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What Is an Intelligent Career?

An Extended Answer to a Basic Question

We are three scholars writing our first blog for Psychology Today. We address a simple question about our work that calls for a considerable answer, and one directly relevant to our book. We ask you to engage with this blog in two roles: first, as someone interested in how we apply psychology in our work, and second, as someone likely to be directly interested in our message. Allow us to address you, for now, in the second of those roles.

What is an intelligent career? In our view, it means applying your intelligence from two separate standpoints. The first involves taking stock of where you are in your career right now. The second involves taking action informed by what you have learned about your present situation. Let us look further at each of these.

Taking stock not only involves gathering the kind of self-knowledge psychologically trained career counselors commonly apply to discover your interests, values, personality type or strengths. It also involves looking more deeply at the range and relevance of your career experiences, and at the way relationships have shaped your career to this point. An important part of doing this involves seeing how your self-knowledge, career experience and relationships have been interacting with one another.

We employ a simple framework for understanding these interactions, concerned with why, how, and with whom you work. Why you work involves the kind of things career counselors test for, broadly concerned with your motivation to work. How you work involves your skills and knowledge, and the learning you are pursuing to develop these further. With whom you work reflects your interaction with bosses, peers, mentors, protégés and communities both inside and outside your present employer. The dominant view in career advising assumes that why you work will influence how you work. That is, your overall motivation will influence how you approach a job and in turn your success in that job. The popular Strengthsfinder tool concurs with this view, encouraging you to pursue your self-described strengths in your work.

Things get more interesting, however, when you think about a reverse relationship, in which how you work influences why you work. We report a story about Sarah Robinson (a pseudonym), marked as “most likely to succeed” by her professors when undergoing teacher training. The transition from training to teaching brought her into contact with political and philosophical differences her instructors hadn’t warned about, and after trying jobs at three different schools she left the profession. Experts from other disciplines might have said “We told you so.” For them, the job would have looked too demanding for a novice worker facing the competing agendas of her bosses and peers. Those demands in turn could be predicted to affect Sarah’s motivation.

Things get more interesting again when you bring in the question of with whom you work. Career advisers often use a “party” exercise where you envision a room with six groups of people, where each group has different interests. They then invite you to choose which group you would go to first, then second, then third to determine the kind of people you would like to work with. Again, the emphasis is to begin with why you work, but this time to see it influencing with whom you work in shaping your career. In contrast, many social psychologists and sociologists would protest that the more important influences lie in the reverse direction, that is, in the roles of work groups, peers and bosses in affecting your motivation.

To complete the picture, how you work can influence with whom you work, as leadership scholars emphasize, and with whom you work can influence how you work, as experts on group dynamics and the widely observed “groupthink” phenomenon would suggest. In sum, there are solid reasons to conclude that all three of why you work, how you work and with whom you work can influence one another. Figure 1 provides a simple schematic of these interdependent relationships.

Michael Arthur
Source: Michael Arthur

We invite you to look at each of the questions why, how, and with whom do you work separately, and then to reflect on the links between them. In our book, we illustrate these with music executive Jean-Luc Brès, who claims to have never made career plans but instead to have taken on one project at a time, guided by criteria about “the money I can earn, my interest in the work, and the people I can work with.” As he describes his career in greater detail, it becomes evident how his own variation of why, how, and with whom he works brought him from an entry-level position to CEO of a major company division. (Since our book went to press, he has taken stock once more, and left that position to seek further projects as an independent consultant.)

The better you can take stock of your career, the better you will be able to move to our second standpoint, that is, taking action. Here, we encourage you to claim ownership of your career by using the above framework to recognize and organize a series of career themes that are important to you right now. Then we ask you what actions you would like to take for each theme, and thereby initiate and develop your future career behavior. You can consider your themes to be relatively stable, but also to shift in response to future work experiences.

An example of shifting career themes comes from former pancake-house waitress Barbara Harris. Having successfully raised their own children, Barbara and her husband took on the foster-parenting of four successive drug-addicted babies from the same mother. At this point, Barbara set out to help other drug-addicted women (and men) receive long-term birth control, through what became the international charity Project Prevention. When she first became a foster-parent, her career themes would reflect: the energy to do something new; feeling stuck in the same job; being part of a good parenting team; and having a stable home. However, as her charity took off she needed to take on new themes such as running the charity; public speaking on its behalf; and facing emergent opposition (which largely came from people wanting to focus on drug-taking directly rather than on its downstream effects). We might imagine, too, that Barbara’s identity changed markedly—from waitress and empty-nest mother to her charity’s chief executive and spokesperson.

What are your career themes? How has your identity changed in response to new work experiences? More specifically, what action steps make sense for you right now in your career? These are questions you can ask yourself, but also ask other people in your life. The more you ask them, the more you can prompt the wider assumption of intelligent careers in the workplace.

The changing world of work calls for further questions. What are the skills you need to take the actions you identify? What about keeping up with technology, and using it to communicate what you can do? What about professional communities, and community-building over the Web? What about working with employers on your terms as much as their terms? What about valuing stories, both for what you can learn and how to better tell your own? What about building your social world through your future career? We have no space to cover these questions here, but we will do so in future writing.

In conclusion, the subtitle of our book refers to taking ownership of your work and your life. We have tried to outline here how you can do that. Ask yourself good questions, take stock, and then take action. Never give up, and always direct your actions toward the kind of world you wish to see around you. We have also suggested a way you can help other people—as a friend, manager, or career adviser—to take ownership of their careers.


Michael B Arthur, Svetlana N Khapova and Julia Richardson An Intelligent Career: Taking Ownership of Your Work and Your Life. Published on January 2, 2017 by Oxford University Press. Available from December 5, 2016 on Amazon Kindle.