Solving the Mystery of Your Own Professional Development Story

Like many adults, I have not walked the locker lined hallways of a high school for some years.

What brought me back into that teen-centriCTEc world last week?

I was invited to exhibit at a local high school career fair honoring National Career and Technical Education month (February). This year’s theme is “Invest in Your Future.”

I have absolutely no recollection of a “career fair” happening at my high school and had never heard of National Career and Technical Education month. So, I am now informed and I am definitely pleased to know that career fairs do occur in the high school environment.

My most ingenious ideas for engaging with students included bringing candy (starbursts and mini reese’s cups) and providing miniature bookmarks with the following inspirational quote that I discovered recently:

“The goal of career development is to uncover one’s gifts and passions, and to link them to the practical needs of the world. We call that ‘being in the right place,’ ‘finding a good fit,’ or ‘making the best use of one’s talents.’”
~Bill S. Frank,

Each “exhibitor” was given a table situated along the first and second floors of the main hallway in the school. Having arrived an hour and a half before the fair started, I began to formulate an introductory question to connect with the students. I felt comfortable with “Do you know what a consultant does?” as a lead in to share about my professional path.

I had no idea about what a consultant was or what a consultant did at their age, so I was curious to hear the responses. The #1 response? “Consults.” I have to admit that I was a bit surprised by the fact that students still have no clue about consulting even 15 years after my own high school graduation. image001Obviously, a career fair is an excellent opportunity for young people to learn about different options. So, I definitely commend the organizers of this event for making the effort to expose their students to diverse career paths.

As I stood on my feet for four hours engaging with students as they changed classes, I took the opportunity to ask them about their interests and to encourage them to explore career assessment options. A few students, whom I spoke with, did have some preliminary ideas about career paths that they wanted to pursue.

One young woman shared that she wanted to be a lawyer and that no one else in her family had attempted that career path. I encouraged her to arrange an informational interview in order to talk with an actual lawyer or to do a job shadow to get a better idea of the day to day work of that profession.

My interactions with students made it clear to me that career development is analogous to “solving a mystery”. We are the protagonists in our own professional development story. We need to develop the skills of any competent detective, such as interviewing, investigation, and surveillance, in order to discover the clues that will point us toward academic degrees and work that best match our skills and interests. Did you know that the word “mystery” actually meant “a craft or trade” in archaic times? If we so choose, we are each tasked with solving our own professional life puzzle.

If I had truly gotten clear, during high schoolimage002, about the fact that I was going to spend 8 or more hours of 5 or more days of the week doing work, and that my chosen work would affect my overall health, wellness, and happiness, then I would have spent some time doing career exploration.

Instead, I now realize that due to uncertainty and limited knowledge and skill to acquire career knowledge, I chose the “business” path because I felt uncomfortable with not knowing what I would do with my professional life.

I have been thinking about a psychological term from Erik Erikson’s developmental theory, which I learned about some years ago: identity foreclosure. I believe that I experienced professional identity foreclosure during my teen years. I found the following passage about four distinct identity statuses, which includes a description of foreclosure:

“Identity Statuses
* Identity achievement occurs when an individual has gone through an exploration of different identities and made a commitment to one [or more].

* Moratorium is the status of a person who is actively involved in exploring different identities, but has not made a commitment.

* Foreclosure status is when a person has made a commitment without attempting identity exploration.

* Identity diffusion occurs when there is neither an identity crisis or commitment.

Researchers have found that those who have made a strong commitment to an identity tend to be happier and healthier than those who have not. Those with a status of identity diffusion tend to feel out of place in the world and don’t pursue a sense of identity.”(source article)

In my experience, simply having a strong commitment to an identity did lead to the postulated increased happiness and health effects in the short-term. In thelong-term, professional identity foreclosure eventually caught up with me and I have had to finally embark on the career detective work that I skipped in my younger years to discover sustainable joy in my life and in my work. To our high school students, I say with the wisdom of hindsight, “Start your career exploration now!” Young Girl Looking Down and Road

To parents, counselors, and educators, I implore: “Encourage and cultivate that exploration now!” There’s a long and sometimes winding road ahead…

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