Daring to fail

I recently had a short article published in Phoenix (Oct 2017 edition) which is the AGCAS journal, produced three times a year.  The theme this time around was student well-being but in my article I offer the view that to enable us to support students to cope with change and develop resilience we need to first consider how we approach challenges and failures in our own roles (I’ve had a few!).

So do take a look at the range of contributions in what is, as ever,  a brilliant read and feel free to let me know your thoughts.



Feeling conflicted in your career? Maybe there’s more strength in this than you think.

We’ve all felt emotionally confused right? A common trend for my own conflicted moments is what serial TV blockbuster to watch. Particularly when I have what seems like a minuscule window of opportunity when the kids are in bed and my melatonin levels haven’t gone off the scale. The problem is choice. For this reason I am always behind the curve in viewing the latest multi-season boxset extravaganza. Lost was lost on me and I’ll probably start watching Jack Bauer 24 years after the first episode aired. I naively mistook Game of Thrones as some sort of British historical drama and I wrongly thought the Walking Dead would never take off with the lead being the bloke off Teachers with a dodgy American accent. My most recent boxset binge, Vikings (please no spoilers), has been no exception to my late arrival but a recent episode got me thinking on how much work we do in careers with people feeling conflicted. I appreciate this isn’t just isolated to my line of work but there’s no doubt there is a lot of this feeling around and it’s usually not welcomed. In fact some see and hope our job is to help provide the cure!

So let me give you some background on why a particular episode resonated with my work as a Careers Adviser. The series focuses on Ragnar Lothbrok and his clan doing, well, what Vikings did back then (but with the added panache of a big TV budget). Following a raid he meets and eventually forms a close bond and friendship with a priest called Athelstan (after a let’s say a rocky start to their friendship). Now Athelstan was obviously a religious man but his experiences with the Vikings and introduction to the Norse gods made him question the legitimacy of his own beliefs and faith. Athelstan often wrestled with this and ultimately* (*spoiler alert) this led to his untimely death. Grieving the demise of the one man he could trust Ragnar spoke out poignantly to the priest as he buried the body in a secluded but beautiful spot.

“You’re a brave man, Athelstan. I always respected you for that. You taught me so much. You saw yourself as weak and conflicted, but to me, you were fearless because you dared to question”.

As I watched this I thought “wow” as it felt so very true and yet somehow I hadn’t actually ever put that into words before . A challenge to the general orthodoxy that feeling conflicted is somehow a default position of weakness. In my work I see examples of this internal conflict with scenarios such as;

“I’ve achieved a senior position in my current role but don’t enjoy it but to give it up would feel such a waste. It just took so long to get here”

“I’d love to be working as X but it seems such a risk to do this. I’d have much to gain and much to lose”

“I’ve got so many ideas of what I could be, what if I make the wrong choice – why can’t I just be satisfied?”

This got me curious into what causes this internal conflict so I got down to some reading and found this article. In it psychologists suggest the mind consists of multiple states that may to a varying degree be in conflict with one another e.g. memory and emotion.  So the brain operates a democratic process due to this “modularity” as no processing centre holds the keys to decision making.  Perhaps this goes some way to explain why we often feel conflicted. What’s interesting to me is that the timing of events and decisions plays a part as well as the article then goes on to explain;

“The divided decision model indicates that the ultimate determinant of a person’s choice is not her simple preference. Rather, people may have a variety of contradictory preferences that become dominant at different points because of their timing”.

This also leads me to another psychological concept called cognitive dissonance explained in detail here. The term is used to describe the feelings of discomfort we feel that result from holding two conflicting beliefs. For example, taking action when internally we know this to be wrong. Where this relates to careers work is that our lives necessitate the need to make decisions and these decisions are fertile ground for creating cognitive dissonance. This is why;

“making a decision cuts off the possibility that you can enjoy the advantages of the unchosen alternative, yet it assures you that you must accept the disadvantages of the chosen alternative”.

I’d imagine this is a statement many of us can relate to which makes it seem like there is an element of the inevitability of the human condition rather than a question of indifference or strength of mind.  Yet there’s even more of this self-talk trickery we can also identify with, the phenomenon of imposter syndrome.  That internal voice that you’re not good enough and somewhere along the line you’ll be found out (I get this feeling when I write but if you’ve made it this far perhaps I shouldn’t worry so much).

So where am I going with all of this? Listening to and exploring those inner voices and not explaining them away shows you are questioning the programming we often operate as a defence mechanism. Becoming more self-aware should be seen as a great strength as being conscious opens the door to personal growth and professional development.

As Ragnor would say “you were fearless because you dared to question”. We need to take the time to do more of this.  What do you think?


Time for internal debate should be seen as a strength even though we often seek clarity

Developing digital literacy through change – is transliteracy the answer?

Digital literacy I hear you say it’s everywhere! It is certainly a topic I hear much more frequently now than I ever used in my current role as a Career Consultant in higher education. As a term it feels ubiquitous but strangely also feels  like we’re all talking about it but sometimes with differing meanings and purposes – (do you ever get that feeling about “employability” as well?).   For example, for some of the students I work with they initially take the term to mean just using social media platforms or in some cases very specific software.  To help us understand some of the problems with becoming digitally literate it’s useful to think of our environment and starting points.

Some of you may have heard of Prensky who coined the terms digital ‘natives’ or ‘immigrants (settlers)’ as a way of distinguishing between those born into the digital age club and those amongst us (myself included) who get in via their analogue ticket (R.O.A.R).


If you’re not digitally native you’re not coming in!

Ironically, there’s a certain paradox here in the settlers very often being tasked to aid the natives in their digital development!  Maybe there’s more going on here than meets the eye and we need to extend our view of what it means to operate in 2017 and indeed prepare for the future – I’ll come back to this later on. But coming back to Prensky the terms suggest two ends diametrically opposed and the assumption  – to use the same analogy – that both clubs have strict entrance policies and play different music – Daft Punk versus Blondie perhaps!

But at what point given the widely accepted pace that technological developments occur do those lines become blurred and the demands placed on  natives and settlers to keep pace remain equal for all concerned even if our start points are different? Now, within education (and I know I’m generalising a lot here) is it also feels like the issue dealt with in a couple of ways:

  • Staff should do more to embed digital literacy and promote its use but may not feel equipped – this could be both in capability and time.
  • Throwing an increasing supply of sophisticated technology at the problem to somehow generate capability. e.g Sign up for LinkedIn and you’ll network your way to a job.

So what is the way forward?  Without pretending to have the precise answers I believe a solid starting point is dealing with our own understanding of what is “digital literacy”. I loved reading this article 20 ways of thinking about digital literacy in higher education. Without trying to show favoursitism these are the four ideals that stood out for me.

  1. Literacy is not static.
  2. HEIs need to help legitimise digital practices without trying to own them.
  3. Engage students in this debate and ensure that they too have ownership of this agenda.

However, one statement connected with me more than the others that I think helps bridge the divide between Presky’s ‘native’ and ‘settler’ debate and allow us all entry into a club that values our diversity and capabilities.

Digital literacy as an important part of transliteracy.  It is the literacy of convergence, unifying literacies past and present across different platforms, media and cultures.

This suggests we all have a contribution to make in being able to support our own and each others digital literacy development but also acceptance of where we have all come from and who we want to be both now and in the future.  What is comforting about transliteracy is that it includes and values other measures of what it means to navigate the 21st century life. It isn’t tied to a particular concept or piece of technology and it has space for the relationship we have with technology that at times feels just like a inevitable dystopian future of job losses.

There’s a great short video about developing transliteracy from Jeremy Brueck that gets you to consider what a lifestyle in a transliterate world means.


But as digital literacy remains so visible amongst us I’ve also produced a short presentation that explores some of the prevailing concepts and capabilities that helps us understand its relationship to employability.




Creativity in Careers Work: Pictionary anyone?

I recently attended a training session called “Creativity in the Classroom” mainly because I deliver workshops in a classroom or when required more formally ( imagine yourself saying this in a posh voice ) in a “lecture theatre”.

Some great concepts, ideas and discussion were generated over the 2 hours and I scribbled some notes and thoughts as we got through the content and activities.   Certainly the creative vibe that was fostered by the group got me thinking about the relevance and application of creative tools to my work as a careers practitioner.

So first off, what is creativity? Rather than bombard with static definitions I’ve gone with a short video to explain this from Sir Ken Robinson.

“the process of developing original ideas that have value….applied imagination”.

Some important themes emerge from video such as creativity being an evolving process we are all capable of and born with but much like a muscle is something we need to nurture and exercise to get the best results.  I also like the way Ken describes how creativity “comes with the kit” of what we are imbued with at birth.  This is perhaps why I tend to distance myself away from the TDI models/tests that are still in common usage or matching models such as Holland’s RIASEC that attempt to put people in boxes.

There is certainly creative innateness in all of us but much like play it is something that convention, time and let’s face it, the whole adult world almost drums out of us as we enter adulthood.  The causal link between play and creativity is well established and if Einstein said it then it must be true surely?

Maybe he's onto something....

Maybe he’s onto something….

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the most popular Ted Talk of all time also happens to be Sir Ken Robinson’s take down of accepted, modern (well circa 2006) education in the titled video “Do schools kill creativity?”

The act of creativity has boundless applications for our life and career.  Making new cognitive patterns of who we are and what we can achieve can be considered demonstrations of this.  For example, from our experiences we can sythenthise a completely new and often profound understanding of ourselves that alters existing perceptions of our place in the world.  This could lead us to new career goals and opportunities never previously considered.  Indeed, it may lead to creative acts such as developing our own innovative business idea or associating our current role and skillset with another seemingly unrelated one.

Widening opportunity understanding and developing self-awareness are two of the cornerstones of effective career management but often  – for the careers professionals amongst you – we are always aiming and pushing clients to think more radically and divergently from often narrow, pre-existing knowledge and perceptions of what can and should be followed.  What we are asking or wanting very often is for clients to think more laterally about about themselves and their situation to create their own solutions for life and career.

But if we take the view, as offered by Ken Robinson, then creativity is an evolving process and as such are we really expecting solutions to problems to originate in a single guidance interview?  The question should be then, how can we set the creative process in motion through a framework that encourages rather than inhibits creative thought patterns?    For example, I’d never even considered the possibility of fun or play within a guidance setting.  Obviously a client may feel slightly perturbed if you were to whisk your prize board game Pictionary out at the start of an appointment but actually, would it be that crazy an idea if it helped the client to start thinking more laterally rather than conventionally?

However, there are  tools and techniques other than Pictionary you can use with clients to encourage creative thinking which I jotted down in the session (as well as adding a few I found) that have applications in life and career  – not to mention guidance appointments for the careers people reading this.

Provocation (questioning)


Problem Reversal

Lateral thinking

Parallel thinking


Ideation techniques – brainstorming


Our own task is to try and incorporate the opportunity for creative thought processes to form and evolve in the spaces we interact with clients.  This requires some creativity on our own part in tailoring and refining our tools and communication to each client and group.

The ones I’ve leaned to and used already include mind-mapping, ideation and provocation questioning.  I quite like the idea of trying parallel thinking (role play) and problem reversal in more frequency.

I’d be keen to know if anyone out there can feedback on their experiences of these techniques and what results were yielded (for yourself or anyone you worked with).  Just reply in the comments with your thoughts.

Reading: Edward de Bono Serious Creativity

Why is everyone so busy? Why our technological future hasn’t really delivered.

Chancing upon an article in the economist titled “Why is everyone so busy” was my muse for this post.  Quoting an early passage the piece centres around from the hugely influential British economist John Maynard Keynes who stated in 1939 when predicting future work/life balance:

“Our grandchildren would work around three hours a day—and probably only by choice”.

It resonates because it’s something I and many others can probably relate to.  With so many technological and socio-economic advances since the industrial revolution and indeed since the birth of the internet age, why does life feel so rushed and pressured? The article refers to the notion of perception and contrast rather than a reality that we actually all have less time.  This is succinctly summed up in the piece when it says:

To be pressed for time has become a sign of prosperity, an indicator of social status, and one that most people are inclined to claim.

This alludes to a paradigm of choice suggesting we have complete freedom and we are victims of our own self-determinism. But for me it really highlights the pernicious culture in the developed world of materialism and neoliberalism.  In these contexts the question of “what is success” could be measured by one’s wealth, professional status and social capital. So despite technology the gap between the have and the have nots is getting ever wider despite platitudes and policies by western governments to counter this.

The 2013 Oxfam report “Even it up” is well worth a read on this subject but it really adds validity to the attribution of policy as a driver for inequality. The Economist article also references this divide:

The struggle to earn a place on that narrow pedestal encourages people to slave away for incomparably long hours. So rising wages, rising costs, diminishing job security and more demanding, rewarding work are all squeezing leisure time

So there is the race to the top for the haves and the race to stay afloat for the have nots.  In the UK for example the huge rise in the number of workers on zero hour contacts and the paucity of investment in careers guidance (a proven and valuable component of any social mobility policy) really reinforces this systemic failure. Whilst still on this subject of the impact of careers guidance a recently commissioned “mobility manifesto” report for the Sutton Trust really hammers  home its value.  Governments take note!

Technological determinism has always been at the forefront of mainstream popular culture and prediction albeit following a divergent pattern.  For example we are often presented  with the  utopian (think Star Trek) and more box office, dystopian future (think Terminator). So where am I going with all this?  Well, I can’t help but think the combination of technological advancement and policy has not really worked out as the optimists may have intended.  Certainly not in the case of John Maynard Keynes predicted.

Many people have found the advancement of technology has eroded low skilled jobs and those in professional roles may not have seen the home working revolution we were promised (have you seen the traffic jams recently!). So it does make you wonder who the winners from us mere mortals really are doesn’t it?

Our life space has also suffered. Surely the most destructive device to work/life balance has to be the smart phone.  Again, I know many people who are “on call” well beyond their contracted hours and access and respond to work emails on their Blackberry because they feel compelled to.  Push notifications must seem to some to be the modern day Victorian servant bell.

Finally I am reminded of the story of the Mexican fisherman.  It’s well known but it’s stayed with me over the years.  For those of you unfamiliar please have a read because it’s a parable that  relates to a question I posed in a previous post, “What is Success?”

The moral of the story.  Sometimes we’re so busy trying to climb the mountain we forget the name of the mountain we’re trying to climb.  Food for thought.

Kolb – Experiential learning model: Lessons for reflective practice

I’m a great believer in experience shaping both our personalities and our careers.  The opportunity to learn from doing is often seen as high value and advantageous especially from an employee / employer perspective (Although those familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy will appreciate and argue that “application” is a mid-level form of learning and understanding).  We see this value in the push for obtaining work experience, especially in the HE sector in which I work where internships and year in industry placements are prize assets.

What got me thinking about learning and experience was really my own situation and how I started out in this line of work. This thought process then reminded me of David Kolb (1984) and his influential four stage “experiential learning cycle” which I’ve always liked and related to. Reflected graphically it looks like a circle but crucially Kolb suggests learning through experience is a collection of cycles that keep repeating as we pick up new experiences. The four stages in the cycle are as follows:

  1. Concrete Experience – (feeling).
  2. Reflective Observation (watching).
  3. Abstract Conceptualization (thinking).
  4. Active Experimentation (doing).

Each of these stages supports the next stage but crucially Kolb maintained that for effective learning to take place all four stages need to be completed (although not always in order).  It does however allow for people to jump in at different points.

Perhaps key here is the duality of reflection and learning and how that process occurs.  The example I will use here is the following statement.  We learn by reflection but equally reflect on our learning.

Kolb (1984) defined learning as simply: “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience”

So here we are saying that new experiences can create the opportunity to process and gather new knowledge.

One of the main reasons I like the model is the relationship to existing career choice theory and how we develop our career.  In career development, planning and decision making we know individuals do not just gain control and understanding of their career simply by “doing things”.  For example, just moving from job to job as an activity doesn’t necessarily give an individual the understanding of the big question such as “who am I?”.    Here we are very much in the confines of socioeconomic or accident theory.  Doing is not enough in isolation.

Therefore, there is a strong correlation and relationship between Kolb’s experiential learning cycle and the newer career development and choice theories such as Savickas – Career Construction Theory, Krumboltz – Social Learning Theory and Super’s concept of vocational maturity.   All these theories involve reflective practice informing thoughts, behaviours, actions and the very concept of self and who we are.

Another strength is the process of how we train and mature as careers professionals could be argued to mirror  the four stage experiential learning model.

Concrete Experience: As unqualified careers practitioners before we enter training.  This is where we have accessed the role either as a client or perhaps in a prior life have been put in a situation where we have delved into supporting someone in their career.

Reflective Observation:  We start some formal CEIAG training.  For some it is via the NVQ route and for others the QCG route.  Either way for most practitioners we are put in the situation early on in our training whereby we observe qualified and experienced professionals doing the job.  We may then complete activities such as diaries/journals, group discussions and thought questions.  In other words stepping back from the experience and reviewing it.

Abstract Conceptualisation.  Making the link to theory based practice.  In training this would be the introduction of career and guidance theory and writing assignments.  It would be making the comparisons between what is experienced and observed and how this relates to our current knowledge.

Active Experimentation.  Would also start in our training and arguably continue for the rest of our professional career.  This is putting stages 2 and 3 into practice.  For instance following interview models and having a conscious approach and rationale during guidance interviews.  Early on in our career (and this is certainly my own experience) we spend a lot of time moving between stages as we observe, learn and experiment. You would expect a careers practitioner with experience to be spending more of their time in active experimentation or in other words doing what they are trained and able to do.  Although as this is a cycle the expectation is that as new experiences are added we continuously  phase shift through.

Like all theories and models Kolb’s four stage model has attracted criticism. I’ve read comments calling it epistemologically problematic (yes I had to look that up!) which really highlights there is no universal agreement of how we all learn.

For example, how we learn has been argued as much on a philosophical basis as it has a scientific basis.  Different camps for this include constructivism, empiricism, idealism and rationalism.  Quite simply Kolb’s model does not accommodate all of these perspectives (its primary focus is empiricism or learning from experience).

Although I have argued a strength is its relative correlation to how careers professionals may develop, the actual process is quite simplistic and mechanical but nevertheless influential and well worth sharing and blogging about.

Reading McLeod, S. A. (2010). Kolb – Learning Styles. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/learning-kolb.html

If it's good enough for Einstein! Image Flickr under CC from  https://www.flickr.com/photos/mrsdkrebs/

If it’s good enough for Einstein! Image Flickr under CC from https://www.flickr.com/photos/mrsdkrebs/

Motivational techniques in careers interviews

The requirement for motivation appears to sit high on the agenda in today’s modern world.  Whether it’s an advert for a branded porridge to give us the ‘best start’ in the morning (I find a strong coffee helps me best) or it’s one of those, never-seen-before inspirational quotes (no room for Nike’s ‘just do it’ then) – popping up in your LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook news feed; motivation seems to be everywhere these days. It is also pretty important, as I’m sure you’ll agree, as without it the temptation to lie in bed all day reading those aforementioned motivational quotes on your social media channels would be too great.

Who says coffee can't motivate

Who says coffee can’t motivate

The detail and theory underlying motivation is interesting stuff. Those with big brains say it can be broken down into two strands.  Extrinsic and intrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is believed to be a stronger driver for behaviour than extrinsic motivation. Why?  Well, intrinsic motivation relies on tapping into  a person’s beliefs, values and emotions.  For example having a hobby for fun of it.  This doesn’t always make intrinsic motivation rational – far from it.  Following your local football team who aren’t doing very well and suffering disappointment when they keep losing whilst at the same time costing you the equivalent of a second mortgage is a good example.  On the face of it this doesn’t appear logical but the drivers here are loyalty, emotional attachment and identity to a locality (unless you support Man Utd).

Extrinsic motivation is when people are driven by external factors and events rather than the internal feelings  of intrinsic motivation.  Extrinsic motivation is closely related to what psychologists call operant conditioning based on the work of B.F Skinner from the 1930s.  Skinner believed behaviour could best be explained by the interaction and involvement of positive, negative and neutral reinforcement.  In other words rewarding or punishing actions to elicit behavioural change or maintenance behaviour. This relates closely towards the motivation to repeat behaviour or cease that behaviour.  For example, work can be associated with the reward of earning money.  Money can therefore reinforces the behaviour of turning up for work each day.  Another example may be completing work due to the pressure exerted by your manager.  The message here may be “if this work is not completed you will get into trouble”.

In my careers guidance work I regularly see clients  where motivation to change themselves or their situation seems to underline many of the reasons why they booked an appointment to see me.  For this reason I thought it would be useful to identify and describe some of the tools we have at our disposal to help understand and facilitate client motivation in a careers context.

Open questioning: Is a basic but powerful tool – possibly the most powerful – as it can do two things.  1)  Understand their story.  i.e elicit information and understanding of a client’s situation, feelings and what they want help with.  2) The process also draws out those feelings into the open potentially allowing clients to be the narrators of their own solutions.   Open questioning works well on an intrinsic level.  Clients are talking about themselves, their feelings and thoughts. It can open the door to reflection but also allows an adviser to interpret and challenge assumptions on self-efficacy. Open questioning allows us to understand external motivators such as the value a person places on money  in their life and career.  It can help get the internal debate out into the open and so is the foundation for then using other tools such as decisional balance and scaling.

Decisional balance (cost/benefit analysis): A decisional balance sheet can be a very effective tool for countering ambivalence in that to make it work both pros and cons of decisions need to be identified and valued.   In this sense a decisional balance sheet could help a client process and move towards making a  decision.   This is especially true if there are more weighted benefits towards one scenario than another (or indeed less disadvantages).  Ultimately this process is about making the unconscious, conscious.

Scaling (1-10) Scaling is a technique regularly employed in solution focused therapies  and interviews and allows the professional to try and re-frame a response away from an all or nothing answer.  The reality of the scale sits solely in the interview.  It isn’t scientific, but it does represent the perception of a client to an issue.  A scale can be used to represent two dichotomous views or states.  A scaling question I could use with a client could be: “On a scale of 1-10, with one very not very useful and ten being extremely useful, how useful do you believe the careers service could be in helping your achieve your careers aims?” The answer can open further probing questions but it is also a lense that enables the adviser to think about possible thought processes the client is experiencing.  For example if your client answered “two”(gulp!)  a follow up question could be “why do you think the careers service would not be able to help you?”.  The scale can also track progress.  So for example if the same question was asked of client at the start of  a session , I could ask the same scaling question at the end to see if there was perceived progress. 

Scaling therefore does not aid the client in isolation as it still requires prompting, probing and interpretative skills from the adviser.  It means scaling can be used as part of a narrative, person centred approach as a way of assigning some measurable value.  So for instance these values could form part of a decisional balance analysis.

Looking forward: Solution focused therapy follows  a key principle of identifying the problem and enabling steps to find solutions.  The focus is on looking forward and finding a fix  rather than looking back and spending time discussing the problem in the first place.  Solution Focused Brief Therapy is a branch of psychotherapy and so is not something that is professionally or strictly practiced within a guidance context by careers practitioners.   However, the simple premise of working towards a solution/s is something that can be employed with clients   The rationale is as follows:

SFBT……originated in an interest in the inconsistencies to be found in problem behaviour. From this came the central notion of ‘exceptions’: however serious, fixed or chronic the problem there are always exceptions and these exceptions contain the seeds of the client’s own solution.

Source: Advances in Psychiatric Treatment Solution-focused brief therapy (2014)

An example of this in a careers context could be a client that only sees failure in their career decision making and current occupation choice.  However, an exception in this case could be the learning experience contained in those perceived failures.  In other words, maybe the role isn’t working out but it has enabled the client to refine what they are really looking for.

Looking forward sits well within guidance practice in that it accepts the potential limitations of the careers practitioners expertise in counselling and moves the interaction into a coaching capacity that may better fit a practitioners efficacy.

Useful Sources

Advances in Psychiatric Treatment Solution-focused brief therapy (2014)

Changing Minds (2013) Motivation