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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Career Coach: Figuring Out the Right Questions
April 26, 2009 - 5:42pm


I found you online when you responded to a student's concerns about leaving her academic schoolwork (you posed 8 questions). Am curious if you have a list of questions designed for people wanting to live their mission in life but feel stuck, not exactly sure what it is, or know what it is but aren't moving in that direction.

Thank you,


Dear Samantha:

It seems to me that the most critical issue you raise is uncertainty about what one’s life mission is. It is easy to confuse aptitude or talent with vocation. We all love to excel, and most of us are vulnerable to praise and appreciation. Thus, we may convince ourselves that we are destined to become teachers, mathematicians, or linguists simply because our skills in these areas have garnered us approval, academic honors, or a sense of mastery in the past. It is, unfortunately, not uncommon to “wake up” in midlife to realize that we have been living the ideal life — for someone else. Achieving clarity about how we want to spend our lives is thus of tremendous importance. Our aims may change over the years, but if we’re consistently in touch with our authentic desires, we’re unlikely to make choices we’ll regret deeply.

For this reason, I’m going to concentrate this week on strategies to discover your mission, and save the other issues you raise for a later post.

First, try making a list of all of your vocational aspirations, starting from the earliest. Don’t disqualify any ambition on the grounds that it was ridiculous or unrealistic. Looking at what you wanted to do when you were very young can be edifying, since these fantasies tend to be relatively untainted by expectations based on your perceived strengths.

For each item, jot down any ideas that come to mind about what attracted you to this vocation. Again, don’t omit details just because they seem silly. When you’re done, look over the list, and see if you can discern any common threads.

For example, here is my partial list, with some temporal overlap:

Fairy godmother: Beautiful sparkly dress; magic wand; ability to help people get what they want.

Writer of Archie Comics: Get to make up fun stories about my favorite characters.

Nurse: Cool uniform; interesting adventures with friends [my understanding of the profession was based on the Cherry Ames book series]; chance to help sick people get better.

Veterinarian: Get to spend workday around animals & animal lovers; help sick animals recover.

Actress: Get to spend workday with interesting people, exploring different characters and settings. Also, movies helped to save my sanity during a lonely childhood, and I liked to think of some other miserable kid finding relief and inspiration from my work.

Novelist: Get to spend workday exploring different characters and settings of my own creation. Even more than movies, books saved me from despair, offering me a glimpse and promise of life after childhood, and I hoped to pass the favor on.

Most of these careers don’t seem to have much in common at first glance. However, there is some consistency among my reasons for choosing them: I liked the idea of helping, and I wanted to use my imagination to connect to others. You might predict, correctly, that a child with these aspirations would be drawn to both a helping profession and a creative field. What does your list say about you?

Now make a similar list, of books, films and TV shows you have loved, again starting with early childhood. What drew you to them? Pastoral settings? International travel and adventure? Depictions of collaboration, or independent thinking and action? How do these descriptions relate to those on your career aspiration list?

Moving into the present, think of activities that fulfill you now, independent of financial gain, social prestige, or other secondary advantages. What is it that you get out of each?

Finally, if you were to become financially independent tomorrow, how would you use your time? What would you hope to accomplish?

Consider all of your responses seriously, and look for the ways they tie together. A perfect match between ambition and career may not be possible, but the trends you uncover through this exercise can illuminate your aspirations. A number of attractive possibilities may occur to you. If not, you may wish to bring this self-knowledge into your university’s career counseling center for concrete help in formulating achievable goals.

Have a question for the Career Coach? E-mail her here.


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