• Career Counseling: Is It Really About The Work?

    Work. You love it. You hate it. You’re completely ambivalent. No matter what you feel about it, it’s there, and it’s where you spend a TON of your time and energy. It’s no wonder that work is always a hot topic in counseling sessions. We talk about work with our partners, we kvetch about work with friends, we chat about work with colleagues or co-workers. Sometimes we even dream about it! And with COVID, most of us are working from home which means, without the physical boundaries in place to separate our work selves from our personal lives, we really ARE working more states a recent article out of Harvard Business School. Just one more thing we can thank the pandemic for!

    So why are we talking about the concept of work and career counseling right now? Chances are, because many of you have been living and breathing work, especially in your space at home, you’re becoming intimately familiar with feelings that you have about it. What in the past may have been an inkling may now feel like a surge. An internal musing that was once, “Hmm, John’s tone with me is sometimes a little rude,” may have transformed into, “UGH, JOHN IS A TOTAL JERK!” Another example may be, “Jeez, I guess I need to enter that report by the end of today,” is now, “IF I HAVE TO ENTER ANOTHER REPORT I MAY LOSE MY MIND.” The feelings about your work that prior to COVID were a bother are very likely now a major frustration. The amount of time that we’re spending at work is far greater, so it only makes sense that our relationships with our careers, good or bad, are magnified. The same thing is happening in our country right now with marriages, and we’re seeing a decrease in separations and divorces, now that so many struggling couples are forced to interact. Frankly, it’s not going well. But that’s a topic for another day.

    Dissatisfaction with work and subsequent career counseling work (in my experience personally and professionally) typically falls into two categories. One – the work itself is not fulfilling, meaningful, or utilizing the strengths of the person. And two – the community within one’s workplace is unpleasant, unsupportive, or downright toxic. For some people, it’s both. For today’s post, let’s focus on topic one – the work itself.

    Picture your 21 year old self. How many times did you use your college’s career counseling center? Yeah, me neither. Many of us, at that time, are graduating from college, and though there are feelings of trepidation, the world is our oyster. We’re standing on the edge of adulthood, peering out into the great wide open space of the world of autonomy, bringing in our own income, and choosing how we spend it. Freedom! The feeling of exhilaration is gorgeous; it creates that “butterflies in your stomach” tickle like a crush or new love. Sigh.

    But then many of us look behind us, seeing mountains of student loan debt, the doors of our parents’ home closing (after all, we’re adults now, right?!), or a very large mountain of pride that towers over us, making this moment a “do or die” one. While we may want to make that confident leap into the land of work, we are propelled instead by very real fears of debt and disappointing others who have put a LOT into our upbringing. So we accept a job that will pay the bills, and we tell ourselves that we’re doing it, we’re being grown ups!

    Fast forward five, maybe 10 or even 20 years, and uh-oh, what we’re doing, now that we really are grown-ass adults, is just not enough. Sure, we have a comprehensive health insurance plan. Yes, we can pay rent or a mortgage. But do we feel like we’re making a difference? Do we feel like we’re doing work that has purpose or meaning? Are we energized by our next project? Do we feel invigorated or at least buoyed by knowing that we are working within our values? The problem is this – most of us were never encouraged to consider these questions way back in high school or college when we are making educational choices that often impact outcomes that our late teen selves could never have anticipated. The timing of the whole system is off, and our older selves are left holding the bag because of it. And in reality, developmentally, it’s the rare young adult who can envision what a strengths-based, meaning-driven career even means. What I am telling you is this: it’s ok that 21-year-old you did not get the memo about what would look way more important and soul-feeding at 40. It’s not too late. It never is.

    So how can career counseling help? Career counseling focuses on a few things that go way beyond income, yet that’s a very legitimate part of it. It’s a graceful melding of the practical and the dreamy. It’s a strengths-based approach to exploring what’s not working within your work life and to examining what your talents are and how they may better be used to pay the bills AND add value to the “purpose” bank. Career counseling allows you to see that work, in reality, does not need to be an either/or; there are manifold ways for you to create instead a “this AND” scenario in which you work to purposefully design your career and life. You don’t have to operate in the default mode that so many of us adopt when we’re too young to know better and carry with us to the grave.

    For women, career counseling must also explore the undeniable reality that we’re working in a career world that in reality has only been open to us (in the United States) for LESS THAN 6 DECADES. Take a minute to reread that. Workplace discrimination involving gender has only been illegal since 1964, so ladies, we are still in the infancy of this game. The more that we mindfully, deliberately, and unapologetically own what we need out of our own careers, the more we push forward workplace policies and social norms for the girls who are coming along behind us. Let me tell you, they’ll thank us, and we’ll embrace them in return. I’ve never cared for a handshake.

    If you want to start exploring career counseling as it relates to your talents and purpose on your own, I recommend checking out the VIA Strengths assessment. Though this data is applicable to areas of your life far beyond your career, it’s a great start if you’re feeling ready to dip your toe into researching what might come next professionally. To dig in some more, check out my services as they relate to career counseling and identity work.

    And ask yourself, is it the work itself? Or is it my work environment? And stay tuned for next week’s blog about part two!