Like many people, the only way I have found to successfully navigate the chaos that is life is to adapt my behavior according to the situation I am in. We all have to wear multiple ‘hats’ during the day, stepping in and out of different roles; the role of employer, of son, of student, of husband, all roles that carry different expectations and responsibilities. The most thrilling and simultaneously terrifying role for me personally is that of a father. I have been blessed with three children, a son and two daughters, all three of which have frequently challenged and inspired me to re-assess my perception of both myself and the world around me. My son is the middle child, confident but quiet. He tends to attribute this characteristic to growing up in a house full of people who never stop talking. A theory which anyone who has ever been invited to dinner at our house could surely validate. As a child, he often hid in his room, taking apart any gadget he could get his hands on, to “see what it looked like inside”. It was apparent to everyone, including himself, that technology fascinated him, and he is now a successful engineer. Any professional hurdles that he ever encountered, simply revolved around how he could achieve his goals, the goals themselves were never a subject in need of much discussion.
My eldest, on the other hand, threw herself into the world of work at a young age, testing the water of vastly different industries, clearly drawn to the challenge of experimentation. Her passion for learning new skills and her natural ability to successfully and quickly adapt to change have allowed her to excel professionally in a variety of fields. Her professional maturity and perceptive nature have often made our conversations more of a give and take; I tend to go to her with dilemmas or ideas as frequently as she comes to me.
Consequentially, conversations with my two eldest regarding their professional lives tend to be quite focused. Should they choose option A or B? How should they deal with a demanding boss or a difficult team member? Our conversations revolve around them voicing concerns while I dive into my personal experience to try and offer guidance, along with a sprinkle of dad jokes for good measure. If they happen to take my advice, then I like to think I earned a parental gold star that day.
Then there’s my youngest. My youngest was still in her teens as the others traversed the path from education to work-life, and as a teenager, she had this uncanny ability to sense when the conversation was shifting to decision-making and careers. She’d roll her eyes, and soon enough, her attention was elsewhere. Whenever the discussion of her future came up, she would sigh, and ask if we could revisit the subject ‘some other time’. I sometimes thought I could smell the boredom seeping through her pores.
Fast forward five years and to my great surprise, ‘some other time’, had finally arrived. My daughter had graduated with a double major in the Humanities: English Literature and Philosophy. After graduation, she had moved to Spain to test her capabilities as an English Language teacher. I have an inkling this was also her way of buying a little more time before she had to deal with the daunting question of ‘what next?’. We nevertheless happily encouraged her adventure, knowing how beneficial and character building traveling and multi-cultural experiences can be. As soon as she returned, I knew that the time had come, my greatest challenge as a father was before me, my youngest was finally ready to actively engage in a session of career planning!
I took a ‘short’ 15-hour drive to Boston, knowing that this would be a much more efficient conversation face-to-face. We went for brunch in her college town, at a café with chairs far too small for her 6-foot, 3-inch father, but I perched gently, hoping they were sturdier than they looked and we began talking. She quickly confessed that she was struggling to figure out what her next step should be. As with many majors in the Humanities and Liberal Arts, the issue is often that the scope of career opportunities is very broad. She had been searching for positions for about a month and was looking for something that (to quote my daughter verbatim) “Doesn’t completely suck”. After just four weeks of this process, she was already feeling pretty dejected, and her initial confidence had been replaced with an overwhelming sense of uncertainty and anxiety.
I then gave her a piece of advice that later inspired me to write this blog, I suggested that she shouldn’t begin her search by simply scanning available positions, nor should she even begin by looking at industries. The first and most important thing she needed to consider was herself. It is my firm belief after 40 years of journeying through the world of work that to be able to make clear and informed decisions and embark on any path with confidence, the key is self-awareness. An understanding of your own behavior, why you react in certain ways in one environment and why you respond differently to perhaps the same situation, but in a different environment. What your attributes are, what are your natural talents or innate strengths, and even more importantly, what are your weaknesses? What triggers you and pushes your buttons? What factors inhibit you from speaking up or successfully contributing in a team environment? Once we start asking ourselves some difficult questions, we start to narrow down the playing field. My daughter was originally considering going back to school to study Law; she was drawn to the romanticized portrayal of lawyers on TV, the empath in her wanted to be able to help people and affect change. However, after a brief discussion about her own behavior preferences it turns out that she, in fact, hates working in rigid environments, she is uncomfortable with hierarchy and absolutely detests bureaucracy and paperwork. How many young adults ‘fall into’ work before considering whether or not they are behaviorally suited to not only the role but the environment? Forget young adults; research suggests the majority of the workforce focuses solely on eligibility, meaning academic qualifications, and neglects the much more valuable factor of behavioral suitability to a job/industry/work culture.
By the end of the discussion, we had translated her behavior preferences into potential industries, then narrowed that down to types of work she would be well suited to, and significantly, we had confirmed not only what type of work environment would help her flourish, but which environments would actually inhibit her from achieving her full potential. Her anxiety and uncertainty were eventually replaced with a renewed confidence and assurance. I saw that she suddenly felt excited about the journey she was embarking on, she no longer saw the broad spectrum of jobs out there as intimidating and overwhelming, but as an opportunity for exploration and research. While I drove home glowing with a sense of parental pride, the reality is that the outcome had nothing to do with me. All I had to do was remind my daughter that while instincts can be helpful, they should not be relied upon in isolation, especially when she has access to valuable information, she simply needs to start asking herself some questions first. Knowledge is power, and knowing yourself is the most valuable asset any person joining a workforce can develop. This information can provide people with tangible factors to search for in a new position, factors which will increase the likelihood of a person enjoying their work. Think about it, if you don’t like your job it is going to be a much more painful road to success.
While no conversation could have given my daughter all the answers she was looking for, I feel confident she can now forge ahead, focusing not only on finding the right fit, but recognizing the value of the unique strengths and attributes she brings to the table. This was just the first step in her journey of self-awareness and development. And while I can’t take credit for the work she put into, and will have to still put into understanding herself, I will still take the gold parental star for sitting in those little, wooden chairs.