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Career Exploration…the Beginning

by Mary Mazzoni on August 5, 2011

Teens often feel real pressure to make big decisions about their future. But just last week, a friend, who is a well-respected professional, told me: “I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up”.

This is the first of several posts on the topic of career exploration. Today we’ll look at some fundamentals.

It’s a Lifelong  Process

Career exploration begins in early childhood and continues throughout life.   As we grow, our passions and interests broaden and change, our skills develop, and the needs of the labor market shift.

A generation ago, most people worked in one career throughout their adult lives.  Now, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans change careers (not just jobs) several times before they retire. Our kids may enter a career ten years from now that doesn’t even exist yet!

There is no such thing as a single “perfect” career for an individual.   The key to a great career match is knowing ourselves well. And finding ways that our gifts, passions and values can meet needs in the current labor market.

Career exploration happens through experiences and relationships. We learn about ourselves as we work and play and volunteer and interact with different people in different situations. We grow, we change, and the world around us changes. This career exploration process is ongoing throughout our lives.

Early Heroes

When young children imagine the future – their dreams turn to their heroes.  A child may want to be a firefighter like Mom, or a nurse like Dad, or a mechanic like Uncle George.   Kids dream of being super heroes, professional athletes, or pop stars.  They want to be “just like” their heroes.

This is a natural part of growing up.  It’s the origin of the term “role model”.  And it’s why we are mindful of the people with whom our child spends time.

Emerging Interests

As they grow, kids develop strong personal interests.  They are drawn to careers associated with these interests.  A boy who loves animals wants to be a veterinarian.  A girl who loves airplanes wants to be a pilot.  Of course, there are many careers associated with animals and airplanes.  But our children may not be aware of the vast array of careers that relate to their interests.

Emotional Investment in Career Dreams

Often, young teens develop a very specific career dream based on their life experience so far, and their emotional connection to a hero or a personal interest.  We can expect teens to be passionately invested in their career dreams.

When we try to impose “adult reason” on our child’s dreams, we’re likely to meet with an emotional response.  If we tell a kid that only one in a million high school athletes becomes a pro football player, how do we expect him to react?  Perhaps he’ll reply:  “I see your point Mom, I’ll choose a different career path.”

Let’s put ourselves in our teen’s place.  Wouldn’t it feel diminishing and disrespectful if someone tried to “talk us out of” our own dreams? The fact is, our kids’ career dreams reveal much about who they are as people and what they hold most dear.  We can learn a lot about our kids by listening to them.

We can also help our kids arrange experiences such as job shadowing, volunteering and mentoring.  These experiences are powerful opportunities for kids to learn more about themselves. We’ll look at them in future posts.

But let’s end today by taking a look at our perspective.

What’s the Real Question?

We often assume the underlying career question is: “What will I be when I grow up?” But, if career exploration continues throughout life, there is no single “what”.

So, how might the whole process change if your child begins with a different question?  With your encouragement and support. The question is there already.  It’s a key question of adolescence.  We can ask it in every season of our lives. The question is:  ”Who am I?”.

How can our kids learn more about who they are?  What kinds of experiences will help them understand their gifts and their interests, their passions and their values?  These are the kinds of experiences that will be the foundation of sound career planning.  From there, we can help kids research career options in all sorts of ways.

But first, let’s help them begin with the real question.

What do you think?

Consider your own career exploration journey.  How did your experiences help you learn more about yourself?  How did you come to understand your values, your passions and your gifts?  Is a career the only way to live out who you are? How do you think parents can best support kids as they consider their future?  We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Photo Credit:  Brooks Elliot at Flickr

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jimnp72 August 14, 2011 at 7:31 am

good research on the topic and a solid post.


Mary January 7, 2012 at 6:27 pm

Thanks for your comment, Jim! I appreciate your encouragement.


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