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Give Your Career Mindset a Tune-up

Four ways to get out the three boxes of life.

Your career mindset, the mental image you have of your life career pattern, starts to take shape the first time you're asked what you want to do when you grow up. For many of us, that career mindset fits the traditional pattern of the "three boxes of life:" go to school, work, and retire. Throughout our worklife, we imagine that we'll go through some type of steady progress of advancement in linear fashion. This traditional career mindset is remarkably resistant to change. We believe the story that our teachers, parents, guidance counselors, and advisors tell us that if we study hard and work even harder, our worklives will follow this traditional career pattern. It goes without saying that because we've been told this so many times, we believe that our happiness and success depends on our sticking with this one job-one life pattern.

There may have been a period in the 1950s and 1960s, during the post-World War II growth era in the U.S. that many workers did progress in a more-or-less regular set of career phases. Blue-collar and white-collar employees alike expected upward mobility through their respective ranks. This three-box model ultimately became the basis for popular vocational development theories that career counselors adopted to work with everyone from high school seniors to pre-retirees.

The most well-known vocational development theory, the Self-Esteem Theory of Columbia psychologist Donald Super, reinforces the traditional career mindset. Super proposed that we proceed in clockwork fashion from stages he called Establishment (20-30 years) through Maintenance (30-50 years) through Disengagement (50-65 years). By the late 1970s, however, the limitations of Super's stages became increasingly apparent. Other vocational psychologists, most notably Richard Bolles, lobbied for a new approach that would recognize the realities of the changing times when fewer and fewer workers were actually fitting that mold.

The three-box theory also ignored the reality of many women in the labor force, whose career trajectories revolved around raising their children. The work lives of non-white ethnic minority and lower social class workers also failed to fit the model, showing much less predictable patterns based on age or time in job. The three-box approach to vocational development only applied to people with orderly careers, and these workers were becoming a smaller percentage of the labor force.

This historical background is important for helping you understand why so many people develop traditional career mindsets. Whether or not the people we know actually fit into the three-box model, we still assume that this is the norm because that's what we were taught. Those people whose careers don’t must have something wrong with them. Even worse, if ours doesn’t fit that pattern, then there must be something wrong with us. Holding onto this career mindset leads us to judge ourselves as abnormal, failed, and flawed.

Luckily, there are new models of vocational development that take into account the reality that the “average” adult career path is a fiction. Learning about these can help you challenge your own career mindset and come up with a better understanding of your vocational past, present, and future.

Career Recycling

In career recycling, people progress two or more times through the typical sequence identified by Super. The recycling can occur due to involuntary or voluntary reasons. Downsizing is one of the primary reasons for involuntary recycling, but people can also seek to change their career gears after realizing that their current path isn’t cutting it for them. Unfortunately, whether or not the recycling occurs for voluntary reasons, people who recycle tend to view themselves in a derogatory fashion if they have the one-job-one-life mindset. If the recycling is involuntary, this mindset will lead your vocational self-concept to erode. However, even if the recycling is deliberate, you may feel that you must be just as flawed because you couldn’t stick with your original career choice. People who cope well with recycling are able to adjust their career mindset to accept the acceptability of recycling. They may even feel fortunate, in the long run, to have explored a new career direction even if it wasn’t a change they initially sought.

Career plateauing

Because we have the mindset that age is (or should be) associated with progress up the career ladder, it can be very difficult to accept our worth when our careers seem to be stalled at a level below our expectations. Your traditional career mindset will only make you feel as much of a failure as if you actually were forced out of your job. Here again, let’s challenge your traditional mindset. Not everyone’s career can show upward mobility particularly when jobs are hard to find and keep. However, if you are hoping for a higher-status job, higher income, and the lifestyle afforded to those on a rung closer to the top than you, it’s worth looking at taking the plunge into career recycling. While you hang out on that plateau, plan your next move, but only if you’re certain that you’re trying to fulfill your inner ambitions rather than the false image of the three-box mindset.

Boundaryless career

When you start to break out of the standard career mindset, you can start to see paths for yourself that you never would have imagined. One assumption that people with a traditional career mindset hold is that they will work for the same company throughout their life. Perhaps you lived in a town where your parents, their parents, and their parents before them worked for the same company. It never would have occurred to anyone to change employers, much less home towns. When you adopt the boundaryless career mindset, you realize that if you’re not satisfied with your current employer, it’s okay to find a new employer. You can set aside misplaced company loyalty and instead maximize your opportunities for realizing your vocational self-concept in a company that more closely suits your interests, abilities, and values.

Protean career

People who adopt a traditional career mindset may believe that they have no choice and, as a result, lose the sense of being in control of their work lives. They feel they have to go through the traditional three boxes of life because if they get off the treadmill, they’ll be lost forever. Feeling that their lives are controlled by these external forces eventually leads to career stagnation. A protean career mindset, in contrast, allows you to see your career as self-directed rather than being determined by external forces. Being self-directed allows you to feel that you can express your own values and identity in your work. We know from the extensive research done on the self-determination theory of motivation and work that the more you feel in control of what you do in your job, the more intrinsically rewarded you are. The more intrinsically rewarded you feel, the more you feel your job expresses your true identity.

The second component of the protean career mindset is that it is “values-driven.” This means that you follow your own inner voice rather than just reiterating the company mantra. Ultimately, you’ll judge your success by how you feel about what you’ve done than by how others judge you. Whistle-blowers are a great example of people who follow a protean career. They take risks in exposing the company’s abuses, but the risks allow them to experience a greater sense of fulfillment because they have followed their internal values of right and wrong.

Now you’ve seen how the traditional career mindset may be keeping you from actualizing your vocational identity. You may not be ready now to take the steps involved in becoming boundaryless, protean, or even recycled, but by challenging the three-box model of life, you’ve taken the first step to the benefits of a career mindset tune-up.

You can gain greater insights into what jobs are right for you by checking out my previous blog posting "Your Vocational Type: The Key to Job Fulfillment."

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012

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