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How people choose 'career paths'

STANFORD -- When John Krumboltz was 10 years old, he wanted to be a doctor.

Then, during a neighborhood accident, he witnessed a compound fracture.

"I immediately suffered an attack of nausea that forced me to leave the scene," Krumboltz said. "Thinking about it later, I arrived at a self-evident truth: I could never become a physician. I imagined a scenario where I am in my examining room, a patient is brought in with a broken bone, and I proceed to vomit all over the patient.

"It was so obvious to me that this would preclude me from a career in medicine that I never discussed it with anyone."

Krumboltz had jumped to the wrong conclusion. However, the incident did more than discourage him from a career in medicine; it was the beginning of his lifelong investigation into just how people choose their career paths -- or whether they "choose" them at all.

Now a Stanford University professor of education, Krumboltz is a former Guggenheim Fellow and the current holder of the Leona Tyler Award of the American Psychological Association -- the nation's foremost award in the field of counseling psychology.

Krumboltz has identified hundreds of self-defeating beliefs, among them:

  • "If I can't have the best, I don't want anything at all."
  • "If I don't make more money than my father, I'll consider myself a failure in life."
  • "If I fail, I feel better knowing that I had not tried very hard."
  • "If I only could do this, then I would be happy."

His own childhood yearning for a medical career, Krumboltz says, was guided by several false beliefs: that nausea at the sight of blood is a permanent affliction that cannot be overcome, that no one who has this affliction can become a doctor, and that the evidence is so compelling that no discussion is warranted.

He learned, much later, that this squeamishness is a temporary response that can be overcome rather easily, that many physicians have had to overcome it, and, most important, that talking about assumptions is a good way to test whether they are true.

One student in a 1987 study by Krumboltz and colleague Lynda Mitchell was convinced his parents would disown him if he majored in sociology and not engineering. For two years, the student had avoided declaring a major.

"First, the counselor worked with him to examine the evidence that his parents would disown him if he were to major in sociology, and second, to consider whether life would really be unbearable if they did," Krumboltz said.

The student's assignments included discussing his feelings honestly with his parents. He discovered that his parents had been promoting an engineering major because they thought they were supporting his wishes. As a result of these discussions, he declared a sociology major.

A decision they 'never knew they made'

According to Krumboltz, however, the biggest mistaken assumption is one held by society at large: the assumption that career decisions happen "naturally."

Many young people never make a career decision, Krumboltz said, they simply follow a path of least resistance. Summer jobs become permanent ones; family or friends pressure young people toward options that avoid temporary unemployment.

"This is a big problem in society -- and it's overlooked and unrecognized," he said. "Here is a decision that affects everything in our future -- not just how we spend eight hours a day, 50 weeks a year -- but probably who we're going to marry, the neighborhood in which we live, who our friends are going to be, and how much money we have to spend.

"A decision with such profound consequences deserves careful study. How much time do young people spend planning it and considering options? Many give more thought to choosing a new pair of shoes. For many people, it's a decision they never knew they made -- it was made by default."

Society's inattention is largely to blame, Krumboltz said.

"Most schools, for example, don't have a course on life planning," he said. "If kids spent as much school time on planning their futures as they do calculating the length of a hypotenuse, they could avoid many unwise career choices. For many, there is no mechanism for career planning. It's a spare-time activity.

"Helping people figure out what use to make of their precious lives is a crucial task. People's sense of personal worth and their motivation to achieve depend on finding a direction that makes sense to them."

The situation may be exacerbated by the "widening gap" between the adolescent and adult worlds, he said.

"How many children imagine they will become educational researchers -- or insurance claims investigators?" Krumboltz asked.

"Additionally, children can seldom see what parents do when the parents commute to work or have jobs that are hard to observe (such as the paperwork jobs of many white-collar workers) or off-limits to children (such as industrial plants)."

Also, he adds, the decision-making process has been complicated by the increasing desire for high-prestige jobs: doctor, lawyer, professor.

"When I meet people outside of Stanford, they often look up to me simply because I'm a Stanford professor," Krumboltz said. They don't know how well I do my job. People are judged on their membership in an occupation -- not on how well the job is done. I took my car to a mechanic yesterday -- gosh, he's a talented guy! He gets my highest prestige rating because of the quality of his work.

"Prestige accrues to those with fancy job titles -- not necessarily to those who do good work. This morning my garbage was picked up. Quietly, and on time. It's wonderful. People who do that deserve credit and thanks. But they don't even get much respect."


When Krumboltz accepted the Leona Tyler Award last fall, he aroused some controversy among colleagues by calling attention to "occupationism" -- a form of discrimination he finds just as bad as sexism, racism, or ageism.

"They are all forms of judging individuals on the basis of their membership in a group," he said.

"What's the harm of occupationism? The harm is that people are often dissuaded from going into occupations in which they would be quite successful and happy because these occupations are not ranked high enough in the prestige hierarchy.

"A classic case is the occupation of teacher. I remember well the snide comments that were made in undergraduate school about those members of our class who were planning to be teachers. . . . But good teachers make immensely important contributions to our society.

"We need to launch a campaign to make occupationism as unpalatable as sexism and racism. Only then will we be able to help people find work activities that are enjoyable and, at the same time, enable them to retain the respect of their families and friends."

Krumboltz points out that, in our society, not even those in "acceptable" professions are immune to the craving for prestige.

He recalls a friend and counselor confiding his own sense of failure.

"He was a great counselor," Krumboltz said. However, over lunch, I learned how unhappy he was. He envied a colleague who had his name in the paper. He wanted to be sought out nationally for his opinions and advice. I told him 'Yes, but there are people lining up outside your door to consult with you.'

"Two months later, he died of a heart attack. Six hundred people came to his funeral. You should have heard the testimonials -- people described how much they loved him, how much he had helped them. They had no idea he considered himself a failure."



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