Career Psychology   |   A Free Career Book

Chapter Three

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 Three
Exploring Career Paths: A Deeper Look

In the previous chapter, we looked at five questions that can help you focus your career exploration. I also suggested action steps like observing work environments, having discussions with people who work in fields you find interesting, and volunteering or shadowing.

In this chapter, I'll take a deeper look at various facets of the career exploration process. After that, the rest of this book will be focused on practical ways to move your work life forward.

I am a big believer that your career will unfold in its own unique, unpredictable way. Identifying one single path is far less important than moving forward wherever you feel a pull. Your career path will emerge as you take steps to follow your inner sense of what feels right for you.

I'll be using a Q&A format for this chapter, as these are common questions that I've received from clients, friends, and readers over the years.

Q: Your five questions seem like a good start. But I have absolutely no idea what careers are out there. Do you have any additional suggestions?

A: Sure. Let me offer an additional resource that you might find valuable, along with some career counseling history.

The O*Net Online website that I referenced earlier is a free resource and a helpful place to begin. Part of the website called the "Interest Profiler" at is a 60-question assessment of your career interests. I recommend that you take this free assessment, and see what it suggests.

The O*NET Interest Profiler, like many other career assessments, is based on something called a "Holland code" framework developed by psychologist John Holland in the 1950s.

The Holland code framework divides the world of work into six groups, known by the acronym RIASEC:

  1. "Realistic" people enjoy working with physical things.
  2. "Investigative" people enjoy ideas, science, and the process of investigation.
  3. "Artistic" people enjoy creative pursuits.
  4. "Social" people enjoy social service and other helping activities.
  5. "Enterprising" people enjoy leadership and entrepreneurial roles.
  6. "Conventional" people enjoy information-oriented and organizational work.

No one is squarely in any one of the RIASEC camps; we all have blended interests that cross between these categories.

Part of the Holland code approach involves arranging RIASEC in a hexagon. When you do that, the adjacent letters (for example, Artistic and Social) tend to blend together more commonly than the opposite letters (for example, Artistic and Conventional).

However, everyone is unique. Many people have unexpected blends.

As a personal example of this: When we practiced taking a Holland Code assessment in graduate school, everyone in the room found that their "Social" (helping careers) score was at the top. Everyone except for me. My Artistic score was by far the highest. My Investigative, Social, and Enterprising scores were all roughly tied for second place.

I took the O*NET Interest Profiler 15 years later, and lo and behold—I received almost the exact same result. So our interests can often remain remarkably stable through the years. My A-I-S-E combo probably explains why I enjoy writing and other creative pursuits, science and technology, and entrepreneurial activities along with helping and support roles.

Once you have established your RIASEC scores, the O*NET Interest Profiler will ask you to choose a "job zone" on a scale of one to five. Job zones indicate how much education, training, and preparation you are willing to invest in your work.

After that, the system spits out a series of career options for you to consider.

Now, as a test for this book, I just ran through the assessment (including all five job zones) to see what type of matches the system found for me.

Did it recommend a career as a counselor? Yes indeed! That was one of the top matches.

But how about a recruiter? Nope.

A human resources consultant? No.

An entrepreneur? No.

How about a book writer? Well, there was a mention of a "technical writer" in there, so I suppose that's in the ballpark.

The point is that computer-based systems can be hit-and-miss. They are not a substitute for real life exploration. The thing that I do like about these systems is that they can get the wheels turning in your mind with lists of jobs to consider.

If you click on "Find More Careers" after you've finished the O*NET Interest Profiler, the site will give you a large list of career paths. This can be a great imagination exercise.

An Industrial Ecologist? (What the heck is that?) An Urban and Regional Planner? (I did try that when I was seventeen.) An Investment Fund Manager? (My uncle actually does this…I could ask him for more information.) It's interesting to read through these and think about what each of them might involve.

I believe that your inner compass will "pull" you as you take action steps to explore various career paths. Assessments like the O*NET Interest Profiler, along with the resulting lists of fields, can be a helpful way to get the process started. You can read through these lists and note where you feel an interest pull.

I've also included a list of jobs and careers organized into groups at the end of this book. Feel free to browse through those, and then explore any interesting ones further.

Q: I have done a lot of different jobs and didn't like any of them. Should I keep looking? Or is it pointless to try to find something fulfilling?

A: I certainly support you in seeking happiness in your work, no matter what your past experience was.

I would need more information from you about your background, but let me share the following general response. If you have mostly worked in a specific field (for example, customer service or hospitality), you might want to try branching out to some new environments. My five questions, or the Holland code framework, may point you in a new direction to explore.

If you have worked in a variety of different roles, and you find that all of them are triggering the same experience in you, I'd put on my therapist hat and ask you a few questions.

What specifically did you not like about your jobs? Was there a common theme? I would be looking for patterns that might be unconsciously replicating.

Let me share an example of how this might look with a client. Let's call her Lara.

"So Lara," I say, "you didn't like any of your recent jobs. Can you pick one of them and tell me the worst part of it?"

"Sure," says Lara. "I worked at an office as an admin. It was just paper shuffling all day. Filing things, filling out forms. Completely unfulfilling."

"OK, tell me about another job."

"I worked in a restaurant. It was fun at first, but you get tired of just taking orders and bringing out plates of food, you know? I had enough after a while."

"Got it. Can you give me one more job example?"

"Yeah, I tried sales for a while. I actually worked selling used cars, if you can believe that. It just wasn't for me. All that mattered to the company was hitting the numbers, week after week."

Now, Lara has given me three data points. She has worked three very different types of jobs, but the common theme is that she gets tired of the repetitive, tedious elements of each. My guess is that she has not been intellectually or creatively challenged in any of her roles. She might flourish in an environment in which she tackles new, difficult projects each day.

I might talk to her about technical positions like software development. Or creative roles like marketing. Or perhaps she'd be open to self-employment, which will likely offer an endless amount of new challenges. Perhaps she would like to explore a management role—either management of people, or project management.

If your experience is like Lara's, you might want to look at the common themes in your past roles.

Did you find your jobs boring? If so, you may need more challenges. You might consider seeking out additional training or education—both as a preparation for a new role, and also as an immediate intellectual pursuit.

Did you find your work cultures cold or uncaring? If so, you can seek out a warmer, friendlier organization. (They do exist!) This might be a non-profit, but it might be a well-run for-profit or middle-way company as well. You can often get a sense of a company's emotional culture during the interview process.

Do you find a 9-5 schedule constraining? If so, you might want to try something with a less structured workflow. Some realtors, for example, work primarily on weekends and evenings. "Per diem" medical professionals take temporary assignments as they wish, and then take time off. Many freelancers and consultants work in bursts throughout the week.

The world of work is vast. As you explore new fields, and try new things, you may be surprised to find what options appear. Exploration is essential.

Q: I have a hard time making changes. Whenever I find a new career that sounds interesting, I second-guess myself and end up staying where I am. What can I do about this?

A: Let me keep my therapy hat on for this question.

One of the core principles in cognitive behavioral therapy is that our thoughts influence our emotions. Usually when there are feelings of doubt, inhibition, and conflict during decision-making processes, there are a number of thoughts fueling those feelings.

If you find a career path that seems interesting, and then you start to feel inhibited about taking steps to explore that path, you can take a peek around your mind to see what thoughts are lurking there.

You might, for example, find thoughts like:

     "Perhaps I should just stay with the job I have. It's not too terrible, and a new one might be worse."

     "It's too much of a risk to try something new."

     "I'll probably be disappointed with a new career if I try it."

     "What if I try a new career and fail? That would be awful."

And so on.

When you find a thought that isn't supporting your career exploration process, you can use a psychological technique called "cognitive restructuring." Cognitive restructuring is just a fancy way of saying "thought swapping."

Try swapping in some new, de-pressuring, self-supportive thoughts. Thoughts like:

     "Hey, I'm just exploring this new path. I don't have to make a commitment to it."

     "If I try something new, and it doesn't work out, that's not the end of the world."

     "If I apply for a job and get an offer, I don't have to take it. It's OK to just explore what's out there."

     "This is just a learning process. I can have fun with it."

I have helped many of my clients to identify inhibition-producing thoughts, and then swap in new thoughts that re-frame the career exploration process in a less pressuring way. This is one of the reasons that I almost always blend career counseling with broader cognitive behavioral therapy.

I'll revisit this process in the following chapters. But for now, let me underscore the idea that exploring new careers can be fun. There is no pressure to take a leap into something new. You're just observing, exploring, and learning what's out there.

If you try a new career path, and find that it's not for you, well—you're in good company. Most of us have tried new things, found that they weren't an ideal fit, and then moved on to something else.

Removing a sense of pressure can help to ease the dynamic of second-guessing that often takes place during this process.

Q: There is a career I'm interested in, but I don't think I have the skills for it. Is it worth trying anyway?

A: I'm a big believer that skills can be developed—and that development of skills over time is more important than any innate talent.

Over the course of my work, I've been continually impressed by the capacity of people to develop new abilities and excel in new roles. As I mentioned earlier in this book, I've met people who made radical shifts of careers. These people needed to build up their skills and knowledge within the new fields, often from scratch. But they found the process rewarding.

I encourage you to explore careers that interest you, regardless of your assessment of your skill level. The exploration can't hurt. And it may turn out that you have far more aptitude in the new career than you realized!

Now, having said, that, let me share a few things to be aware of in the process.

If you're planning to enter into a career that requires new skills, you may need to spend time as a student, apprentice, or trainee. For months (or even years), you may be in "learning" mode.

In the skilled trades like plumbing or electrical work, there are often formal apprenticeship programs to help with this. I have chatted with several apprentices who were accompanying contractors working on my home. Some of these people had been bartenders; others had been in sales. Now, they are apprentices in learning mode, and they may be for quite a while. It's important to be comfortable with this learning process.

You may also consider starting in a role that requires less training while you pursue further education. For example, some nurses start their career paths as Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) or Medical Assistants (MAs). After a while they may choose to gain more education and become Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN), or perhaps even Registered Nurses (RN) or Nurse Practitioners (NP). Each of those roles requires different levels of education and training.

As always, I encourage you to follow your own inner compass to explore careers that interest you—regardless of skill or education requirements.

Once you've identified some fields of interest, begin to research those fields and talk to people who work within them. You will get the best sense about the true requirements of the field from people who already work there.

Q: I know what I want to do for my career: watercolor painting. I can spend all day painting and never get bored. But I hardly make any money selling my art. How can I pursue this career?

A: I've worked with many creative professionals in my counseling practice, and this is a common question from people who are gifted at acting, singing, writing, and other artistic fields.

If you were my client, I would begin by exploring ways that you can use your watercolor skills in new contexts.

For example, might you consider working as a freelancer with marketing agencies or design studios? An agency might love to have a watercolorist create elements for larger pieces.

Would you be interested in creating a website and offering custom watercolor paintings for customers? Perhaps in a particular niche? Some artists create paintings from photographs of family portraits or pets.

Let's branch out further. Would you consider offering painting instruction, either one-on-one or via a class? Would you be willing to create instructional videos and post them online? This can help to spread the word about your work.

Might you consider a parallel career as an art teacher in a school? You can still paint your own pieces in parallel.

When I have these types of conversations with my creative clients, I usually find that one of two things happen.

Either my clients are excited to explore broader ways to use their skills, or they say, "Dan, I only want to practice my art in this one particular way."

I usually explore their resistance to creative expansion, and encourage them to adopt an open-minded, brainstorming perspective.

The conversation might look like this:

"So Martin," I say, "It sounds like none of the things we just talked about appeal to you."

"Painting pets, Dan? Totally kitschy. I'd rather quit painting than do something like that."

"OK. And helping a marketing agency—no go on that?"

"I don't want to use my paintings to sell things. That's not why I got into this."

"And what about teaching people how to paint?"

"Doubt it. I'm not patient enough."

"OK. I still believe that there are a number of ways you can use your talents while you continue to do fine art. Now, you're a creative guy—right?"

"I like to think so."

"OK, let's get creative here. Help me brainstorm a few ways that you can use your watercolor skills in a completely new way. Don't worry about money. Just try to come up with some new, creative ways that you can use your skills."

"OK, fine, I guess I could create some stuff for my girlfriend's jewelry-making business. She could use some help with her logo and whatnot."

"Great idea. Give me another."

"The homeless shelter I volunteer at sometimes does auctions. Maybe I could paint a few clients, if they gave permission. Then the shelter could auction the paintings."

"Brilliant. One more."

"Well, there's a farmer's market in town that lets artists sell their stuff. I was thinking about doing some around-town pieces that would fit in there."

And we're off to the races. For Martin, beginning to creatively open his mind was key.

He might find a patron at the farmer's market. The person who buys a piece at the fundraiser might want more of his work. The designs for his girlfriend's business might lead him to help other businesses with logo or website art.

I believe that if you explore new ways to use your talents with a very open mind, you'll find almost limitless avenues. Open-mindedness as you explore options is key.

Q: You talk about following your "inner compass" to explore career paths. However, I just don't seem to feel a pull in any direction. My compass seems broken. Is there anything I can do to fix it?

A: I don't believe that anyone's inner compass truly breaks. But I do believe that all of us have layers of interference that make it difficult to receive messages from our compass.

Let me share three "compass clearing" techniques that I use with clients in my sessions.

First Technique: Release Interfering Thoughts

The first technique, which I referenced above, is to identify and replace any thoughts that dampen a sense of enjoyment. The career discovery process can be like exploring a new land. It can be a fun and interesting process.

If career exploration doesn't feel like that, you may want to seek out any thoughts that inhibit that sense of enjoyment. Thoughts like:

"Why should this next job be any different. I've always disliked my jobs."

"Work is just about making money for someone else."

"There's too much competition out there. I'm not up for the battle."

You might find completely different thoughts. You'll have to search your own mind and see what is there.

When you find anything that is dampening your sense of exploratory enjoyment, you can use a thought swapping technique, and replace the old thought with a mind-opening new one.

The new thought can be something simple like:

"Hey—who knows what will happen if I research this career path? I can keep an open mind as I explore."

The goal is to clear the mind of interference, and enter into an open-minded state. From there, you might begin to feel the "pulls" more easily.

Second Technique: Hot and Cold

A second technique is to simply choose a path (at random, if need be) and begin to explore it. As you do that, try to get a sense of "hot or cold" like the children's game.

Let's say, for example, that you're not feeling a pull toward any particular path. So you go to the O*NET OnLine site that I referenced earlier, click randomly on lists of jobs, and come up with "Emergency Medical Technician."

An EMT doesn't seem to be a good fit for your interests, but that doesn't matter. We're going to use it as a starting point in our hot-or-cold game.

You begin with an exploration of the work life of an EMT. You learn about their schedules, their typical wages, and their responsibilities. You read a few articles written by EMTs about their work. You email the author of one of the articles, and ask her a few questions.

While you're doing that, you make a list of what you like and don't like about working as an EMT.

You don't like the idea of treating medical issues. That just isn't for you. But you do like the flexible schedule part. You also like the idea of helping people who are in danger.

You then use that to move forward. What are some other careers that have flexible schedules and involve helping people in danger, minus the medical treatment part?

Firefighters do that type of work, you realize. You explore the work life of a firefighter. You learn about wildland firefighters, who often work with forest fires. They even rappel out of helicopters at times. That sounds fascinating. You explore further.

And so on. In this approach, you choose a path (at random if need be), explore it, and ask yourself what elements you like and dislike. Then, like a hot and cold game, you move to related paths and explore those as well.

This can reduce any pressure to "find your one path." You're simply having fun exploring.

Third Technique: Involve Another Person

The third technique is to involve another person. This can be a counselor, of course. But it can also be a trusted, supportive friend or family member—someone who is committed to seeing the best in you.

You can ask that person, "What type of work can you envision me doing? What type of work do you think I would enjoy?"

You might be surprised at the insights you receive. Even if the person's feedback seems off base, you can add in the hot-and-cold technique I mentioned above.

"You could see me as an EMT? I actually really dislike medical treatment. Why did you think of me as an EMT? Because you could see me helping people in danger? That's interesting—yes, I guess I could see that too."

Dialogues like this can reveal some interesting things. And two minds working together create powerful synergies.

Q: I earned a graduate degree in a specific field. But after working in that field, I don't think it's for me. I worry that I may have wasted a lot of time and money. Do you recommend that I suck it up and just stay in my field?

A: This is a personal decision, and you'll have to follow your own sense of what's right for you. However, let me share a few ideas to think about.

Our work generally takes up a large part of the day. If you're in a field that doesn't feel right for you, you are effectively spending your day in a state of conflict. I don't recommend to any of my clients that they "suck it up" and simply tolerate distress.

Now, having said that, I do believe that careers are open containers for the expression of our gifts. If you were my client, I would discuss whether there were reorientations that you could make within your existing career.

Are there different roles you can try within your field? Are there different responsibilities that you can take on within your current job? Can you discuss career development opportunities with your supervisor? There may be many modifications that can be made.

However, if your inner compass is truly pointing you in a new direction, I encourage you to at least start an exploration process—regardless of whether you earned the "right degree" for the field.

I have worked with engineering technicians (and even a few engineers) who never completed an engineering degree. I have met software programmers who were entirely self-taught. I know addictions counselors who have certifications, but not counseling or psychology degrees. I've met doctors who went into business rather than medicine, lawyers who went into technical fields, and all sorts of other mash-ups.

Almost all of the people I'm thinking about are flourishing, regardless of any "mismatch" in degrees. So I wouldn't dwell on the idea that you made a mistake.

Very likely, you learned valuable things in the course of your study—things that can be applied to any new field that you explore. You might find it helpful to identify connections between your degree and any field that interests you, and imagine how you would describe those connections in an interview.

A nurse, for example, has social skills applicable to sales. A political scientist has analytical skills that can be used in a research lab. An IT support person has problem-solving skills that can be used at a non-profit.

If you look closely, you'll probably be able to find connections between any skill and any career field. This can be a great exercise, and may help you develop a further appreciation of the value of your degree.

Q: My husband wants to quit his job and use our savings to open a restaurant. He says it's his dream job. I'm not comfortable with him doing that. Is there anything I can say to him?

A: This can be a challenging dynamic. One partner wishes to follow his career dreams, and the other partner feels uncomfortable with the financial impact of that prospect. I imagine that every couples counselor has seen this type of situation.

Here is one option you can try: Let your husband know that you do want him to be happy in his work. But tell him that you want to make decisions cooperatively, in a way that works for both of you.

If he agrees to this, you can begin to creatively brainstorm action steps that are mutually comfortable. If he doesn't agree, then I recommend scheduling a session with a counselor. Almost every couples counselor will be able to assist you in making cooperative, mutually-agreeable decisions.

Let's assume that your husband is on board with finding an approach that you both are comfortable with. If that's the case, you can begin to explore some steps that will let him pursue his dream while simultaneously feeling workable to you.

For example, if I were working with you or your husband, I might ask questions like this to get the gears turning:

As a first step toward his dream, might your husband consider investing a small amount of money in an existing restaurant, and helping out there on the weekends? This might minimize the financial outlay, while exposing him to the day-to-day operations of running a restaurant.

Or might he consider opening a food service business that requires less financial investment than a full restaurant? Perhaps a food truck, a coffee shop, or a part-time catering service?

Would he consider seeking out investors so that he doesn't have to use your financial resources?

Would he be willing to focus on developing recipes, filing paperwork for the corporation, setting up a website, and other pre-opening activities? (I find that sometimes people's interests change as they begin to actually do this brass tacks work.)

The goal in this process is to find action steps that bring him happiness, and also feel comfortable to you. The questions above are just food for thought. You'll need to propose your own solutions, and solicit ideas from him.

Of course, you certainly have a right to say, "I'm not OK with you spending our money on a restaurant. No more discussion." However, I find that squelching someone's career dreams can create a great deal of resentment. It can create feelings of being trapped. It can spark a sense of hopelessness.

A far better approach is to seek solutions—even if they're small, initial, exploratory steps—that feel comfortable to everyone impacted.

Q: My adult son has no idea what to do for his career, and I want him to find something soon. What can I do to get him going?

A: This is the one of the most common questions I receive in my career counseling work. Here's how I usually respond:

I appreciate that you want to help your son. You might be worried that he hasn't found a fulfilling career path. You might even feel a bit frustrated with him, and want to give him a "push" in his career development process.

You can, of course, encourage him to schedule a session with a career counselor. Or you can give him a copy of this book, or any other number of career books. Or you can point him to the O*NET site that I referenced above. You can even join him in taking the O*NET Interest Profiler and have some fun comparing your results.

However, ultimately you will need to let him move at his own pace, in his own way. I have never seen someone who was being pressured by their family successfully engage with the career exploration process. It requires sincere, active involvement. If your son takes some steps solely due to pressure, he might land a job—but it's unlikely that he'll be in the mindset to discover a true career path.

Let me share an important observation about this type of situation.

When I planted ivy in my back yard, I was told that, "the first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, the third year it leaps." It takes a couple of years for the ivy to build its root system. Things don't seem to be moving in the first or second years. But important work is going on underground. In the third year, it pops.

In a similar way, people who don't seem to be progressing in their careers may be learning essential skills and gathering knowledge. They might "leap" several years in the future, after their roots are stronger. It's essential to honor this process.

Now, are there people who are simply stuck? Certainly. For some people, there may not be a whole lot of root development occurring. This might be because of internal challenges like low self-confidence, or difficulties in the economy, or something else. These folks may benefit from receiving support from a counselor.

Other people, though, might be actively learning. I myself had several years in the early 2000s where I didn't seem to be accomplishing much. My recruiting clients were all in the middle of layoffs and downsizing after the dot-com bust. There simply wasn't much recruiting work to do.

In those years, I spent a great deal of time reading and writing. I had conversations with a wide variety of people at coffee shops. I moved to Colorado and took up rock climbing,

It may have seemed as though I was aimless. However, I was learning about cognitive behavioral therapy, which prepared me to go to graduate school a few years later. I was developing my relationship-building skills, which were weak at the time. I was clarifying some of my values and life goals. And I was developing my writing abilities. Plenty was happening under the surface.

Your son might also be engaged in a similar process. I encourage you to discuss his inner life with him. Despite outside appearances, he might be engaged in an active, growth-oriented process that will be essential for a future career path.

As always, I encourage communication.


Let me wrap up this chapter with a summary of the most important points I've covered so far.

Careers often evolve in unexpected and unpredictable ways. It's unlikely that you will travel along one fixed career path for your whole life. Your path is unique to you, and it will unfold in its own way.

You bring meaning to your career; your career does not bring meaning to you. You decide what to offer each day through your work activities. You decide what values to express, what goals to pursue, and how you want to be of help. Your career is simply an avenue for the expression of your abilities and gifts.

Having said that, there will certainly be career paths that are more suited to the expression of your particular gifts. I believe that your inner sense of what interests and "pulls" you is the best inner compass to follow as you explore different options.

You can begin the career exploration process by answering my five questions, taking the O*NET Interest Profiler, reading through job lists, visiting a career counselor, or any other number of approaches. However, the real work will involve actively investigating the fields that interest you. A helpful part of this process is communicating with people who are working in those fields. Many people will be very happy to answer your questions.

Career exploration can be enjoyable, like exploring vacation destinations. If you begin to feel stressed, inhibited, or pressured in the process, try to identify the thoughts that are contributing those feelings, and replace them with new, de-pressuring thoughts.

An attitude of, "Hey, I'm just exploring what's out there—there's no pressure to find a perfect match," is one of the best thoughts to travel with.

I will now move on to chapters focused on job seeking, resume writing, interviewing, self-employment, and improving your happiness at work. You're welcome to bounce ahead to whatever sections seem most relevant to your needs.

click for Chapter Four:
The Job Search