When I was a child, I thought that careers were a lot like running the 1500-meter race at our school track-and-field event. A group of friends start together. We run until we are ready to fall over. The first three to cross the finish line get a special prize, but everyone is a winner. Then we all go for pizza.
As a member of Generation-X, my parents taught me that that a career is a linear journey that culminates after decades of loyal service with a healthy pension and a great party. Instead, my friends and I witnessed many of our parents experience the painful process of being laid off as they neared the finish line. Even my mother was terminated less than 2 years before she qualified for retirement. Something has clearly changed.
I completed my Master of Science in Mental Health Counseling in 1998 at Western Washington University in Bellingham. While in school, I had the opportunity to test-run a few career paths: teaching the statistical analysis of data to undergraduates, facilitating a therapy group for runaway teens, and coordinating temporary foster placements for youth at risk. While I had terrific experiences, I still wasn't sure where my career would take me.
After graduating, I returned to Vancouver, British Columbia, hopeful that I would find a job that I could love. However, hope didn't pay the bills and I had accumulated a whack of student loans over the course of my education. I accepted the first job that I was offered, as a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist for adults with chronic mental illness preparing to enter the workplace. It only took about 6 weeks to realize that I was totally mismatched for my career. While I was able to build great relationships with my clients and had many successful outcomes, I found the "frontline" work emotionally draining and I was perpetually frustrated by the structure of the mental health system. I missed the intellectual challenges that I had enjoyed so much during university.
I began exploring the job market to search for other options. A close friend was a successful freelance Web designer, and she piqued my curiosity in human factors for the Internet. Still a relatively new field, there wasn't a lot of demand for usability specialists in the market so it was difficult to identify exactly what I was shooting for. However, I could see enormous potential for the marriage between cognitive psychology and new media.
At the same time, I was given the opportunity to develop a career exploration program specifically tailored to adults with mental health issues. As part of my research, I examined labor market trends closely and I started thinking about careers in an entirely new way. The new market emphasizes transferable skills. Successful employees can adapt, communicate effectively, and organize themselves and others. While employers still expect job-specific skills, there is recognition that learning is a lifelong process, not a finite endeavor that ends before employment begins.
The intellectual and creative challenge of creating the career exploration program was energizing but short-lived. I returned to frontline counseling reluctantly, recognizing that it would not take long for the emotional demands to wear me out entirely. The experience taught me that I still loved exploring how people interpret information and events, build cognitive schemas, and make decisions as a result. Psychology was the right field, but I was selling my skills in the wrong market. Usability and new media appeared to require the same knowledge and curiosity about human behavior as counseling, while applying these principles in a more abstract manner. Perhaps I really could transfer my skills between two careers that seemed so different on the surface.
My experience with computers was limited, so I needed to retrain before I could make the leap into my new career. The prospect of paying for more education made my stomach do cartwheels but I enrolled in the certificate program for Internet Publishing at the University of British Columbia only 1 year after earning my master's degree. I spent the next year working full-time in my counseling job while attending courses in the evening and building my first Web sites. I assumed that a career in high tech would quickly pay off any debt that I incurred because the market was booming. It was smooth sailing ahead.
In retrospect, getting my first job in Web design was relatively easy, although I remember feeling tortured by the process at the time. As a career counselor, I had taught many clients about informational interviewing, which can be nerve-wracking for someone who has little experience with networking. I posted a request for a mentor on a New Media mailing list. The response was overwhelmingly supportive and I quickly set up interviews with coders, vice presidents, designers, and HR personnel. To calm my nerves, I prepared for each interview meticulously, always reminding myself that the goal was to build connections within the community and absorb whatever knowledge was offered. The interviews were fascinating but confusing. No one gave me the same advice. Everyone had a different perspective on the high-tech industry. Fortunately, my fifth interview ended the confusion abruptly when I was offered an entry-level Web design position in a company that was doubling in size.
I loved my new job but, of course, the story doesn't end there. Within 6 months, the high-tech stock market leveled out and then headed into the freefall that we are all too familiar with. Although not publicly traded, my new company was hit hard when our investors withdrew their financial support. To survive, the business was downsized and three-quarters of the staff were terminated. My training and skills enabled me to survive the cuts, but I was reduced to a part-time work schedule. It was definitely not enough to pay the bills.
I was unexpectedly on a course that I never would have predicted for myself--to become an entrepreneur. I began actively seeking out freelance contracts for Web design and was able to supplement my income by working from home (often in my pajamas!) with little difficulty. It was time to hang out my shingle, so I built myself a Web site ( www.jen-x.com) and I carved out my niche by emphasizing my extensive background in cognitive psychology. Instead of creating Web sites with flashy bells and whistles that don't enhance the user's ability to access information, I build and fix Web sites that account for human factors. Understanding the principles of cognitive psychology enables me to approach Web sites from an entirely different paradigm than most designers.
I no longer think of my career as a linear path with an ultimate destination. My mom still quotes something that I said just before university, when I wanted to take time off and she wanted me to push ahead.
"Life is not a race. There is no finish line. If I don't know where I'm going, I won't notice whether I ever get there!"
At the time, my lack of direction seemed unfavorable, but many years later it has proven to be my saving grace. In the new market, careers are transient and skills are transferable. Loyalty between employers and employees is limited and companies in high tech come and go overnight. Instability is only frightening when careers are viewed as having an end goal, an absolute measure of success that is determined by culture, not the individual. For someone who can ebb and flow with the labor market, like me, instability only means that new opportunities are being created every day. It is because I don't know where I am going that I am free to go anywhere I choose.