Pondering Careers – Edition 46 – Unusual Career Conversations

Welcome to Edition 46 of Pondering Careers, where we talk about all things work, jobs, careers, and aspirations, and this week we’re going to be focusing on what I believe is probably the most important aspect of Career Development – the career conversation.

I’ve called this edition ‘Unusual Career Conversations’, but I actually think that the conversations we’re going to be talking about today are the ‘usual’ ones. We talk endlessly about how to structure a 15 minute career consult (btw 15 minutes is never long enough), or which counselling technique to use, but I want to talk today about the real career conversations that matter.

These often look different to how you might expect – I’m talking about the 5 minutes in the car on the way to netball training, or the reflective (and potentially snarky) comment on someone else’s job choice.

So, I’ll start by explaining why I feel that some of the most important conversations we have may not be ‘serious’ at all, and then give you a couple of the examples we’ve used in our Career Conversation Cards (like the question about the zombie apocalypse).

While I have you here…

To be honest, I’ve not been enjoying the past few weeks of writing this newsletter as much – I’m not sure if it’s the algorithm or my writing, but LinkedIn is making me feel like I’m shouting into the void.

I’m not having a whinge, I guess just voicing that sometimes I have all the same normal doubts that we all get.

On a bright note though, I received an email this week letting me know that a student had referenced my little newsletter in an assignment for their degree… and so now I have no choice but to continue writing Pondering Careers forever!

I guess what I’m asking is, if you read the newsletter and have an idea, thought, question, or even want to share your own experiences, please please please do so in the comments (or re-share it with your ideas) – that way I don’t feel like I’m writing all alone.

OK, self-flagellation is over, now into the newsletter…

What a ‘conversation’ actually looks like

Career Conversations, just like every other conversation, are very rarely neat and tidy. I’m not talking about a formal conversation with a start and finish time, where someone takes notes, and was likely arranged in advance.

That’s not really how we communicate most of the time; most of our conversations actually take place as ‘running’ conversations over multiple interactions.

Think about your closest relationships – those with your partner, children, parents, or friends – and how you communicate with these people. We have a set of ongoing conversations that we work through a bit at a time, depending on what’s happening, and it’s rare that you’ll ever have a totally ‘isolated’ conversation. In this context, an isolated conversation doesn’t draw on anything that came up before in conversation, nor is it usually referenced in future conversations.

Most of us have ongoing conversations about our next holiday, repairs we might need to make, plans to socialise with others in our network, or a disagreement we haven’t fully worked through. These conversations will ebb and flow, sometimes with an exchange of just a few words, while at others you may canvas the topic for hours.

For example, I have a few ongoing conversations right now with my 16 year old:

  • One is about our trip to Japan early next year (I’m aiming to take each kid for a trip, just the two of us, in their last summer holiday before they graduate);
  • Another conversation is about his career plans, but that’s pretty dormant right now because he’s not making any big decisions and the open days haven’t started yet; and
  • Another one about walking, because we both enjoy hiking and it’s an activity we often share.

Sometimes we talk about these things for hours, but most of the time the conversations are unplanned and incidental, and could take place in five minutes over dinner, or even via social media, where I’ll send Ethan a reel of a shrine I want to visit in Japan and he’ll send me one from Tokyo Disneyland.

The ‘good stuff’ often happens quickly

Career Conversations are no different to other conversations, and the ‘good stuff’ often happens in this messy, dynamic space, which is one of the reasons why I value opportunistic career conversations almost as highly as formal ones.

Yesterday I had a great conversation with Leonie Stanfield RPCDP about just this – we were talking about career expos, where conversations are often quick and interrupted, but still incredibly impactful. It’s rare that you’ll find a full, in-depth conversation taking place within the noisy and merch-filled environment of a career expo, but the fleeting conversations that do take place often lead into something more substantial.

I also had a conversation yesterday along the same lines with Bonnie Alexander from the Greater Victoria School District in BC, who shared some of her insights into running the Guess My Job program.

This is a primary school career-panel style event which does pretty much what it says on the box – kids get to ask a series of questions, then guess the guest speaker’s jobs, and much hilarity ensues when the actual jobs are revealed.

When the guest speakers are chosen well, they can challenge stereotypes and broaden horizons, because students get to see people doing awe-inspiring things in their local community. But, coming back to the topic at hand, Bonnie finds that sometimes the best part of the event is actually the time the children get to spend talking to the speakers afterwards during the ‘table tour’.

These conversations may be fleeting, but they leave an impression, and they then lead into other conversations with other people (like “guess who I got to meet today…”).

There are two things to take from this.

We need time to percolate our ideas and opinions

We can’t just make decisions on the spot. The reality is that we rarely make concrete decisions that are unable to be reversed, and most of our ‘decisions’, rather than being fixed, are actually moving between states from solid to fluid to not even visible at all right now, and that’s OK.

Conversations naturally take place over time because we need time to work things through, especially when they are important. I find the same thing occurs in career counselling sessions – a student can only really work through so much in the one session before we need to call it a day and make a time to meet up again. Often, and especially if I’ve challenged their thinking, they’ll need a week or two to think things over and have other conversations with the people in their lives before we can move on to the next part of the decision – they need time to percolate.

Not every conversation we have is ‘serious’, but they are all part of the conversation

Elements of our conversations bleed into each other – it’s impossible to stop it from happening.

I’ve had career conversations with adult clients that covered the death of a spouse, global conflict, moving overseas, and in the same session we shared our preference for tea over coffee, and laughed about how Benedict Cumberbatch says ‘penguin’. The non-serious elements of the conversation were not somehow less important, even though we literally covered the potential for one of her possible career pathways to lead to her being killed in conflict.

In fact, the non-serious stuff probably helped us get through the serious stuff.

Bonnie shared another example from a Guess My Job event (the one I mentioned earlier) where, after the panel session, students got to visit the Detective at her table. As part of how she explained her job to the children, she taught the kids how to handcuff each other. No one would suggest that this type of conversation is ‘serious’, but I would put money on one of those kids becoming a police officer one day – and that can only happen when the non-serious merges with the serious.

This means we sometimes need to talk about things that are hypothetical (even fantastical) because these irrational conversations inform all the others.

I’ve had a few relationships in my life where every single conversation had to be serious – sometimes with bosses or colleagues, sometimes with friends, and at no point did that help us build our relationships.

In other words, sometimes we need to share non-serious conversations.

It’s easier to think when we remove the pressure

Last week I shared some of the Career Conversation cards we’ve put together (I’ll go into them more in a minute), and as part of the conversation that took place around those cards on LinkedIn, Michelle Cheshire pointed out that having ‘mythical’ conversations is much easier for young children.

Screenshot of a LinkedIn conversation between Michelle Cheshire and Lucy Sattler. They talk about how it is easier to have hypothetical or fantastical conversations about careers with younger students and children.

In the same vein, I had a conversation with the incredible Jacqui Hutchinson last night (yesterday was a very long day), and she shared how in her primary school workshops she asks the children to imagine they have a fairy godmother who makes it possible for them to learn any skill, or follow any interest that they want.

This is such a clever approach – she doesn’t ask them what they’re actually interested in, instead, she first removes the idea from the day-to-day, and lifts it into the hypothetical, away from assumptions and limitations.

To start with, the children find this tricky, especially if they’ve never had this kind of imagination-luxury before, but once they get the hang of it they start to move beyond into the world of the fantastical.

Not only does this open up possibilities, but it also removes the pressure – the cognitive load is reduced, because they’re not trying to balance multiple competing priorities. They don’t need to ‘factor in’ anything, other than the things they’re interested in, and this is incredibly liberating.

We’ve been supporting some of the work the Beacon Foundation has been doing with their Beacon Career Program (which is fabulous, by the way) and, as part of this program, Jake Snepvangers and Nick Humphreys have designed a session where students use the Clusters and our Pathways cards to deliberately remove the pressure.

Students can’t rely on their assumptions about the jobs they want to do, because we literally remove their ability to connect their choices directly to one specific job, so, in the session, they are asked to think only about what they’re interested in. The result is that the students end up with career ideas they love, but which were unexpected.

All of this brings me to some ‘alternative’ Career conversations

I should start out by saying that yes, we know these Conversation Starters are cheesy. We 100% expect that teenagers will groan when they see these posters up at school – to be honest, I’d be disappointed if they thought we were serious.

At no point in my life have I ever been what you would call ‘cool’, and I’m not going to start at this point, so I might as well just lean into the cringe (which, unlike cool, is a word my teens would actually use).

We designed these cards and posters to start lots of messy, unscheduled, quick career conversations, with no right or wrong answers. There’s just one question which gets them thinking, and then talking, and then thinking. They’re not designed to be serious, or to get you to an ‘answer’, but they are designed to fit into the flow of the conversation

Rather than going on about them endlessly, I thought I’d just show you them and ask what you think

First up – zombies

What career would you pick in a zombie apocalypse?

Sounds like it should be easy to answer, right? But it’s not.

One of the things I notice first when I ask teenagers this one is that they start trying to define what a ‘career’ is, and what it isn’t. Technically, in a zombie apocalypse no one is getting paid, so ‘jobs’ as we know them don’t really exist any more.

In the same way, all the ‘normal’ measures of success go out the window as we focus on survival – what will keep us safe, and how will we find food?

Which means that, in order to answer the question, they need to think really deeply about how they define a ‘career’.

Once they get past that bit, they start to think about how the things they enjoy and the skills they have might relate to survival skills, so, for example, someone who’s into beauty and makeup might start thinking they could use their skills to make humans look like zombies so they can blend in.

Kids who enjoy physical activity often say they want to go out searching for food, and some who are considering careers in healthcare start coming up with ideas for how they could cure zombies.

An image of a Career Conversation card with the question "what career would you pick in a zombie apocalypse?"

The real beauty of this conversation is its ability to remain just one or two steps away from reality, while also upending our assumptions about what matters.

Next – pirates

My 12 year old, Lincoln, is super quick and he didn’t miss a beat when I asked him this one: “I’d give everyone their own wellbeing parrot.” Love it. Problem handled, no negativity, and everyone gets a parrot.

This question is designed so that students are thinking about typical work-type behaviour (managing teams and resolving conflict) in a highly unusual situation (pirate mutiny).

I’m sure a fair number of people would say that they’ve worked in teams that didn’t feel that far removed from a mutiny situation (the Screen Actors Guild Strike could be just one example), so it’s something that could potentially happen, but the methods you have to manage the situation may look somewhat different.

An image of a Career Conversation card with the question "as a manager, how would you resolve a pirate mutiny?"

This is also a question which leads into two types of conversations – first, the practicalities of handling conflict at work or at sea, but you can also find yourself talking about whether or not you’d ever want to work in this kind of situation. Would you want to work in management, or does the idea repel you? How would you handle conflict in the workplace? And how do you even decide which side you would be on?

There’s a lot to consider…

Shakespeare’s socials

This one is a little more tricky, and, like the other questions, there are a couple of key points we’re trying to get at here.

First up, there’s the question of why a poet who’s been dead for hundreds of years would even want social media. If he was alive now, would he have a profile, or would it be beneath him? He was pretty good at promoting his work, so there’s a good chance he’d have been on at least one platform…so which one?

But the other key point we’re trying to get at here is to get teenagers thinking about their social media, and how or if it relates to their career.

An image of a Career Conversation card with the question "Shakespeare has social media: which platform is he on?"

I’m not sure how many 14 year olds are thinking about the long term career impact of their social media profiles (Tyson Day or Jake Richings might be good people to talk to about this), but there’s a chance that their social profiles, if they have them, will come into the equation at some point.

This question could get them thinking about their own choices, and why they’ve made them.

We’re just trying to start the conversation

And I think there’s a lot more we could do here. I love some of the other ideas that people come up with – Katherine Jennick and Liane Hambly‘s creative fuddles come to mind, as do Tyson Day‘s dinner conversations sheets.

If you have creative ways that you start career conversations, then I’d love to hear about them, so please continue the conversation (see what I did there) and share in the comments.

You can read previous editions of Pondering Careers here.

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