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Finding Your Calling
You want a career that will make you happy, but you don't know how to find it? Two psychologists offer advice on where to begin.
Be open to both necessity and opportunity, even if the paths they take us down aren't what we had envisioned for ourselves.
For many recent graduates, work is a key component of their post-college identities. Leaving college is "a major transition point, and during any transition you have a sense of richness and opportunity that is both unnerving and exciting," says psychologist Ann Fleck-Henderson. With transition, there is stress and a sense of loss. Young adults look to work to fill some of the gaps created by graduation, especially the loss of structure and social groups.
Passion is no ordinary word
Creating a personal definition of success is one way to overcome the pressures and fears that hinder the process of finding your calling. Ask yourself what you are passionate about in your life, and write down the things that constitute success for you. Use your notes to compose a definition of success; then revise it until you feel that it is honest and comprehensive. Fleck-Henderson advises grads working on a personal definition of success "to make the personal as important as the success. Maintaining a community, staying connected to one's friends and kin, being involved with one's church if you're a churchgoer-this is all rewarding work that uses skills you develop in college, though it doesn't happen to be rewarded financially."
Read recommends discussing your definition of success with others. "If creating this definition is just a private exercise, you may not be honest with yourself. We share this endeavor-living, career building-with other people, who may have a more objective view of our choices. It can feel risky to share your definition, but the possibilities for self-deception are pretty high if you don't," says Read. Consult your personal definition of success when thinking about career decisions. How do the issues you're considering relate to your definition? Some issues may even make you think about your definition in a new way-be prepared to revise. People also need to revisit their definitions of success every few years. Career planning is possible only up to a point. As we move through our lives and careers, our passions and values may change and our needs become more complex.
The experts' advice? Don't worry too much about making the wrong career choices when starting out. "Going down the wrong path happens so much that it's normal," Fleck-Henderson says, "and it can make you a more valuable employee." Even a position that's not exactly right for you helps you gain experience and skills that you'll bring to your next opportunity. And finding out what you don't want to do is useful career-building information. If you think you have ventured down the wrong path, "don't go it alone," says Read. "Talk to a mentor, a friend, or a relative. Get it outside of yourself. Anyone who finds himself in the position of having chosen a dissatisfying job or career path is not alone."
You may wonder how you'll know when you've found your calling. "It's a little bit like the question, 'How do I know if he or she is the one?'" jokes Fleck-Henderson. She advises students to ask themselves, "Am I getting the rewards I know I want? Am I being true to what I believe is important?" Students drawn to the finance and technology industries probably have little trouble reconciling those two questions. But if your calling directs you toward the humanities or the helping professions, being true to yourself can mean making tough choices. While it may not be difficult to find jobs in these areas, it can be difficult to find positions that pay a decent wage or that use the skills you've learned in college.
"Young adults need an environment that supports their development," says Fleck-Henderson. "And an environment that neglects large parts of who you are, that underchallenges you or underpays you, is problematic." Even students who go into "high-powered" fields sometimes face developmental hazards. She notes that a job that overchallenges you is not supportive of optimal development, either. "If you have a career that doesn't allow you time, not just for family, but time for play, relationships, spirituality, you really have to ask yourself if that's what you want. And maybe it is. But recognize that you are choosing to put all your talents and energies in one direction."
No "wrong" choices
Robert Read and Ann Fleck-Henderson offer academic, psychological, and consultative services at the Bureau of Study Counsel at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass. Fleck-Henderson also teaches at the Simmons College School of Social Work, and Read is on the faculty of Cambridge College.
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