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December 14, 2010 > Counseling Corner: It's okay to be a rolling stone

Counseling Corner: It's okay to be a rolling stone

By Anne Chan, PhD, MFT

I recently got a phone call from a young man whose parents were worried because he "lacked focus." Apparently, they saw his career as a rolling stone that was gathering no moss. These parents were concerned that he wouldn't be a success in the world because he didn't have a commitment to one career path. As I talked to this young man, I found out that he had taken some excellent action steps to find his focus in his life, including attending classes at culinary school, studying for his teaching credentials, and working a part-time job as an insurance agent (Identifying details have been changed to protect his privacy, but the other parts of the story remain true). Yes, it's true that this man did not have just one goal, and he was still unsure what his one goal in life would be.

I can understand why his parents would be concerned, but I also believe that he is doing absolutely the right thing in actively trying different career paths. I think he should be commended for branching out into different arenas to figure out his goal. At the very least, he will know what he is not interested in and will learn valuable skills along the way. Besides, his portfolio of skills will stand him in good stead should any one industry fail, as so many have done in this turbulent economy.

Unfortunately, rolling stones aren't highly regarded by many people. Of course, there are those who are born knowing exactly what they want to do in life. I know someone who always wanted to be a doctor, and from a young age would play "doctor" to her dolls, friends, and family. It seems that she was pre-destined to be a doctor from birth. Michael Jackson's mother recognized his dancing talent at a precocious young age. At an age when most kids are still learning how to walk, she witnessed Michael dancing to the beat of their rickety old washing machine.

I myself wasn't one of those people who knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. It took many career changes to help me find my path. In fact, it's a family joke that there isn't a job out there that I haven't tried. But my knowledge of different jobs and diverse work settings is now invaluable in my work as a career counselor. Every single job that I've had, even the dead-end ones, has given me insight and knowledge into working, and is work that I continue to use when I see clients.

We often ask kids as young as five-year-old, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" If you stop to think about it, isn't this a ridiculous question to ask a five-year-old, a ten-year-old, or even a fifteen-year-old? I would venture to guess that most people do not know what they want to be, even after they've grown up.

To all of you searching for a path and to all of you parents concerned about your children's lack of direction, I want to say, don't worry. It's not the end of the world. It's perfectly normal and understandable not to know what to do with your life. I say this for several reasons:

1. The world of work is changing constantly - jobs that were hot when you were born might not be so hot when you turn 40. Jobs that are in demand now might not even have existed when you were a baby. For instance, the internet didn't even exist when I was born and there was no way I could have planned for a career in technology because technology didn't exist back then.

2. You are changing constantly - life circumstances change, necessitating that you adapt and change as well. Someone who happily worked 60 hours a week or traveled constantly on the job might not enjoy the same work lifestyle when a baby comes into the picture, or when an elderly parent becomes ill.

Many famous and successful people have changed careers, sometimes drastically, along the way. Take Martha Stewart, for example. Before her name became a household phenomenon, did you know that she started out as a caterer? Besides media mogul, her resume also lists stockbroker and model. And yes, she did time for insider trading, but her stint in the pen has not hurt her career. I'd bet you anything she was hard at work on a new business plan when she had some quiet time in her cell.

Or George Foreman, world champion boxer, who has put his gloves down and picked up the pen as a children's book author and the microphone as an ordained minister. And let's not forget his job as a spokesperson for the "lean, mean, grilling machine" - a gig that has garnered him about half of his overall earnings.

Even people in enviable careers opt out to do something different with their lives. Taryn Rose was a former surgical resident who observed the damage done to women's feet, no thanks to high fashion heels. In 1998, she started her own line of fashionable shoes that work with, rather than punish, the human anatomy. She is so successful as a shoe designer that she hasn't gone back to clinical work since.

If you are a rolling stone who aspires to be like Martha Stewart, George Foreman, and Taryn Rose, here are some tips to harness your talents and maximize your potential:

- Take action, do something to advance your career or your dreams. Don't just sit there in front of the television, hoping that your big break will come. Whatever your interests are, capitalize on them. Take a class, try a part-time job, volunteer; get some concrete action going on your dreams. Lingerie designer and former investment banker Josie Natori started designing lingerie in her living room. Think about what it will take for you to get you started, and do it now. Don't wait until the New Year - do it now. You don't have to have big startup capital or even a business plan; what might you start in your living room?

- If you have no idea what to do, seek the advice of trusted friends and colleagues and ask them to give you feedback on what they think you are good at. You might not agree with everything they say, but one person might have a nugget of insight that sparks something in you. Notice I did not suggest asking family members for their opinions. This is because family members sometimes see us in limited ways and/or their relationships with you might hinder what can be safely or usefully said.

- Don't be afraid to try out radically different career paths. If you are a person with many different interests, try them all out and see what happens. You might be able to find common threads between them or merge a couple. You won't know unless you try them out. Remember that you don't have to take on a full-time job to try on an idea. Volunteering, doing an informational interview, or doing a small gig can also give you the exposure and experience you are seeking.

I wish you, dear Tri-City Voice readers, a happy holiday season and a very happy New Year. May your New Year bring much joy and satisfaction in your work, family, and personal lives.


Anne Chan is a career counselor and licensed psychotherapist in Union City. She specializes in helping people find happiness in their careers, lives, and relationships. She can be reached at 510-744-1781. Her website is www.annechanconsulting.com.

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