Careers Are Like Marriages: Find the One You Want or Fix the One You Have

By Olga Artman, Celia Paul, and Stephen Rosen

Careers are like marriages in the sense that we spend a significant amount of time with both and put years into making them work. So what can you do if your marriage—or your career—is in trouble? As the old proverb states, you can either find the one you want or fix the one you have. How do you choose which approach to take? One answer to this question lies in careful evaluation of your compatibility.

How Compatible Are You with Your Career?

Like a couple experiencing marital problems, lawyers experiencing career difficulties can turn to professional counselors for help. And just as modern psychologists have developed a wide variety of tests to assess “marriage health,” professional career counselors can evaluate career compatibility through well-designed questionnaires and other assessment tools. In our practice we use a “Career Well-Being Inventory,” a diagnostic tool that we developed to measure “career health.” This instrument measures your career attitudes and behavior patterns against “career-change champions,” people who have changed careers successfully and easily and are highly compatible with their chosen professions. The closer your inventory results are to 100 percent, the closer your attitudes and behaviors resemble those of people who possess career health or career well-being.

As in romantic relationships, there are some career relationships where separation is the best option, whereas others are worth saving and trying to work on. We generally observe two types of career relationships:

The first type is composed of relationships with high compatibility, such as lawyers who are satisfied with their “work marriage” to law but might need some fine-tuning in their relationship. These individuals either remain in their current positions and work on making them better, or they transition into different areas of legal practice or other work environments. These individuals constitute about 40 percent of our clients.

The second type is composed of dysfunctional relationships, where lawyers are unhappy with their careers and would like to transition into a completely different field. Many of these clients suffer from what we call situational depression and spend years being unhappy but fearful of change. Unfortunately, the years being unhappy cannot be brought back. These folks constitute 60 percent of our clientele.

Keys to Making It Work

Let’s say that you believe you are in the first category and would like to stay in law but need to improve the quality of your work marriage. How do you go about making it work? You can start by asking yourself simple questions, such as: What is the source of my dissatisfaction? What are the obstacles standing in my way of being happy with my career? How can I improve my current career circumstances? These types of open-ended questions can serve as diagnostic tools for the obstacles standing in the way of your happy work marriage. Karen, a senior-level lawyer, came to us with concerns about her management style. Even though she was happy with her career choice, she needed the keys to overcome her timidity and make it work. Her answers to our questions during the initial consultation revealed deeper sources of her dissatisfaction—a struggle with self-confidence, which led to a lack of assertiveness. Using videotape feedback, we showed her how she appears to others, and she learned to visualize and adjust her management behaviors to “push back” when needed.

The most common obstacles leading to dissatisfaction among lawyers in solo practice are a lack of having vision for the practice, not knowing where to find clients, fears of inadequacy, poor time management, the hours spent away from loved ones, the pressure of generating new clients, the stress of carrying sole responsibility for generating income, and losing interest in the job. Knowing the obstacles to happiness is a partial solution to the problem. Some of us make our marriages work without outside help; you could very well manage your career circumstances on your own. For those who lack time—or prefer the help of the experts—career coaching is a viable option.

Keys to Finding the Right One

If you identify more with the clients in the “dysfunctional relationship” category, finding a compatible career option can be challenging. Being in the wrong career can feel like an unhappy marriage: You know it is not working and you want a divorce, but there is fear of letting go of something that you devoted so much effort to build. For a lawyer in private practice, the fear of letting go can be daunting because the time invested in getting a law degree and building a solo practice is significant. There is also a fear of lacking direction—law is a highly specialized field, and it can seem that there is nothing else you can do. The truth is that being a lawyer fosters the development of a variety of skills that can be utilized successfully in your next career. We call these skills “transferable,” and identifying them will help you market yourself to potential employers with clarity and confidence. Martin, a fifth-year litigator associate at a large New York law firm, was initially very concerned about having the skills assessment. To his surprise, he discovered a broad set of skills that were not used at his present job. The assessment revealed “listening,” “follow-through,” “human relations,” and “innovation” skills—along with the skills used as an attorney such as legal writing, research, and negotiation. Examining his strongest and most enjoyable skill set helped Martin identify the missing link in his current job and boosted his self-confidence.

There is also a fear of being isolated and having no support; after all, being a lawyer is thought by some to be prestigious, and others might be less understanding of your desire to leave the field. The January 6, 2008, issue of the New York Times featured an article “Falling-Down Professions,” which revealed dissatisfaction within the field: “Forty-four percent of lawyers surveyed by the American Bar Association said that they will not recommend this profession to a young person.” It is important to know that you are not alone and find support for your career transition. Changing careers can feel like going through a divorce, filled with anxiety about the unknown, regret, and frustration. Talking to someone who already made the transition or to a professional career counselor can eliminate your confusion, increase your confidence level, and boost your motivation. Increasingly popular blogs dedicated to lawyers and their career-specific issues can serve as support tools. The success stories posted on these online communities also can provide insight into how others survived and flourished and about the areas that other lawyers transitioned into.

After fears are tamed and you make the commitment to change, it is important to accurately assess which career direction to take; the prospect of ending up in the wrong career again may be daunting. Those coming out of a bad marriage need to examine which parts of the failed relationship worked and which didn’t; similarly, career changers need to examine their career relationship and, most importantly, what makes up their career personality. Your “career self” is many dimensional and consists of skills, values, personality preferences, decision-making patterns, personal and professional roles held outside of the career, and other complexities and aspirations. Identifying who you are in terms of your career persona—your skills, interests, priorities, and preferences—will guide you to find career directions that are compatible with your personal style. In our practice we call this process of discovering who you are “assessment.”

It is important to remember that having only one career direction that is inevitably clear is a very rare phenomenon. Albert Einstein, Mozart, and Edison are examples. Realistic outlook about what you can accomplish and what is out of reach is crucial in the process, and the majority of clients, in our experience, are highly compatible with three or four different career directions. Because most people choose their careers by trial and error, one way to minimize the risk of ending up in the wrong field is through exploring these compatible career options. It’s sort of like dating: You must put yourself out there, present yourself in the best possible way, and test the waters.

The most efficient way to do “career dating” is by talking to someone who is already doing what you want to do. In our practice we call this process “options exploration research,” and it serves two purposes: clarifying which career option is indeed compatible with who you are and establishing a network of contacts in the field. An alumnus client, Elisabeth, was very efficient at this process and landed her desired position within two months. Being an extrovert and very active socially, she came to counseling with an already-established strong (and bankable) social network. Even clients who are as socially adept as Elisabeth can benefit from being prepared for the information-gathering meetings and contacting targeted contacts. Career counseling provided Elisabeth with the opportunity to make all of her mistakes in our office and not during the meeting, and it expedited her ultimately successful job search.

After the “dating period” is over and you finally decide which career direction is most desirable and also compatible with who you are, it is time to pursue the “chosen one.” We call this final step in the career management process “implementation,” and it is designed to help you land the job of your choice. It is highly likely that by the time you reach this stage in the process, some job opportunities will present themselves through your network of contacts developed during the previous step. Studies show that only some 10 percent to 15 percent of jobs are found through published sources and online job sites; by far the vast majority comes through contacts and referrals. Your best bet at increasing your chances of landing the desired position is to pursue both strategies as if this was your regular job. Obviously, you should spend most of your time and energy on the most productive strategy: contacts and referrals.

Once the job interviews are set, it is a “beauty contest” from there on, and just as in dating, it’s about chemistry. In real life, “beauty” can be enhanced with plastic surgery procedures, makeup, and inner-health. In our practice, however, we help make our clients become more “irresistible” to employers by improving their interviewing skills, résumés, and presentation styles. Some people returning to the dating scene make their age less apparent by coloring gray hair or choosing the right haircut in order to hide some of the inevitable changes time brings. In a similar fashion, we help our clients develop one-page profiles that can be used in place of résumés to make the gaps in employment fade or to highlight the client’s best attributes.

Unpredictable personal interactions in an interview can be somewhat anticipated by intense and thorough preparation. Good social skills and sensing the atmospherics and mood are essential.

Just like marriages, careers can make you happy or drag you down. Carefully choosing the right career can save you many years of being unhappy, years that cannot be recaptured. If you are one of the lucky people who already have found the right match, it is wise to remember that even matches made in heaven need work to keep them strong.

Olga Artman is a corporate career coach in New York City; she may be reached at . Celia Paul and Stephen Rosen are partners in Celia Paul Associates, a New York City-based career management firm specializing in attorneys; they may be reached at and , respectively.

Copyright 2008

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