Career Decision Making and Career Planning Are Not the Same Thing

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

People sometimes use the terms “career decision making” and “career planning” almost interchangeably. One reason may be that both the decisions and the plans are supposed to be based on predictions. The decision is based on foreseeing what career choice will be satisfying and will offer opportunities. The planning is based on foreseeing the best pathway for reaching the career goal. However, as Niels Bohr once remarked, prediction is very difficult, especially about the future. Many people who are happy and successful in a career can say truthfully that their choice makes sense only in hindsight and would have been difficult or impossible to predict or plan for.

I offer my own career as a case in point. I showed an early flair for writing and was intrigued with the idea of writing books ever since the children’s author Beman Lord spoke to my fourth-grade class. However, I was even more obsessed with collecting. I started with a rock collection and later branched out to seashells and, to a lesser extent, stamps. I learned all the minutiae of the things that I collected and devised new ways to organize and display them. My parents sometimes speculated that I had a future career as a museum curator.

With adolescence, however, my interest shifted toward collecting odd facts. I remember that after I mentioned some obscure bit of trivia, my eighth-grade wood shop teacher declared me the Official Keeper of Useless Information. In the perfect vision of hindsight, it now appears inevitable that I would find satisfaction and success in writing books that draw heavily on databases of information. What is a database, after all, if not an organized collection of facts?

But it’s important to realize that the word “database” was known to only a few hundred computer scientists and programmers in the early 1960s. In those days, most people didn’t know any databases other than the phone book and the daily stocks-and-bonds listings. Hardly anyone at that time expected that databases would become easy and inexpensive to access and use.

In my first job at Educational Testing Service, I started writing career information for a database, and within a few years I learned how to create and manipulate new databases. My managers recognized my interest and ability with these tasks and encouraged me. Although I learned some programming skills to accomplish my tasks, the programming never interested me as much as finding ways to make the databases helpful to users. Later, JIST Publishing gave me the opportunity to build books around databases of career information.

It was not inevitable that the particular subject matter I would focus on would be careers. (One database I helped design and assemble at ETS was about books for young people.) But one appeal of career information is that it touches on almost every aspect of life and therefore appeals to my broad range of interests.

The main lesson to draw from this account is a recognition of the limitations of career planning. To the extent that planning can be successful, it depends on prediction, and predictions are very unreliable. Occupational specializations that we can’t foresee will emerge in the coming years, and each one will prove to be a good choice for the right kind of person. Like generals planning to fight the previous war, most young people are planning for yesterday’s careers, not knowing what new opportunities will be available. So learn to accept the reality that career decision making and career planning are not the same thing. A lot of career decisions that get made are unplanned, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as John Krumboltz argues.

This does not mean that career strategizing is impossible. The best strategy for facing uncertainty is to be (a) prepared for many contingencies and (b) alert to emerging opportunities. With regard to careers, being prepared for a range of outcomes means getting a broad-based education that equips you with skills for communicating, problem-solving, critical thinking, calculating, and (above all) learning. Being alert to career possibilities means keeping abreast of trends in demographics, technology, popular culture, and business practices and (above all) having a network of contacts in many walks of life. I can’t think of a better way to summarize this two-pronged strategy than the words of the second century sage Simon ben Zoma: “Who is wise? The person who learns from all people.”


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