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Chris Targett
31 March 2016

Every day we tell stories of the things we do, adventures we have and daily dealings with other people. It is in offering anecdotes to each other (in what we can call the small conversations) that, we begin to explore what is valuable to us. Through this aural tradition we use words to carve meaning into our everyday lives and pin our fleeting memories down in dialogue, writing and rewriting them with each telling, with the stories sometimes remembered more clearly than the facts of our days; through narrative, beliefs take hold and ideas flourish… good and bad. 

We have ideas which seem to reverberate and echo through the generations, evolving with a life of their own and living on, regardless of how meaningful or truthful they might actually be. One of these ideas is the question traditionally offered from teacher to student or parent to child which, asks “What do you want to be when you are older?” followed swiftly by the statement “If you don’t have a plan you won’t succeed”.

Yet how useful is this question, seemingly designed to elicit terror and a call to action in our young people? From a theoretical perspective it ties to the entrenched idea of trait and factor developed by Frank Parsons at the start of the 20th century where by, if you can get a match between what someone is good at and enjoys, to the factors in a particular occupation, career success will be achieved; it is however a big “if”. Donald Super and his life span theory reminds us that, from about aged thirteen to our late twenties, people often travel through an explorative phase, trying out a wide range of careers ideas and opportunities before they find one which they wish and are able to pursue. John Krumboltz reminds us to seek opportunities in unplanned events and be open and curious to new ideas; in doing so we are more likely to find that which will ignite our hearts and minds. Recent chaos theory throws doubt on the actual ability to find a fit through a trait and factor approach, as people and the labour market change too swiftly to make any “objective” choice.

These theories are at odds with our traditional question so, why do we continue to ask it? Is it a lack of reflection on how careers actually develop, or panic and fear for our young people; with us just wanting something for them? Such a question encourages us all to think in a trait and factor fashion, even though much of our recent thinking shows this to be a blind alley. Through such a rigid fixation we are being counterproductive; when we should (according to more recent ideas) be encouraging flexibility, versatility and resilience, we are teaching rigidity, narrow mindedness and a desire to pin all our hopes on a single pathway. Such questioning may lead to disappointment, disillusionment and a dashing of hopes.

Hope is of course a useful and powerful motivator but, blind hope can be damaging in the longer term. We have to strike the balance of finding a direction, with the pragmatism of how the labour market and opportunity operates. As educationalists, career management professionals, friends and family we can become more helpful to our young people by a simple change of question. Instead of asking (singular) “What do you want to be when you are older?” we can offer instead, “What things might you like to try in the future?” Such a change of question recognises that many of us will have more than one career or job, that our ideas and the labour market will change over our lifetimes and crucially, it is ok to not have an idea, when you are fifteen or sixteen years old of what you wish to do with the rest of your life!

At fifteen many of us probably won’t have had enough experience to decide yet what we wish to do. However, individuals can start to find out what is available and make an educated guess with guidance, as to whether we would like to take a step in a certain direction or keep options open for a range of future possibilities. We can begin to hope but also explore and become curious as to what else might be possible; as long as our environment enables us to change our mind without fear of reprisal or judgement.     

It is important that we recognise that cultures within any institution are grown through the small conversations and the actions of its community; this relates to the concept of Community Interaction set out by Bill Law in his work. Examples we offer and role models we discuss, through to the questions we ask, set the tone within our environment. Cultural attitudes are complex and strange, sometimes growing not from a concise mission statement but as a meme; being an idea or behaviour that spreads from person to person within a culture. For example there are some schools where the majority of the students aim for University afterwards, not because they are explicitly told to do so or encouraged to by the school but because it is just “what everyone does”. Similar is true of other schools where students go and “find a job or trade” because, that is “what we do”.

We need to ensure the cultures we develop through our conversations, offer up room and thinking space for students to consider all their available choices and not artificially pressurise them into thinking they must choose a singular or specific option for the rest of their lives, whether through overly judgemental statements with regards their decisions or the unconscious bias within an institution. It is the actions we take and stories we tell each other openly and in private, between role models and those that look up to them which, can be the most pervasive. For those of us in a position of influence and trust we must remember that passing comments, often well meant, can change the directions our students take in their lives; like ripples in a pond.

Written by: Chris Targett

Originally published on CXK blog, Thursday 12th November 2015

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