Career Psychology   |   A Free Career Book

Chapter One

Career Psychology is copyright © Dan Joseph Cavicchio. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be republished, reproduced, or transmitted in any form without the prior written permission of the author. The material in this book is provided solely for informational and educational purposes. It does not substitute for professional counseling or therapy. Information in this book does not represent clinical advice for treatment of psychological disorders.

Chapter One
A Bit About Me

When I was first learning to read, my favorite book was Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All Day? If you haven't read it as a child (or with your kids), it's a colorful look into the lives of workers.

I used to spend hours studying the pictures in that book: the farmer growing corn to sell to the store owner, the baker who would grind the corn and turn it into bread, the folks underground working on the pipes and electrical lines.

It was all utterly fascinating. I would wear out every copy of the book, eventually breaking the binding and forcing my parents to buy me another version. We probably went through a half-dozen copies by the time I was five years old.

I never felt attracted to any one profession in the book. I simply wanted to understand how it all worked. I had an insatiable desire to see the whole system.

One day I asked my parents: "Do you have to choose a single job? Or can you do more than one?" They assured me that there were no rules about things like that, and I was extremely relieved to hear it.

Years later, I have engaged in many types of work. I have counseled men coming out of prison. I have recruited CEOs. I have worked on road-paving crews, designed websites, coached entrepreneurs, written freelance articles, and done a number of other things.

Each of those experiences gave me some insights into the world of work, many of which I'll share in this book.

Let me begin with a story about my first job.

I grew up in a small town just north of New York City. As a kid, I spent my free time behind a computer playing games and dreaming of the day when I could upgrade my old machine to something more powerful.

Shortly after I turned fourteen, I walked into the local computer store and asked if I could get a job selling video games.

I remember two men looking at each other and chuckling.

"We have professional salespeople for that," they said.

"But I've played almost all the games you have here," I told them, pointing at the wall full of boxes. "I know them all."

"I'm sure you do," they said, "but we don't hire people your age for sales jobs."

"Maybe I can help your salespeople," I said. "I can tell them which of these games are the best."

One of them thought for a moment.

He said, "We might have a part-time job helping around the store. Not software sales, just basic stuff. Would you be interested in that?"

I figured that it was an opening, so I took him up on his offer. After securing a work permit, I started my first job.

It was ridiculously boring. I vacuumed the carpet, unloaded computers from the trucks, broke down cardboard boxes, and emptied the trash bins. That was it. Otherwise, all of us in the store waited around for customers or deliveries to roll in, and watched the clock to see how long we had before closing time arrived.

The pay was minimum-wage—just over $3/hour—and I knew nothing about tax withholding. When I received my first paycheck, I was stunned. That was it? All those bus trips to the store in the dark and cold, all that time taking out the garbage and waiting around with nothing else to do—all that for $45?

This wasn't fun, like work appeared in my childhood book. This was sort of depressing. After a few months (and another unsuccessful pitch or two to sell video games), I stopped asking to be put on the schedule. No one seemed to care that I wasn't in anymore.

But then, about six months later, I realized something.

I remembered that another young man who worked with me had purchased a computer "at cost." He had received a 50% discount on his purchase. That, apparently, was one of the perks of working at the store.

I ran the math and realized that I could work a few months, sell my old computer, and buy a powerful new model with my employee discount. Suddenly, the store seemed like a very interesting place to work.

So I called in, requested a shift, and showed back up at work. A few people were surprised to see me, but they shrugged and let me return to emptying the trash pails.

Things were different now, though. I had a deeper reason for being at the job. I saved up my money for several months, sold my old computer, and bought a glorious new machine to play the best games.

That experience showed me the value of purpose. During my first round at the store, I had no great reason to be at that minimum-wage job versus any other. But during round two, I had a mission—a vision. My experience of work was completely different because of that.

As a cognitive behavioral therapist, I frequently draw on this insight with clients. Our thoughts, including the purpose we associate with our work, influence our emotional experience of our careers.

I often ask my counseling clients questions like:

     In addition to earning money, what is your reason for doing the type of work that you do?

     What is your purpose in your current job?

     What is your personal "mission" in your work life?

Most of my clients struggle to answer those questions. They say, "To be honest, Dan, I've never thought about things like that."

Through our conversations, we clarify their values. We choose a meaningful purpose for their activities. This often shifts the emotional landscape of their work lives considerably.

Some of my clients end up staying at their existing jobs, armed with a new mission that reorients their approach. Others have a clearer vision about new opportunities they want to seek, and why they want to seek them. This helps them forge a new career path.

I'll delve into this topic in greater detail later in this book, as I consider it to be important.

For now, let me share another story.

The next summer, at age fifteen, I was spending my time playing games on my new computer. I mowed lawns on occasion to make money, and was looking to earn a bit more.

One day, a man knocked on the door of our house.

"I'm with a road paving company," the man told my mother. "You'll need to keep your cars off the street tomorrow."

"You know, I have a son who is looking for work," my mother said to him. "Does your company need help?"

"Sure," he said, "We can always use some extra hands. If your son is interested, have him come down to our staging location."

When she told me about this development, I didn't know what to think.

Join a road crew? With those giant machines that I had seen around town? At age fifteen?

Nevertheless, I decided to check it out. I biked down to a site in the Bronx early the next morning and introduced myself to the foreman. He confirmed that they could use some help, and would be in our town through the end of the week.

I filled out some tax paperwork. We never discussed the pay rate, although I assumed it would be minimum wage like my computer store job.

For a week, I rode around with the staging crew. At the beginning of the day, we pried up manhole covers, layered them with plastic, and laid them back down. After the paving machines coated the street, we set up sawhorses and cones to block traffic.

I then sat next to the newly paved roads, and stopped anyone from driving on the wet asphalt.

Finally, at the end of the day, we cleared the plastic from the manhole covers, removed the sawhorses and cones, and packed everything back up in the truck.

That was it. I worked for a week doing that.

On the last day, I asked how I would get paid. The foreman said, "We'll mail you a check. However, I'm not sure how our accounting system is set up. It might turn out that you qualify for union wages."

To my great shock, I received a check for well over $1000. I had been paid an entire summer's worth of minimum-wage work in a week.

It was a stunning amount of money. But here's the interesting thing: That job was intolerable to me. I would have quit at the end of the week, even if I knew how much they were paying me.

And why? Because I had to spend hours by myself each day, in silence, sitting by the road with nothing but my thoughts to distract me. The experience was miserable.

Since then, I have learned—and taught my clients—a variety of mindfulness and centering practices. These days, I would find a day spent alone in silence to be delightful. But back then, it was the opposite.

My days with the road crew remind me of the story about a man seeking enlightenment.

The man hikes up to a monastery in the mountains.

"I'm here to find inner peace," he says to the head monk.

The monk tells him, "OK, you're welcome to stay with us. But there are some jobs I'd like you to do. To begin, please move that pile of rocks to the other side of the monastery."

The man does as he's told. After a week, he has moved all the rocks.

"Now," says the monk, "move the rocks back."

"But I just spent a week moving them!" the man says.

"Yes," says the monk, "and you'll move the rocks back and forth and back again. When you've learned how to do the work in a state of peace, then you'll have what you came here for."

When I first heard that story, I thought it was silly. Spending days moving rocks back and forth? Why waste effort on such a pointless activity?

But now I appreciate the story. Our activities aren't pointless; they serve whatever goals we set for them. The man at the monastery moved rocks with the goal of attaining peace. I, sitting by the side of the road at fifteen, could have brought my own goals to my work each day.

My daily goal could have been to improve people's lives by being friendly and protecting their cars from being damaged. Or my goal could have been to learn something by reading as I sat by the side of the road.

There were limitless goals I could have brought to my work. Instead, my only goal was to make it to the end of the day as I generated one frustrated and bored thought after another. It was not a pleasant experience.

However, like the man moving rocks, I actually gave it another shot.

The following summer, I happened to see a road crew paving the streets in my town once again. I went down to the staging site and told them I had worked with a different crew the previous summer. I asked if they needed help.

The company hired me again, although this time they let me drive the big truck full of sawhorses and cones. Having just received my driver's license, that was a thrill.

I became buddies with the staging guys. They even took me with them on their beer-drinking rounds after work. The experience was a bit more enjoyable this second time. And like before, I received a big check of union wages at the end.

Let me share one last story before moving on to the heart of this book.

The following summer, at age seventeen, I was hired as an intern at an urban planning non-profit company in Manhattan. It was my first experience in a corporate environment. I sat in a big, shared cubicle with my boss, and worked on spreadsheets and other computer tasks.

The place was formal and cold. The only humor in the office was the stray joke about saying "good-bye" versus "good-night" at closing time. A cup of coffee with a New York bagel was the high point of the day.

However, my boss was a kind woman, and the mission of the company involved things like environmental preservation—so I made the best of it, despite not liking the frosty vibe. I was relieved when my time there was over. I figured that perhaps urban planning just wasn't for me.

The next summer, I decided to give corporate life one more shot. I applied for various business internships, and landed a spot with a small New York company run by an alumnus of my college.

I vividly remember my on-campus interview with the CEO.

"You're so lucky to be here in school," he said to me.

We were sitting on a patio overlooking the main college green. It was a beautiful spring day. People were throwing frisbees and reading books under the trees.

"It's great," I said. "But I'm eager to get out into the real world. How is it there?"

"It sucks," he said. "The real world sucks."

And so it did!

At least, at that company of his.

His company manufactured generic brands of soaps and detergents out of a factory in New Jersey. It was not glamorous work. I spent the summer sitting alone at a makeshift desk in a hallway, uncomfortable in my suit and tie, trying to invent projects to work on while everyone ignored me.

I had never understood the term "soulless" until that summer. But wow—this was that. Isolating. Disconnected. Empty. If ever I could pop back in time and be my own therapist for a spell, this would be one of the top times to use the ability.

The one soulful thing I did that summer was to befriend a homeless man who sat on the street at 5th Avenue and 56th Street in Manhattan. I had some heartfelt conversations with him every day at lunch.

He was struggling; there was nothing easy about his life. But he was remarkably real and honest. It was the opposite of the empty, disconnected experience that I faced the rest of the time. My interaction with him was a lifeline, and to this day I am grateful to him for keeping me from slipping into a darker place.

When I returned to college in the fall, I began a reconsideration of my whole career path. I abandoned my interest in Wall Street and corporate finance and all the other things I had considered before.

I cleared the slate at that point in my life, and began a new journey through the world of work. In the rest of this book, I'll discuss some of what I learned in that process.

click for Chapter Two:
Exploring Career Paths