Sunday, October 25, 1998 (SF Examiner)
In praise of uncertainty
Kathleen Mitchell, SPECIAL TO THE EXAMINER

Entrenched in our American culture is the belief that career planning is a logical and linear activity. From this emphasis on reason and accuracy has emerged a tremendous pressure on people to be certain and to avoid career uncertainty at any cost. This desperate search for certainty can erode curiosity and block interests and careers from developing.

People who are reluctant to answer questions like "What do you want to do?" and "What will you do with that college major?" are inaccurately and unfairly labeled undecided or chronically indecisive. They are actually responding very appropriately to complex questions about their place in an increasingly complicated work world.

Although these inquiries are not inappropriate, the timing is often premature. People who are asked these questions are often expected to choose the right career from more than 12,000 job titles, before exploring even one option, or they are expected to foretell how education will fuse with work in a world that does not yet exist.

Even the experts in employment projection are not sure how the employment situation will look. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that jobs for teachers' aides and educational assistants would increase 18 percent from 1984 to 1995. According to Occupational Outlook Quarterly, however, the actual growth was 63 percent. Electrical and electronics engineers had a healthy projection of 52 percent, but actually declined by 11 percent.

Even experts cannot always anticipate the economic, social and political events that will impact employment. How, then, can college students or people changing careers expect to prepare for the emerging world of work?

Interests, skills and even values are developed throughout life by taking action, even while in the midst of uncertainty. Interests in particular are not just waiting passively to be found through the magic of an interest inventory, but are developed throughout life by taking direction from our curiosity.

Curiosity precedes the development of interests. In other words, career interests are what happen when we follow and act on our curiosity.

Curiosity emerges from uncertainty. Uncertainty, the very state we so desperately try to avoid, is absolutely necessary for curiosity to grow and for career interests and opportunities to develop.

Pasteur advised that "chance favors only the prepared mind," but we do not always need a plan to create a career. Instead, we need a plan to act on happenstance - to transform unplanned events into career opportunity. Uncertainty, curiosity and open-mindedness are three provisions to securing opportunity within chance events.

Careers are linear in foresight, but circuitous in hindsight. "It was being in the right place at the right time" and "one thing led to another" are two expressions we use to obscure the actions we took to create and transform chance events into career opportunity. Our memories, however, do sustain witnessed accounts of unexpected phone calls, chance encounters and impromptu conversations that contributed to our work life in some way.

Buried deep within these memories is the oft forgotten fact that we contributed to the opportunity because we attended to the unexpected, sometimes without knowing how it would turn out. We dropped the need for certainty and replaced it with curiosity, and we acted.

It is healthy to remain undecided - or more accurately, open-minded - as long as we are continually taking action, developing skills and following our curiosity. Those who cannot answer "what?" can still act.

If we act to learn and to develop skills and career interests, even while we are uncertain, we are not meandering. We are actively and vigorously engaging our curiosity to create fulfilling work and a more satisfying life.

Uncertainty inspires our curiosity. The skills needed to sustain curiosity are persistence, optimism, flexibility and open-mindedness. By taking action on our curiosity, we place ourselves in situations where we will create and transform unexpected events into career opportunities.

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Copyright 1998 SF Examiner