I recently had the great privilege to speak about careers to a group of people who had suffered spinal injuries and were being assisted by the Royal Rehab Spinal Injury Unit in Sydney. They varied in age, and the time since their lives were turned upside down by their injury. However, they all saw the importance of returning to work, of being connected with things that they enjoyed, were good at, and paying the bills.
This group did not have to be reminded that chance events can and do occur. They have lived it. Many were seeking direction, wanting to find a pathway back into satisfying work. Spinal injuries are not selective, and present were artists, artisans, farmers, mechanics, drivers and scientists. People from all walks of life whose career and prospects were dealt an unexpected blow.
In most respects this group were no different to any of us who have found ourselves at a crossroads in their career. They were unsure what to do next, what actions to take, and they felt they needed a firm plan to go forward.
While developing firm plans for the future sounds alluring, and gives the impression of choices made on the basis of deep rational thought, planning can also become a great distraction from taking any action. There is surely no better way to prevaricate than to plan.
If you are prone to self-limited thinking about your abilities and prospects, then planning is a potent way to reinforce and validate your restricted view.
As well (not instead of) planning, seeking out opportunities to take action, such as making phone calls, emailing people, connecting on social media, or ramping up your social media presence can be potent ways of creating new facts. Through such acts, job opportunities frequently rise and new perspectives can emerge.
Those networks which we all have if we look hard enough, hold us in society, and while they can provide opportunities, they can also work to pigeon-hole us. Well meaning friends and family seek to understand us and in this process will often use a short-hand to characterise us from a very early age. The child playing with lego is proclaimed as the next builder or engineer, while others will be nailed as “caring” (nurse/doctor), “show off” (actor, sales or sports) etc. It is easy for us to absorb these remarks and they can, if not challenged, inform our own view of our capabilities and our limits.
The negative side of this is that it is too often based on stereotyping, and this can lead to distortions in what are seen as viable career options. Thus the many years of gender stereotypes about work have led to the systematic underemployment of women in what were seen falsely as male roles from many of the trades to management.
Those with spinal injuries also have to confront limiting stereotypes about their capabilities. We are all missing out on the contributions of often highly experienced, highly qualified motivated and resilient people, due to limitations in our thinking about how, where and when work is done. In a world that is increasingly promoting the virtues, indeed necessity, of flexibility in the workforce, it is beyond frustrating that in some cases, all it would take is the provision of a ramp in order to tap into a pool of talent, and to make a significant impact in the lives of others.
Jim Bright is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU and owns Bright and Associates, a career management consultancy. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @DrJimBright