The Complexity of Career Planning

puzzlepiecesI’m currently studying complexity theory, the way “patterns emerge through the interaction of many agents.”* Because the actors and issues and environment continually change, patterns also change as they emerge, stabilize, and then perhaps dissipate. Observation and flexibility are the keys here.

This seems particularly applicable to planning and navigating careers. Since everything is in flux—organizations, technology, economies, the environment, politics, relationships, and YOU—we’re aiming at moving targets. Preparation for a career can take years as we study, develop skills, and gain experience. When we finally get “there,” the “there” has likely changed.

So in order to prepare for the evolving and complex landscape of the future, developing the skills of observing, learning, and adapting is critical. “Probing” is key. Your liberal arts education at the University of Pennsylvania provides a foundation for this perspective. I encourage you to observe, question, discuss, and engage as often as possible. In the realm of career planning, this means opening up to a range of options. If you have already identified a career goal, plan for it and pursue it while simultaneously continuing to learn about other opportunities and how they are similar to or differ from your initial focus. If you are exploring career options or haven’t yet begun to do so, jump in and learn about career possibilities in every setting. Pay attention to the work that people do and ask them questions about it. Whatever it is that you enjoy doing, do it! And talk to others who also do it to see if/how they’ve used their skills in professional settings.

The best tactic, the one that will help you adapt to how the future unfolds, is to explore.

 

*From Kurtz, C.F., Snowden, D. J. “The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-Making in a Complex and Complicated World,” in IBM Systems Journal (42:3), 2003.

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Get Lucky

This week I attended a wonderful panel discussion featuring alumnae who were all varsity athletes. They discussed the success they have achieved in a variety of fields, and described how their experience as student athletes prepared them for their professional lives.

One panelist made the following comment (I am paraphrasing): everyone’s career is the result of chance, typically a chance meeting with someone who introduced the person to a field, a company or an opportunity. Although it may not seem to be true when everyone you know is purposefully interviewing in OCR, the fact is that we end up in our life’s work by happenstance. In fact, there is a wonderful book that describes this: Luck in No Accident: Making the Most of Happenstance in your Life and Career by Krumboltz and Levin. Their Happenstance Learning Theory attempts to put clients in a position to transform unplanned events into learning opportunities.

This is what we try to do in our work with Penn students. I myself do not believe in any kind of magic matching system that takes answers you provide on an instrument or survey and determines what is your best career fit. Such exercises may well be valuable in your self-assessment, as a way to learn more about your strengths, but they do not have The Answer, or the perfect match.

By all means have a plan, at least for the short term. But be open to opportunities, ideas, directions that present themselves to you. Branch Rickey of Brooklyn Dodgers (and Jackie Robinson) fame once said, “Luck is the residue of design.” That is undoubtedly true. It is important to prepare yourself, and to plan. But luck can present itself in many guises, and may be hard to recognize. Be alert to opportunities as you face them, this year, and throughout your career, so you can make the most of them. May you be lucky, again and again.

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Working in the Complaints Department

Last week I went to a comedy show in Old City where the comedians and most of the audience were in their 20s, perhaps some in their early thirties.  One comedian, riffing on the strange habits of co-workers, began his set up with this question to the audience: “How many of you don’t like your jobs?”

Guess what? There were about 3 people, including myself and my friend (a law professor) who indicated we were happy with our work.  I imagine this crowd of Millennials isn’t exactly a random sample; but with all these dissatisfied employees, needless to say there were some good implications for MY job as a career counselor.  Clearly there will be a demand for the kind of service I provide from the upcoming generation.

And so I began to wonder, what was going on?  Was this about the economy and the lack of opportunity for 20-somethings?  Was this about the contagion of emotions, so if you work in a place with a negative atmosphere or are surrounded by friends with discontented attitudes you too may adopt the negative mood? Is it just plain cooler to complain?

I admit I don’t yet have an answer to the questions posed.  I could see that there may be some positive value in being collectively disgruntled, a strength in feeling that if things aren’t “right” at least you can commiserate.*  But my reaction is to consider the opposite approach: that finding what you like in work gives you the energy to address problems or make changes and a sense of purpose and satisfaction.   For example, there I was on my time off, finding the opportunity to think a little more deeply about my work while listening to the audience laugh at the pitfalls of a comedian with a coworker who blamed the office printer for the flatulent noises coming from his cubicle.

Few individuals find their work life perfect, but each can make the choice of focusing on what they do enjoy.  Like today’s Millennials, I graduated from college into a recession, and along with many other young people landed two part time jobs doing entry level work that was not very intellectually engaging.  Even so, I found that I enjoyed a feeling of professionalism, because I knew the employers I worked for needed my efforts, I liked helping people, getting recognition for my work, and organizing and implementing my own projects.  Eventually I chose my profession, returning to school for a graduate degree in counseling based on the insights I gained from my administrative positions.

You can find your work in the “complaints department,” perceiving your experience as bad if there are elements you don’t like, but even a job with clear limitations – one that is frustrating or “dead end” – can give you something positive in the future including an ability to face challenges, know yourself better, and at the very least make a memorable joke.

* There is a fair amount of information out there about how negativity affects the workplace. See this article on complaining in the workplace and note Wharton Professor Sigal Barsade’s work.  (Also see: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=1708.)

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Using your liberal arts education for the common good – Q & A with Wyn Furman, CAS 2009

Wyn Furman graduated from Penn in 2009 with double majors in History and French. She is currently the Manager of Community Research for The San Diego Foundation, a community foundation that stewards philanthropic funds on behalf of the San Diego region. She recently shared her thoughts on her nonprofit career with Career Services.

 

1.       What got you interested in working for a nonprofit, and in the philanthropy field, specifically?

My interest in working in the nonprofit sector developed when I realized how much I had benefited from the generosity of others—particularly in receiving my education—which made me want to “give back” through my work. Arriving at Philanthropy was a happy accident. In our field, we feel that people don’t graduate from college hoping to enter our line of work, probably due to a lack of familiarity with this part of the nonprofit sector. As a result, some of us are hoping to introduce more intentionality to this career path by encouraging young talent to pursue philanthropy sooner.

2.       Can you tell us a little bit about what you do and why it’s important?

Primarily, I serve our donors by helping them learn more about the issues and organizations to which they would like to dedicate funds. This includes providing background on challenges our region faces and even evaluating organizations’ financial position via tax records (which I enjoy, even though I was a history major!).  In addition to the research component, I also solicit reports from organizations that describe the work they do with grants from our donors.

The aim of my work is to help donors feel more informed when deciding which organizations to support. This is great for the community because we help donors act on their passions. For instance, we’ve had donors who read about an organization in the paper call us to vet the organization before making a grant. In those cases, we’ve helped turn news coverage into dollars that support the community!

Our capacity for research is also among the services that help distinguish The Foundation from other institutions that manage charitable funds, like banks. Although my role is “behind the scenes,” I think it is important because I provide tools that help my colleagues strengthen their relationships with donors, and that help donors feel more connected to the community. It’s a win-win that ultimately benefits our region.

3.       What are the different hats you’ve worn since joining the San Diego Foundation?

I started by helping to coordinate Our Greater San Diego Vision (www.OGSDV.org), a campaign that engaged 30,000 people across the greater San Diego region in planning for its long-term future. After more than a year and a half in that position, the bulk of the project was complete, so I chose to apply for the newly created position of Manager, Community Research.

This work draws on the regional knowledge I gained by working on Our Greater San Diego Vision. The nice thing about moving from a programmatic role (working on the Vision) to donor stewardship is that I have a solid understanding of the responsibilities and priorities of our two major areas of operation, and relationships throughout our organization. This has led to being engaged in some exciting projects and discussions in which I might not otherwise have been involved.

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A Penn Road Less Travelled By: A Career in International Development

By Hannah Peterson (C ’12)

“Wow, that’s so amazing. I wish I could do something like that!”

“I’m so jealous of you. You’re actually going to be helping people, while I’m sitting stuck at my desk all day”.

“That’s such a great decision, I wish I had decided to travel while I was young.”

These were the responses I heard over and over again by my friends, classmates and family when telling them my decision to move to Nicaragua to work for a community development non-profit after graduation.  There were feelings of jealousy, regret and paralysis, and I couldn’t understand it, because there was absolutely nothing stopping them from making my same decision.

As I was starting my final year at Penn I was stuck in the age-old dilemma of coming to terms with my future. I put on that pants suit I had spent treacherous hours searching for in the mall the summer before.  I bought myself one of those fancy leather Penn folders and I pasted a smile on my face.  I walked around the OCR career fairs pretending like I was enjoying what I was seeing.  I went through all the motions as I thought I needed to, yet I kept having the feeling that I was choosing the best of the worst option.  Their pen design is better, so I must fit in there.  That recruiter gave me a ping pong ball with the company’s logo on it, they must have a fun work environment.  When trying to write my cover letters it was painful to find reasons I wanted to work at each firm.  In fact, what I found myself searching for on each of their websites was their charity work they in order to convey any genuine interest in my statement.

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