The best careers advisor ever

This is a simple truth, you are the best careers advisor you will ever meet, and that’s because you know more about yourself than anybody else ever will. Moreover, Plato and Steve Jobs probably know a lot more about careers advice than any of the careers advisors you’ll ever meet!

Careers advisory services have their own agenda, and a box ticking mentality. It’s their job to fulfil their remit, and that means satisfying their superiors. If you’re lucky, one of the by products of their machinations might involve placing you one step closer to a career that really suits you.

One day, back in the 1970s when I was aged about 15, I was sent to see the school’s careers advisor. A middle aged woman, whom I had never seen before (nor ever saw again) ran through a short, prescriptive routine, and it went something like this:

“Tell me about yourself, what do you like doing, what school subjects do you like, and what makes you tick?”

In those days, I was an active teenager, I liked to get out and about, cycling, swimming and flying gliders. Until you join a gliding club you don’t realise how physical it is, lots of moving gliders around on the ground! My other big hobby was making transistor radios, amplifiers and all sorts of weird things that could be put together on a circuit board, with a soldering iron. That was a step up from making Airfix model aeroplanes. And, my favourite subjects at school were Maths and Physics.

I explained all of this to the school’s careers advisor, and stressed “I believe I’m intelligent, I’m dexterous, and I like building things. I’m also sociable and I like to converse with a wide range of people.”

Her response (with almost no hesitation) was a disproportionately forceful “travelling, washing machine repair man”. I was stunned . . . and silently I thought to myself “you have not understood a single word I have said”. Most of all, I thought she was insulting my intelligence by insinuating that I should accept a role doing little more than routine manual labour.

Detecting my silent bafflement she added “you would use your hands to make things, it requires intelligence and skill, and you’d get to meet lots of people”.

It was a short encounter in the extreme, during which the overriding thought entrenched in my brain was “I will never, ever talk to another careers advisor again”. I enjoyed flying, and (fancifully) I had imagined that I might like to become a fighter pilot!

Over the next day or two, discussions with my school friends led us to conclude that the advisor possessed a short decision tree that had only 8 questions and 16 answers. That’s short enough to memorise easily, and to allow the advisor to confidently and consistently deliver answers like nurse, vet, chef, car mechanic and travelling washing machine repair man! What the advisor had singularly failed to point out is that there are thousands of possible career paths, that she could not possibly cover them all, and that any comments made should be construed as simple indicators rather than as absolute determinations.

One thing this encounter certainly did achieve was my desire to never work as a careers advisor! Which is paradoxical, because I was invited to speak at the Digital Shoreditch Festival in 2012, to an audience of secondary school pupils, on the subject of careers in IT. And, now I’m publishing a blogpost about careers advice!

Anyway, at one stage I was a secondary school teacher of ICT (a career change that didn’t last long) and somehow during my teacher training I came across this valuable missive which is variously attributed to Plato, Aristotle, and later luminaries. In 2012 that became the central theme of my Digital Shoreditch talk. In summary it went like this:

“Consider your skills, your passions, and the needs of the world. Where they intersect, therein lies your calling.”

I finished my 30 minute talk by leaving this slide on the screen.

I had stressed that you’d be lucky to satisfy all three parts of the Venn diagram straight away, but if you could start with just one, then two, and then maybe one day you’ll get to join all the dots and find that third link.

A few years after that (by this time I was 56 years old) that Eureka moment struck me, and the dots joined up! I found the precise combination of factors which put me dead centre in that Venn diagram. It happened when I was talking to parents at another student event, this time hosted by UCL.

After my main presentation I often have people vying to have a more personal discussion with me, and I will never forget this particular enthusiastic pair, the young Asian mum and her daughter. I was explaining Plato’s model and the Venn diagram in more detail. Explaining how you must use a pen and paper, prepare three columns, and actually write down your skills, your passions; and suddenly the missing element (for me), the “needs of the world” element, sprang out of nowhere. Eureka!

I parked it in my short term memory long enough to write it down later. If you meet me in real life, I may share the detail with you. I don’t know if my dialogue paused for 2 nano-seconds, 3 seconds, or 40 seconds! This was truly the Eureka sensation I had waited 56 years for. Trying to keep my composure, and focus on the young mum and her daughter, we continued with a really highly charged and animated discussion!

This leads me to the other valuable piece of careers advice which Steve Jobs gave me in 2005. Actually, he gave it to a lot of people, he was the guest speaker at a graduation ceremony at Stanford University.

In the UK we call it a graduation ceremony, in the USA it’s a commencement ceremony, meaning the starting point for your working life.

Watch it all. It is well worth 15 minutes of your life, and it may change your life for ever. There are three messages in that speech and whilst I mention only “join the dots” you will find equal value in all of them.

This is me, paraphrasing Steve’s message and effectively it says:

“The dots will join up. At this stage you may not know how, or know when they will join up, but they will join up. Just keep on keeping on!”

There are two secrets of success. Firstly, to be in the right place at the right time; and secondly, to recognise that!

How many times have you been in the right place at the right time, and simply never noticed? It’s probably happened more often that you can imagine. I was 56 years old when I was in the right place at the right time; and actually recognised that fact! If it happened before, I missed it, every time!

And finally, you must write things down!

This is me, paraphrasing multiple authors, paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin:

“The best way to get things done is almost always to make a plan . . . and more specifically, to write down your plan. Research has shown that visually mapping out your tasks by writing engages the mind more than typing, and that leaves us more connected with our material, more connected with the things we need to get done. The frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for writing, also controls planning and problem solving. Just the simple act of handwriting your goals brings you closer to implementing them.”

I will (again) let Plato finish the presentation for me:

“Consider your skills, your passions, and the needs of the world. Where they intersect, therein lies your calling.”