Being More Intentional about Career Choices

By David Williamson.

For some time I have had an interest in how Christians discern their career choices. There are numerous assessment profiles, discernment tools and books on the subject. There is also, of course, a very wide and broad – wider and broader every year, it seems – range of possible career directions. My observation is that most of us drift into career fields with only modest reflection or thoughtful, even prayerful consideration.

This started with my own career choice process. Chemical engineering was my first career direction as I started college, but in Organic Chemistry in the spring semester, I found I was much more interested in being on the university’s golf course than in an organic chemistry lab. I ended up in the business school, which was considerably more appealing.

Later, I was involved in creating and directing a program for people going through work or job transitions. I watched my adult children discern their options and make career choices in and after college. As a counseling pastor, I watched how young or emerging adults in their 20s or early 30s were making career choices.

I was often sad to hear people in midlife – mostly professional, laid off from their jobs for a wide range of reasons – lament that they had chosen or followed the wrong career path for years. Now that they were unemployed, they wanted to explore other options, wishing they had chosen a different career path 15-20 years earlier. While their unplanned unemployment was not in their original game plan, it provided them the opportunity to explore other career options, and proceed in a different, more satisfying career direction. I often felt that much of their “lost” time could have been avoided by taking the time and using the resources available.

Often, a person’s career begins and follows a fairly natural and easy journey that follows naturally from their work experience, a college internship or family history. Or, perhaps most often, through word of mouth connections. This leads to a job offer, which develops out of a superficial impression by a possible employer or possible candidate.

I have felt challenged by the juxtaposition of two things. One is the many people who have told me they sort-of “drifted” in to their career fields. The other is J. B. Phillips’ translation of Romans 12: “Try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities, by the light of the faith God has given you.” The NRSV renders the thing Paul is telling us to have as “sober judgement.”

A “sane estimate of your capabilities” or “sober judgement” suggests a careful assessment of job skills and fit. As a thoughtful and serious Christian, desiring God’s guidance with most things, how can I develop a “sane estimate” and exercise “sober judgment”?

Career assessment was an attractive and modestly common practice in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but it seems to have fallen back in significance in recent years. I am curious as to the reasons behind this; perhaps it’s due to a belief that one should “simply know” or spiritually discern through prayer (one’s own and that of friends) – that the question is not deserving of clear, objective exploration. But deep, genuine “spiritual” discernment comes through the reading of scripture, prayer, experience in faith communities, or other related spiritual endeavors, and this process can include the use of strong assessment tools, counsel from friends and family, and career assessment professionals.

Knowing specific skill requirements helps many in making clear thoughtful choices. Interest inventories used to be offered as resources for the job/career seeker. These inventories were compared to the inventories of people who reported being satisfied and happy with their choice of careers. If interest and experience match, workers are more likely to experience satisfaction. As an emerging adult I made use of several of these assessment tools to help compile a sufficient data base, and many of these tools were helpful.

Industrial psychologists and other career professionals examined skills and interests to see if, or how they matched the skills necessary for a particular position. For some positions, a particular kind of education might be required to ensure sufficient knowledge of a specific field, or needed skill sets. Such things are usually relatively easy to assess. But from my observation, satisfaction is much more complex and can benefit from more careful, nuanced and sophisticated resources/tools.

The results of these objective measures are often used to help a person discern their particular occupational direction. Yet many of us, myself included, needed to explore this information in a more personal way. Secondary interests, convictions and commitments are important. For me, standardized tests, and classes in which I performed well and found interest, initially moved me toward science and engineering; I now know that this would not have been a satisfying fit for me. Fortunately, I discovered this early in my college studies, and with a casual and affirming comment from a friend, I changed fields.

The new fields felt like they “fit” better, yet in the long run, I still struggled to reach satisfaction. Eventually, I discovered other resources and started to be more clear and purposeful about my vocation and my occupation. This is a slow process that takes many experiences, even years, to discern sufficiently! But the longer we wait to take discernment – a “sane estimate” – seriously, the harder it will be.

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