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What I Know and Don’t Know About Career Counseling

One coach's candid reflections.

Whether you’re interested in your own growth or are a counselor or coach, I hope you’ll find this helpful.

What I’ve Learned

Perhaps I should have known these things decades ago but my years as a career counselor have taught me that:

  • Many people are fun-centric. They are much more likely to do a task they find fun and easy. One of the more potent questions I ask is, “What would be a fun way to do that?”
  • My experience corroborates independent research that most personality tests, for example, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, add little value to career counseling. My clients derive more benefit more quickly from good questioning about the person’s past experiences and future goals, for example, “What are three accomplishments that you succeeded at and enjoyed?” and “How would you like your next decade to be different from your previous one?”
  • Most people are very resistant to criticism. It’s critical that I look for opportunities to give earned praise and, if I must criticize, do it with great tact, always allowing the client to save face. So, for example, if they’ve been fired or “laid off” a number of times but, in each case, blame the employer or the economy and won’t look at their own contribution to the problem, I’ll say something like, “You’ve had quite a tough run. I’m wondering if it might be worth thinking a little more about whether there’s a lesson or two you could learn from your own performance on those jobs that may make life easier for you on your next job. What do you think?”
  • Many people need things spelled out to a greater extent than I would have thought. The more specific and baby-stepped I make the advice, the happier they are and the more likely they are to follow through. For example, if they want to explore becoming a certain profession, most clients appreciate if I email them appropriate websites, forums, articles, books, and especially names of people they should talk with.

What I Still Don’t Know

Broadly speaking, I’ve found that career counseling to be a lot harder than it may appear.

  • Despite having read and written much on procrastination, for example, this, I still feel I don’t do a good-enough job of motivating the unmotivated. Yes, I can help them decide if a task is worth tackling. Yes, I can help them break it down into baby steps. Yes, I can help structure their time so they’re most likely to get work done. Yes, I can help reduce their fear of failure and of success. Still, too many of my clients do too little to move their lives forward.
  • Too many of my clients have a hard time landing a job. Conventional wisdom is that the best ways are to use your network and to cold-contact target employers who aren’t advertising a job. Yet many of my clients, no matter how carefully coached, use those methods and fail—It takes them so long that they give up before they find decent work. My hypothesis is that the type of people who need to pay a career counselor to help them become well-employed are not the best networkers or cold-callers. If they were, most would have landed a job without having to pay me.
  • I don’t know how to improve my clients' reasoning ability, which is key to success in many professional-level jobs. I try role-playing key situations and offering samples of clear thinking and communication regarding a problem they’re facing but too few clients grow sufficiently.
  • I've learned that most people are good people--they want to choose an ethical path.

Care to share what’ve you’ve learned and haven’t about counseling or coaching?

Marty Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to his articles here on, many more of Marty Nemko's writings are archived on Of Nemko's seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. His bio is on Wikipedia.