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Do You Have A Healthy Career?

Most professionals will change direction several times during their career, or even transform their career completely. Stephen Rosen examines why some people are better equipped than others to make a move.

In the 5th century BC, Hippocrates said that it is less important to know what disease the person has, than what person has the disease. Similarly, today it is less important to know what career the person has than the person who has the career. When careers and people fit, their careers are as good as they are.

To establish a gold standard of "career health" against which we can compare ourselves and our potential for "occupational mobility", I have studied the healthy career-change patterns and versatile vocational strategies of successful "career-changers". While conducting this research I talked to about 100 top-class physicists, scientists, and other qualified professionals. I call them "career-change champions" because they have successfully transformed their careers often, easily, and happily.

Consider Nathan Myrhvold, who began with a PhD in theoretical physics, then worked in cosmology with Stephen Hawking, and is now Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft (and Bill Gates' right-hand man). He made the switch after creating a software program -- incidental to his research -- that is the mathematics equivalent of common word processing software.

Or take Robert Frosch, who received his PhD in theoretical and quantum physics, went on to become head of Hudson Labs, Assistant Secretary of Defence, head of NASA, an executive at UN Environmental Affairs, head of General Motors Research Labs, and is currently a Fellow at the John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Then there's Joseph Atick, who began in string theory, became a computational neurobiologist, and now heads his own biometrics firm, Visionics Corporation, which has become the leading developer of face-recognition technology. David Z Robinson, meanwhile, began his career in chemical physics, moved into optical and electronic instruments and infrared detection devices, then joined the Office of the President's Science Advisor working on satellite communications policy. He later became Vice President for Academic Affairs at New York University and eventually was made the head of the Carnegie Commission of Science, Technology, and Government, which assesses how governments incorporate scientific and technological knowledge in decision-making and policy.

Cause for concern

These are the success stories. But, unfortunately, mismatches between jobs or careers on the one hand, and people's interests, values and skills on the other, are common. About a quarter to a half of scientists and other professionals say they are frustrated or unhappy. They would not recommend their own careers to their children, or even, given the chance, would not pursue the same career again. Such mismatches not only distress the individual, but are unproductive to an employer or organization.

So Why does this happen to intelligent, highly-educated scientists? Almost a century ago, Thorstein Veblen, in "Theory of the Leisure Class" (1899) noticed that the more formal training or schooling and advanced education we receive, the more unable we are to achieve practical results in mundane but necessary economic pursuits, and the less versatile we become. The result is a pervasive decline of essential skills at the expense of extremely narrow technical expertise. In effect, by strengthening one "muscle" (or set of career behaviours or skills), we become "muscle-bound" in that set, while other more practical skills become enfeebled or atrophied. Exercising a favourite muscle will do no good if the marketplace doesn't need it, especially if we neglect other muscles that are needed to "get the job done". Veblen called this phenomenon "trained incapacity".

The root of the problem is inflexibility. We tend to "over-learn" even complex tasks. Many of us have thousands of "scripted" job or career behaviours we act upon when cued by something familiar. Example: sending out unsolicited resumes when dissatisfied with your current career or job. Once a pattern of behaviour has been learned it is difficult to change.

Even now, when the marketplace needs specialized niche talents, many who might fit the bill have trouble finding the openings that are going begging. Often, and especially among the "trained incapacitated", educated individuals have trouble learning how to market themselves with integrity.

Lateral moves lead upwards

Organizations can also suffer from institutional versions of "trained incapacity", "being educated beyond their marketing abilities", and "over-learning". The enemy of true occupational mobility can be organized training programs, credentialism, professional or trade organizations, rote or even formal schooling, and bureaucracy.

However some large corporations recognize this danger and strive to encourage the occupational mobility of their employee pool, to avoid rigidity or "addiction to expertise". They see themselves as miniature labour markets, and their employees as salesmen offering their skills in a dynamic marketplace. As Parry Norling, planning director of corporate R&D at Dupont, says: "Our employees can make career changes because we are large enough...and we find by doing >satisfaction surveys' [that] we have higher career satisfaction when our corporate focus is on training and development. We have people who move across or up"

Companies must create and eliminate jobs in response to changes in the market. When a job is eliminated individuals and their families suffer from emotional and financial dislocation. But it is not just the individuals who bear the cost. The employers must provide severance pay and cope with the negative effects on morale and employee relations. Then they must fill the newly created jobs, often paying a premium for cutting-edge skills.

Flexible, resilient individuals are an extraordinary economic asset. Such versatile workers shift jobs or careers readily. In so doing, they lubricate the economic machine and increase productivity. They also tend to improve their own career satisfaction by earning increased responsibility, better working conditions, fuller use of their skills and talents, and even higher compensation.

Career well-being

Since occupational mobility and versatility can help the firm and the economy as well as the individual, why is it so hard to find and encourage? To answer this question, I have examined the themes that emerged from interviews with my "career-change champions". My purpose was to find out what career versatility means in practical terms to these people. What do they believe about their own careers? What were the salient turning points in their lives? What attitudes influenced their decision-making patterns? What, in short, are the hallmarks of career-change champions?

Some persistent themes emerge from the collective wisdom of our "career-change champions". They believe their work is a worthy expression of their life and gain pleasure from it. They enjoy stretching their talents and drawing resourcefully from their personal depths. They believe the harder they work, the luckier they get. They work hard and play hard. They lead a full and balanced life. They have a strong sense of who they are. They think about how their careers change them as people.

These expressions may sound like mere platitudes, but to career-change champions they are very deeply-held beliefs. But can all of us learn to do what the champions do? Can ordinary mortals walk in the seven-league boots of genius? Just as we monitor our physical health by having annual medical check-ups, we can check our career health by using the career change ability scale. This exercise was developed specifically to understand and measure the health of our careers, our resilience and versatility. We need to discover how readily we can undergo beneficial career mutations to keep up with the Darwinian demands of a dynamic economy, and to improve our satisfaction with work.

Of course, semi-chance events play a powerful role in career transitions. However, it is up to us to seize opportunities and use them to advance our careers. The ability to change career direction can advance economic well-being, our organizational productivity, and our individual satisfaction. Those unprepared or unwilling to transfer their skills from one area to another may impede not only their own careers and fulfilment but also the progress of their employing organizations and the economy as a whole. Career versatility is career destiny.

Stephen Rosen originally trained in astrophysics and is now Director of Scientific Career Transitions, which helps to guide physicists and others through career changes is co-author, with Celia Paul of the book, Career Renewal (Academic Press, 1998).

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