- Chapter 28 -


A high proportion of American working people, perhaps a majority, fall into their vocations through chance and circumstance, rather than as a result of an organized plan.  Even if choosing a vocation is based on what people think is careful investigation, frequently important factors are missed. Find the Right Vocation based on Temperament and other factors

Three Common Mistakes in Choosing a Vocation

  1. Admiring an older person and choosing his or her vocation

This is a common but understandable mistake.  The effort to imitate is flattering to the experienced individual, who probably enjoys that vocation and has been successful in it.  So the young person is encouraged to enter the field, unfortunately often without any analysis as to whether or not it is suitable for his or her ability, interest, and temperament.

It is natural for people who thoroughly enjoy their vocations to think that other people should feel the same way about them.  I was invited to a party where the guests were in scientific research, and one of them said to me, very seriously, "I don't know why everybody doesn't want to be a research biologist!"  The shock on my face must have been apparent.

There have been many examples of a young person's admiring a business executive as a role model.  The executive offers him or her a job.  But then things change.  Maybe the executive dies and it turns out that other employees were jealous at what they considered favoritism.  Or maybe the business is sold, and the headquarters are moved.  And perhaps the job was not what the person thought it was going to be.  Such sponsorship has its dangers.

  1. "It's not what I really want, but I think I will try it for a while."

This mistake takes place when a person is looking around for the desired opportunity but gets impatient.  A position becomes available and is offered to him or her.  The reaction is, "Well, it's not what I want, but I think I will try it for a while."  This decision leads to many unhappy situations, because people get settled in and, if they have any sense of loyalty or commitment, they try to do their best.  After a while, they are no longer psychologically or emotionally free to look elsewhere.  They do not make the change, and later, perhaps in their 40's, they become discontented.  Their talents and interests may run along other lines, but they have never had the chance to use them.

  1. Following the popular trend and choosing the vocation which is in fashion

This is the reason, in my opinion, that the greatest number of mistakes come about.  Vocations go in and out of fashion, and people make choices based on the prevailing popular trend, which, of course, is largely predicated on the perceived possibilities for making money.  For an extended period of time, medicine was the prime choice, and people went to all lengths to try to get into medical school, even attending offshore schools of dubious value such as the one which sprang up in Grenada in the Caribbean.  This was followed by what appeared to be a developing superfluity of doctors, and applications fell off.  Then a decade later, the cycle reversed itself again.  Up and down it goes, not necessarily based on the number of people who are eager to be doctors but based on what people perceive the field of medicine to be at that time.

During the greedy 1980's, the most highly-publicized vocation was that of an investment banker.  In one year, the MAJORITY of the graduates from Yale applied not just to investment banks in general but to ONE investment bank.  Not long after, there were a lot of ex-investment bankers looking for work, as there was a drop in the activities of Wall Street and people were let go, particularly the newly employed.  But then, here again, two decades later the situation had changed and investment bankers were doing well again.

Then there is law.  As of now, it appears to be the most profitable game in town, and people are flocking into law school.  However, I have read that as many people are leaving the field as are entering it.  If not before, disillusionment frequently sets in with people during their 40's.  This may be understandable as a Wall Street Journal article stated, "A 1990 Johns Hopkins University study showed that severe depression is more likely to occur among lawyers than among members of 103 other occupations.  And researchers at Campbell University in North Carolina found that 11% of attorneys in the state thought of taking their own life at least once a month."

There is much in our culture which makes law appear to be glamorous as well as profitable.  I am a "Partner in Education" with the Fischer Elementary School in New Orleans in the inner city next to a housing project.  The students' view of the world is very much shaped by television as they stay in their apartments all day for safety's sake and watch the tube.  I enjoy having lunch at the school frequently - the students are friendly and responsive, starved for attention and affection - and I ask them what they would like to be when they grow up.  The majority of them say they would like to be lawyers as they watch court room scenes and learn about the fantastic settlements for liability cases.  None choose business.  A generation of two earlier it would have been, "I want to be in business for myself."

There are those worthy individuals who hope to use their legal training to work for the environment or help needy people.  There are not as many opportunities, unfortunately, to practice those kinds of law as there are people who would like to do so.  I know of one starry-eyed young woman, for example, who wanted to help humankind through her legal training, but who has ended up, through sheer economic necessity, as an in-house lawyer for a junk food company.  However, some do succeed in serving as lawyers for very worthwhile causes, such as representing low skilled people, like migrant farmers, in wage dispute cases.  This choice, probably done at considerable financial sacrifice, is to be admired.

A frequent expression is, "Studying law can't hurt you and it might help you."  It can hurt you.  A law school education is designed to develop the mind set of a lawyer, as indeed it should.  Lawyers are trained to look for problems, to anticipate every difficulty that might arise, and to develop all possible legal language to prevent them.  Also, they are frequently engaged in controversy.

This kind of mind set is good for those who should practice law, but it is not helpful to people in some other fields.  For example, an entrepreneur should cultivate the characteristics of vision, imagination, and risk-taking, plus a certain amount of dreaming, and these are not traits that law school drilled into the better attorneys I know.  An entrepreneur needs a good lawyer, but he must make the ultimate decisions as to how the business develops, normally based on a different mind-set.

Now, that does not mean that people should not study medicine, or become investment bankers, or lawyers.  The important point is that each of these vocations calls for a different kind of temperament, interests, and personal characteristics, and if an individual is suitably endowed, by all means, he or she should pursue that line of endeavor, whether it is crowded or not.  The most important factor is for people to be happy and satisfied in their work, and if they are, they generally do well, and, if they do well, they will probably succeed financially.

Five Important Considerations:

  1. The condition of the job market,
  2. An idealistic commitment which strongly influences a person's direction,
  3. Ability,
  4. Interests, and
  5. Most important, temperament.
  1. The condition of the job market

There are some professions which are definitely over-crowded.  More oceanographers are turned out by our educational system than there are jobs available, either with the government or with private industry.  It is thrilling to think that some day we will be harvesting great quantities of minerals from the ocean floor and growing vast amounts of food for human consumption in the ocean, and this has an clear appeal for environmentalists, but it will be some time before this translates into many professional positions.  A person might consider shifting to the related field of marine biology and investigate the opportunities in that field.

A profession which is more cyclical than many others is that of architecture, especially for those at the entry level.  It had an unemployment rate at one time of 25%, causing one you man to lament, "My grandfather warned me.  He said that designing buildings is a fine way to starve to death."  Another practitioner struggling in the field said to me, "Do you know how to make a small fortune in architecture?  Start with a big one."  Not too long after this downturn America entered a period of a building boom.  Jobs in the field were plentiful.  If becoming an architect or an oceanographer is a consuming interest, it should be pursued, and vocational opportunities frequently change with time.

The condition of the job market should be considered, but more important is the satisfaction of a vocation which a person enjoys.

  1. Some people are strongly motivated to serve humankind or to pursue a religious vocation.

Barbara Bell could have chosen a number of different vocations but decided to be a social worker, and is helping pregnant teenage girls.  Sometimes she is the only person present with a girl at the time her baby is born if the expectant mother has been rejected by her family, and the father, if known, has denied any responsibility.  It is a stressful occupation, with obstetrician's hours, but for her, very rewarding.  She is well aware that some of her Princeton classmates are earning two or three times as much as she is, but salary size is not her motivating force.  The response she gets from grateful clients is reward enough.

And there are those people who are very happy living in primitive conditions as missionaries.  We should be grateful for individuals like this, but the desire for a service vocation with elements of self-sacrifice is only influential in the lives of certain people in choosing this type of work.  However, in a service field, it should be noted that there are a variety of assignments calling for different interests and talents, and a person should consider these, just as one considers a vocation in general.  For example, the Red Cross needs accountants and office managers in its organization as well as those who rush to help others in a disaster. 

  1. Ability

Obviously, a person should try to match abilities with a vocational choice.  This sounds so obvious, it is surprising how many people do not sufficiently analyze themselves and the job in this regard.  Some of the reasons people use to choose their life's work are far off the mark, and are frequently only important for a short period of time.  "I've been offered this job in Denver.  I don't know much about it, but I have always wanted to live in Denver."  Do the person's abilities match the position?

Bill has been looking for a job for some time, and has gotten discouraged.  He is offered a position with a good salary and he likes the people at the company.  But does Bill want to be an insurance adjuster?  Does he know what an insurance adjuster does all day long?  I know some parents who got impatient with their son and finally said, "Take anything, but get a job."  Fortunately, he did not just take anything.  He got a job coaching at a high school and loves it.

  1. Interests

Some people are fortunate enough to have a special interest emerge when they are very young which gives them vocational direction from which they never waver.  Charlotte showed an interest in clothes and in sewing from a very early point which resulted in her winning awards even as a teenager.  She is well on her way toward a successful career in costume design.  In my own case, my enthusiasm about selling Saturday Evening Posts at the age of 11 predicted something about my future.

Others have a more difficult time determining direction.  Even people who believe they know their areas of interest are often mislead by emotional attachments or the glamour of a given field.  So many young people "want to write", but analysis indicates they are intrigued by what they think the life of a writer is like, not realizing that it is a hard craft of turning out something of merit and then revising, rerevising and rerevising.

Fortunately there is help available to determine your areas of interest in the form of psychological tests in which you answer "either" "or" questions.  If you are asked if you would prefer to sell clothes in a store, or be in charge of an auto parts department, your immediate reaction may be, "Neither".  However, a slight preference toward one of those, as well as the choices in 50 other questions, can reveal preferential interests that may not have been so apparent before.  A standard question is, "Would you rather read a book, write a book, or sell a book?"

The important subject of 5.) Personal temperament is dealt with in the next chapter as it relates to vocational choice.


The following account of a case of vocational counseling in which I was involved illustrates some of the points outlined above.


Chuck's father was a mountain of a man, in every way, in stature, in personality, and vocational success, as a doctor.  In addition, he had a booming voice.  He was very much admired by many people, and it was only natural for Chuck to want to be like him, and, of course, to be a doctor.

Chuck was a National Merit finalist, but when he went to Vanderbilt, he flunked out.  Transferring to Auburn and changing his major to Political Science did not help because he flunked his final senior exams.

He came to see me, looking depressed and discouraged.  He said, "I hate Dr. Harris, my Poli-Sci prof, and Dr. Harris hates me.  We both know I shouldn't have chosen that major anyhow.  I just have no motivation and no sense of responsibility."

"Chuck, if you had a choice of any vocation in the world, what would you choose?"

He brightened up immediately, and without hesitation replied, "I'd like to run a charter fishing boat."

"That's fine," I replied, "Let's start Chuck's Charter Fishing Boat Co., Inc.  We'll raise some money, and you can start off with one boat in Biloxi.  You'll learn what insurance you need, what to pay the captain, and all the other details the business requires.  Then you could get a second boat in Pensacola, and then one in Jacksonville.  Wouldn't you work 50 or 60 hours a week in the middle of the big fishing season?"

By this time, he had brightened up.  "You bet I would."

"Chuck, you would be motivated."

He looked stunned.  "I never thought of that."

"And suppose," I proceeded, "you had my family and me out in the boat and we ran into foul weather, wouldn't you stay up all night, steering into the wind, or whatever you would have to do, to keep us safe?"


"Chuck, you would be responsible."

We then began a plan to try to find out what should be his vocation, charter-fishing boat or otherwise, and set up an appointment for John Rosen, our psychologist, to do some testing.  But first Chuck had to go back and take his exams over.

"Chuck, do you want Dr. Harris to win the game or do you want to win it?"

"I want to win it, and I am going to."

He later reported he carried a bunch of books around the campus, and if he met Dr. Harris, he would say, "I'll be in the library if you need me."  Dr. Harris could not understand what had happened to Chuck who finally earned the passing grade he needed.

John Rosen, the psychologist to whom Chuck went for further vocational guidance, determined that Chuck was very bright (which we knew) and that he loved the ocean (which we knew).  He also added that Chuck had real aptitude in science, but did not have the temperament to be a doctor.  He suggested oceanography, and Chuck's response was, "Of course.  Why didn't somebody tell me that years ago?"

He did not get a job in oceanography, but in a similar field very much to his liking.  He went to work for what was then called the Bureau of Wildlife and Fisheries, for the Federal Government, and was assigned to a multi-million-dollar boat which went out into the Gulf and along the eastern shore of South America locating schools and types of fish for American fishing fleets.  This was a good demonstration of the fact that if a vocation such as oceanography is over-crowded, it is possible to find work in a similar field.

Several years later, he was in charge of one of these voyages, in command even over the captain of the ship.  There were a number of scientists aboard, and it was considered an important mission.  Who was the ship's doctor?  His father, and proud he was.

But that is not the end of the story about Chuck.  He was offered a promotion which would move him up in administration and would require a relocation to Atlanta.  He turned it down.  He would have missed sea duty and the opportunity to live by the water in Pascagoula, his home town.  He knew what kind of work interested him and what suited his temperament, and staying true to that knowledge made him very happy.

Chuck's experience demonstrated some important points, the first being the futility of choosing a vocation because of admiration for another person.  He got some excellent testing, both in ability and temperament, and followed it through in terms of a vocational choice.  And he understood his interests and temperament well enough to stay on the right track and not be tempted by a so-called promotion.

A summary of this chapter is as follows:

  1. Don't choose a vocation just because you admire someone in it.
  2. Don't take a second or third choice saying, "It's not what I want, but I think I'll try it for a while."
  3. Don't choose a vocation because it is the currently popular one.  Twenty-five years later, you could wake up and realize it was never a personally appropriate choice.
  4. Don't be pressured into making a premature commitment.
  5. Analyze your interests, what you like to do, and see if you can't find a matching vocation.  The same should be done with regard to abilities.
  6. Study the job market and if a reasonable shift to a different field might produce position sooner, consider it, but don't let the job market be the final determinant if you are truly interested in a particular field.
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