Career Choice: Easy for Superheroes, Hard for Us

Spider-Man and the Power of Person-Environment Fit

Posted Nov 06, 2012

The proliferation of Superhero flicks, popularity of Comic-Con, and the expanding reach of Marvel and DC Comics all testify to the obvious: people love superheroes. There are many reasons for this, but one of them has to be envy. Seriously, who among us hasn’t imagined how great it would be to wake up one morning with superpowers? One accidental chemical bath and you’re stretching your body into any imaginable form. One newly activated mutant gene and you’re able to manipulate the weather. One brief exposure to cosmic radiation and you find yourself with superhuman strength, stamina, and a very helpful resistance to physical injury. This would make choosing a career path easy. Many people spin their wheels for years trying to figure out the right line of work for them. But find yourself with a useful superpower, and it isn’t a stretch to see that a lifetime of fighting crime is a career choice that just makes good sense.

Psychologists point out that one of the most critical factors in making a wise career choice is “person-environment fit.” People have unique patterns of interests, abilities, personality, values, etc., and jobs are unique too, in terms of what needs to get done, what skills are required, what kinds of rewards are offered, etc. The challenge is figuring out what career path is the best fit for the kind of person you are. This is not a complicated concept, but the task is much easier for superheroes than for the rest of us.

To illustrate, take Peter Parker. A fateful spider bite spawned his transformation from skinny, clumsy teen one day to web-shooting , wall-climbing Spider-Man the next. Once he understood that “with great power comes great responsibility,” it wasn’t a leap for Peter to conclude that fighting New York’s evil villains was a vocation that fit his strengths extremely well. Now imagine that Peter had squashed the offending spider before its bite, never to enjoy the benefits (or endure the drawbacks) of life as Spider-Man. Peter may have wondered, as most of the rest of us did (or do), what kind of career path he ought to pursue. Given what we know about Peter, he likely would have scored high on trait measures of abilities having to do with science. He also might have scored high on Investigative and Artistic interests, given his enjoyment of science and photography. A personality test might have shown Peter to be reasonably conscientious and open to experience. This pattern of characteristics may have led Peter to choose a career as a reporter, a research scientist, an engineer, or perhaps a college professor. Daily Bugle photographer probably was a good fit, but we can assume that Peter would have worked a lot harder to capture Spider-Man shots for page 1 without his double-identity in place.

Career counselors generally assume that work-related traits can be measured using psychological tests, and that scores on these tests predict real-life outcomes like happiness on the job. Research has generally supported these assumptions, but because there are so many human traits relevant for choosing a best-fitting career, because we are still learning about how all these traits interact, and because multiple occupations (not just one) usually are available to satisfy any one person’s unique combination of traits, choosing a career remains as much an art as it is a science—at least for us non-superheroes.