. I've extended my skills, met some wonderful welcoming people, shared information, hopes and dreams as well as personal challenges and learnt more than I dreamed was likely or possible. I've been enriched by the training as well as the travel experience - for all my initial questions about the value of attending overseas training, it was a worthwhile investment!

wikipedia information on ACT
A non-academic article about ACT by Dr Russ Harris here