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ask a career coach

The question:

My daughter, Jen, is in Grade 11 and struggling to choose her university program. She is stressed and distressed.

I'm afraid I have been a bit of a "tiger mom" with respect to her education, and other facets of her upbringing. This has no doubt contributed to a number of issues, including her current stress with making the "right" choice. To help remediate some of my less positive influences, I have offered – and she has expressed her desire to work with – a career coach.

Jen's academic strengths are in the arts. She's a high-90s achiever in all of them. She especially loves English: writing essays and analyzing. She can do math and harder sciences such as chemistry and physics, but they are a considerable struggle. Nonetheless, she is a high-80s achiever in these subjects as well. She also has extra curricular loves, in particular singing.

Was Jen was younger, I offered her two career choices: medicine or law. She refused medicine, and opted for law (I know, and I am sorry).

Now that she is heading to university, she is considering a degree in environment and business. Her reasoning is that if she can't gain entry to law, she will at least have something practical for the challenging labour market her cohort will face. She is adamant that she will not study her beloved English literature because it is not practical.

The upshot is that I owe it to her to find someone who can provide some expert coaching on how to make this challenging decision. What should we do next?

The answer:

It sounds like Jen has a lot of smarts and, just as importantly, a lot of interests and a great work ethic. All of this will stead her well through her life. I bet there are many viable career options for her and not just the two you suggested or necessarily just the two she is currently considering. There's a smorgasbord of career paths to consider and offering her a coach to explore her options is a great idea.

I appreciate your concern that she may be over-emphasizing her focus on choosing a practical path at the expense of considering her interests and greatest gifts. At the same time I empathize with your daughter because her generation faces some real challenges. Soaring costs of education, an uncertain economy and a tougher employment landscape – these issues weigh heavily on the younger generation and I acknowledge your daughter for bringing practicality into her decision-making. However, I would caution her not to overweight this at the expense of giving due consideration to finding a path that will be the right fit for her.

What does the right fit mean?

Ideally the right fit is where your greatest talents, strengths and interests intersect with the needs of the world, such as the market and employment landscape.

Figuring that out while applying for university always begs some version of the question: "What do I want to be when I grow up?" This is a tough question. How many young people really know that answer? Or know enough about themselves and the employment landscape to answer that meaningfully?

Some people are lucky and find out very early in life what they truly want to do. But for many students their futures aren't as clear cut.

Take heart. One doesn't have to have all the answers figured out at this stage in their life. But being open and asking the right questions will help find the answers. Here are a few thought-starters to help your daughter think through her options.

Job, career or calling?

As you think about your work life after university, what does this mean to you? Is your goal to find acceptable work that is mainly about fulfilling financial goals so you can fulfill other life goals (a 'job orientation')? Or are you hungering for a career path that you can sink your teeth into and use as a platform to learn, achieve and self-actualize over the years? Are you looking for that ultimate passion where work doesn't feel like work but rather more like a calling?

There is no right or wrong answer. But knowing what your orientation to work is will influence how much weight you should put on the passion versus practicality factors. If you know you are the type who needs to feel significant passion for your work, then going for a practical career at the expense of passion may result in a major disappointment. Finding the balance would be the ideal sweet spot for many.

If you knew you couldn't fail, what would you want to do? This question invites you into possibility and temporarily parks the "yeah buts." This is valuable because it will help you identify what is important to you and reveal some of your strengths and aspirations. Even if the dream career you come up with isn't necessarily going to be the feasible choice, the knowledge of what matters can serve as an important compass to explore other possibilities that might be more practical and still provide meaning.

For instance, say one of your dreams is to be an award-winning novelist with the underlying essence highlighting your passion for writing, conveying ideas, inspiring others and telling stories. There are many career options that can fulfill those aspirations. For instance certain roles in marketing, museum curating, library work, publishing or teaching might fit the bill. And who says one can't write that stellar and possibly award-winning novel on the side? I know quite a few people who have done just that.

Can you envision yourself doing (name a career here) for many years? How fulfilled would you be? Many people fulfill their greatest passions in pursuits outside of work. One's work might fulfill only part of their quest for meaning in their life. But if the notion of working for a long time in a particular field leaves you flat, you may want to rethink that track. Take time to learn more about any potential field of interest so you know more about it. You have a long journey ahead. Don't get on the wrong train.

What do you want out of your university experience? Is university only about the specific course content and training? Or might there be more to consider in choosing your university? Many successful people credit their university education for opening their eyes to new possibilities, for making life-long connections, for learning new life skills and enriching who they are. The actual courses may not even have been directly linked to their ultimate career paths, but their university experience prepared them for their careers in some way. Bottom line: keep an eye on the training but don't lose sight of the bigger picture and all that can come with the right university experience.

Do you have the grit to make things happen?

Once you graduate and set your sights on a career path, the most important question is: do you have what it takes to make it happen? Your education – albeit important – is only one part of the overall mix. Job seekers need a whole lot of other stuff to get the job, keep the job, grow and advance. Hard work, tenacity, networking skills, and a wealth of character attributes will ultimately determine your employability and success in the years ahead.

Yes, it is challenging out there. Work with your coach to explore options and choose wisely. And know that you are a hard worker and will need to count on yourself to be resourceful and do what it takes to succeed. There are countless people who have had an eclectic background, perhaps unrelated vocational paths, yet went on to create stellar careers. There will always be exceptions to the rule. Choose to be exceptional no matter what path you take.

Eileen Chadnick is a work-life and career coach and principal of Big Cheese Coaching in Toronto.

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