Stop Saying Career “path”!
By Eric Anderson
Career “Path” makes career plans seem predictable
The image of a career as a “path” is a barrier because the visibility and stability of a footpath implies that the analogous career paths that our clients plan to implement are also visible and stable, and therefore predictable. We all know that careers do change, and that they are unpredictable, but the way we work with clients using conventional career development theories suggests that we are confused. Many of us explain this unpredictability within the “path” image by incorporating “the unknown around the next bend in the path” in an attempt to allow for happenstance. This is unwittingly problematic because, as George Lakoff demonstrates in both Metaphors We Live By, and Philosophy in the Flesh, our reasoning is shaped by the metaphors we use, and in spite of adding bends to the image, the metaphor of a career “path” continues to embed in our minds the ideas of visibility, stability, and predictability. I believe that this is one of the reasons why, in spite of plentiful anecdotal examples of happenstance, the reality of chance and unpredictability has trouble “sticking” in our minds.
The concept of happenstance in career planning has been around since Mark Miller’s 1983 Vocational Guidance Quarterly article, and the concepts of chance and accident playing a role in career planning have been around since the early 1950s, yet most of us still don’t routinely incorporate happenstance into our career planning conversations. But we should, and there is a simple way to do this.
Career “Voyage” provides a more accurate image
A better term is the career “voyage”, a journey in a sailing vessel, perhaps visualized complete with crew members from a client’s community who help keep the vessel headed in the desired direction. In the “voyage” metaphor, as in life, there is still some degree of control (turning the rudder, adjusting the sails), and there is also some degree of happenstance (shifting wind direction and moving water currents). Clients also react to the concurrent voyages of others; the boats of other voyagers affect their journey in both expected and unexpected ways, too. A “voyage” intrinsically embeds some unpredictability into our concept of planning, and makes happenstance less surprising. It normalizes happenstance.
Using Career Voyage with Clients
When meeting with my traditional-age college students, I use the career voyage as a response to their perception that they are making plans “for the rest of their lives”. Telling traditional students that they will have several unpredictable careers during their working life is too vague to be helpful. When I explain how the unpredictability of career and life planning is more like a voyage than a path, they see that it’s okay to stop taking responsibility for controlling every aspect of their careers.
With my alumni and adult degree students, it’s more a matter of awakening them to what they already know about the unpredictability of life. These clients accept the replacement of “path” with “voyage” readily, as if their intuitive minds have been waiting for a more sensible metaphor. And sometimes they come up with their own appropriate unpredictability metaphors, like “whitewater rafting” or “rock climbing” that work better for them.
So let’s replace “career path” with “career voyage” as our standard term for the career experience. It would go a long way toward removing a significant barrier for our students and other clients who struggle to understand the realistic influence they can expect their career plans to have on their career outcomes.
How to do this:
Replace the “career path” with “career voyage” in your print and online materials
Integrate the voyage concept during conversations that focus on predictability in career planning
Affirm flexibility with clients’ own unpredictability metaphors that work well for them.
Krumboltz, J. D. (2009). The Happenstance Learning Theory. Journal of Career Assessment, 17, 135-154.
Krumboltz, J. D., & Levin, A. S. (2010). Luck Is No Accident: Making the Most of Happenstance in Your Life and Career. Atascadero, CA: Impact.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live by. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought. New York: Basic.
Miller, M. J. (1983). The role of happenstance in career choice. The Vocational Guidance Quarterly, 32, 16-20.
Eric Anderson is the Director of Career Development at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. He began his professional career as an industrial chemist, and then made a transition to college student development. He has over 23 year of experience in career development, and has provided a variety of national conference presentations, including: The future is actually behind us: why chaos and happenstance theories are counterintuitive (2012), Postmodern career development and eclecticism (2006), Spiritual career retreats (2004), and Challenging the rational, structured approach to career development (1995). Eric can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can find some of his other work at www.capital.edu/careerdevelopment.