Sunday, May 9, 1999 (SF Examiner)
Don't discourage friends considering career change
Kathleen Mitchell, SPECIAL TO THE EXAMINER

Most people who are considering a career change have been through some rough times, not just from work dissatisfaction, but from comments made by well-meaning friends and loved ones. These are people who will say, for example, "Let me just play the devil's advocate here and ask you some questions." Usually the questions that follow are not questions at all, but judgments disguised as questions that detail all the reasons the person should not consider changing careers.

"Why do you want to change careers at your age?" "Do you really want to give up what you have and start over?" The career changer hears the message: "Stay miserable. Your productive life is almost over anyway." If a potential career changer looks to you for support, there are several responses that can encourage dialogue between you and that person.

Try to avoid asking, "What do you want to do?" Questions beginning with "what?" are looking for a definitive answer. People considering a career change are moving away from what they have done; yet they have not arrived at where they are going. They are in an open-minded state where generating and experiencing options are more important than deciding a specific career direction. Instead, consider asking: "How would you like to work?" or "With whom would you like to work?" These questions will promote a discussion about work style, values and purpose.

Try to avoid the urge to match career changers to work they have done. In our American culture, we want to fix a person's career dilemma by matching people to what we think they can do based on work done. "Oh, you don't like nursing? What about a career in some other area of health care?" The person, on the other hand, may want to explore new areas of curiosity.

Instead, consider encouraging the person to look into areas of curiosity. Research has shown that curiosity does not decrease with age. What seems to decrease with age is other people's encouragement to investigate emerging areas of curiosity. Career interests are developed throughout life by taking action on our curiosity.

Try to avoid using the expression "start over" when discussing a career changer's ideas. This discounts all the skills and wisdom the person brings from one work situation to the next. Most of all, the expression overlooks the person's eagerness to discover.

Instead, consider using statements that convey trust in the person's ability to learn. Most people grow dissatisfied with their career, not because they can no longer do the work, but because they are no longer challenged and able to grow. Skills and career interests are developed at any age. A statement like, "Think about all the exciting things you will learn" conveys an enthusiasm and trust in the person's capacity to take pleasure in learning.

The story of Robert Holmes' career transformation demonstrates these points.

For most of his adult life, he was an engineer. At the end of his day, most times tired and uninspired by his work, Holmes would return home and invigorate his spirit by whittling various objects from a piece of wood, taken from the supply he always kept with him since he was 7.

By age 57, he grew more and more dissatisfied with his work as an engineer. He asked himself, "How can I turn the hobby I love into a career?" Although Holmes had no formal training as an artist, he and his wife decided to investigate how galleries in the Los Angeles area would receive his sculptures. During his exploration, he happened upon the gallery owner who brought Rodin's work to the United States.

The owner agreed to display Holmes' work, providing he transformed his wood sculptures into bronze. As a result of the meeting - a planned happenstance that he created by taking action and his willingness to learn to work with bronze - Holmes launched his career. And he remains today an internationally acclaimed sculptor.

Career growth is a process, not an event. For Holmes and others who have changed careers in their 40s, 50s and older, time does not start to run out when one reaches a certain age. Instead, time provides the opportunity to act and to transform how and why we have worked into opportunities to become more ourselves in our work.

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Copyright 1999 SF Examiner