Discovering Your Career Life Cycle

By Robert Jay Ginn, JrThe Radcliffe Career Services 80th Anniversary Lecture
Celebrating 80 Years of Service to Women
November 19, 1994 at Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts


The early 1990’s will be characterized by history as the birthdate of what Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich calls the “anxiety class.” The anxiety class live lives of economic and vocational uncertainty and instability created by a highly competitive and rapidly evolving marketplace which depreciates the job security of every worker who is not growing and changing in response to market forces. Everyone from the entry level trainee to the occupant of the presidential suite is vulnerable.

The rise of the anxiety class may mark the end of an era where vocational self-expression was seen to be something of a right or at least a legitimate expectation. Bob Reich would the be first person to argue that it does not have to be so. Vocational self-expression and market forces are not mutually exclusive. In fact many analysts say we are in what they call a “post-job environment” and I would go further and call it a post-career environment where your acquisition of new skills and your educational flexibility must be rooted in your evolving vocational self-understanding rather than a passive submission to your “right career.”

The old career structure which emphasized commitment to one career for life was based on routine production, economies of scale and structural stability.  That structure stressed job security and favored a static long-term commitment to your Right Career. You found your career track, I would call it a career rut, and stayed in place. Workers trapped in the early stages of their career lifecycle still seek job security in an environment in which there is no longer any job security for anybody.

The new career structure is one where individuals are active agents in their own career development. The career process is one which insists that we each construct self-images such as vocational identity that influence our response to the environment. This identity or vocational self-understanding is developmental in nature, that is, it changes over time in somewhat regular patterns we all share and it is rooted in intrinsic motives (e.g., nurturance, curiosity, achievement) that help guide our career choice and development.

My own life work within career counseling has been to use testing to examine inner originating motives that define the framework of work and play. I think that we must all address work and personality from the perspective of intrinsic satisfaction, a view of vocational identity that focuses on our unique contribution to whatever organization or work we do. This identity is grounded in being a responsible self, choosing which skills, knowledge, and abilities we want to assemble into a vocational self-understanding.

What we all need to be seeking is employment security based on life-long learning of new skills consistent with our career motivation. We also need to develop job search expertise like networking skills which will help us move relatively easily from job to job. The critical new competencies in the boundaryless career are know-why, know-how, know-whom. The combination of skills, evolving self understanding, and renewal of our vocational competency permit us to maneuver in the new economy. Our job-relevant skill set, mobility constraints, and our network of contacts interact with structural characteristics such as vacancy-driven opportunity boundaries, economic factors, our social container, to create careers.

The new work environment asks each of us to devlop skills which permit self-management and vendor-orientation and acting as if you have an ownership stake in the business at hand. Networking, learning, and enterprise are the new critical career success skills.

In this new environment, every individual is in the business of being herself: her competencies and commitments, her knowledge of the organization’s product and work, her experience at coordinating her work with that of others inside and outside the organization, and finally her ability to motivate herself to do what needs to be done. This new environment is the very picture of freedom yet many workers view freedom as synonymous with insecurity. Vocational fear and learned helplessness can and do paralyze the worker at the very moment she needs all her self-consciousness in order to compete effectively. When I entered the field, career counseling was based on the assumptions that the college-to-work transitions was fundamental and virtually irreversible for career development and that midcareer interventions were supplementary. That is no longer true.

This lecture is about the developmental patterns underlying the resistance of many workers to growing and responding to the new demands of 21st century capitalism where the web has replaced the ladder as the dominant career metaphor.

The shift in focus from vocational self-expression to vocational competition is palpable to many in my profession. The focus of career development advising is, in my own experience and as reported by my colleagues, shifting from basic issues of vocational identity to advice on acquiring an edge in skills or education or opportunity. This would not be troubling to me if the strategic issues of vocational self-concept were adequately resolved before moving into purely tactical career planning about how to acquire the qualifications one wants. Worries about job vulnerability and how to guard against it dominate career planning discussions which not long ago focused on shaping the vocational identity which was consistent with your deepest, wisest self.

Those developmentally vital discussions of self-expression in employment are now routinely jettisoned for recipes on how to pay off your educational loans, hide your performance deficits, and insulate yourself against job loss. The latter are not unimportant questions but they are being asked too soon and too often thereby putting the cart before the horse.

Sixties radicals pointed an accusing finger at their parents and chanted, “You are what you do.” In part they took their cue from a new group of young career counselors who advised: “Do what you are.” A generation which rejected the notion that your identity is defined by your work yearned for the opportunity to allow their own unique vocational self-understanding to define their vocation, and the boom years of the 1980s complied with their wishes offering a diverse and rich base of employment opportunities. That generation is now shocked to look around and see increasing numbers of its members out of a job or unhappily employed in jobs they dare not leave.

The sharp edges of a market economy outline a Procrustean bed for many workers. For instance, the failure of 1994 health care reform has robbed workers of additional mobility. Surveys suggest that 10 percent to 30 percent of workers are now reluctant to change jobs because of fear of losing health coverage due to preexisting conditions. Reform that guarantees every person continued health care will free workers to seek better jobs – and not wait until the bitter end when their employer downsizes them out of a job or simply closes its doors.

The nightmare ending the dream of having a major say in defining our vocation is the same vocational vulnerability that s isolating workers from each other and forcing people to hold their pose as a productive loyal member of a work team missing the essential ingredient of any team: mutual trust. For many college seniors and recent graduates, the fear of making a mistake in one’s career path is almost at the paralysis stage. The older worker is also living with the fear that her job will be gone next week and age discrimination will keep her from finding anything in the same pay range. As one woman executive said to me, “career satisfaction doesn’t pay my kid’s tuition.”

In the midst of these tectonic shifts in power, in locus of control over career development, it is helpful to return to some important but largely undervalued work done in the 1970’s by William Perry and Lee Knefelkamp and their many colleagues. These researchers at Harvard and the University of Maryland synthesized a nine-stage psychosocial model of career development showing us the journey or quest we each go through as we seek to experience ourselves as powerful and hopeful, as able to build a better vocational future for ourselves and others. I have added to their original insights my own experience of 25 years in the career counseling field as a practitioner, not as a researcher. The resulting model speaks clearly to the fear and hysteria which is becoming more and more the daily bread of workers in these last years of the 20th century.

Stage One: Absolute Reliance on External Authority

In Stage One, we make two big assumptions: there is a Right Career for us and there is an Authority who will tell us what the Right Career is. The Authority looks at us and then looks into the celestial Platonic sphere of ideal careers and chooses the Right Career for us. In intellectual development this is analogous to the teacher looking at student tests, then looking up into the sphere of Truth and judging the answers Right or Wrong. There is no gray scale here – this is the realm of Absolute Reliance on Absolute Authority for the selection of the absolutely Right Career.

The locus of control in finding that career and in growing our lives remains external and it will continue to be external until Stage Five.  As long as we are comfortable with the Stage One assumptions, nothing happens. We will not leave where we are unless we come to the conclusions that what we are leaving is bad and there is hope of something better. In the same way that battered women need a safe shelter in which to build hope and experience freedom, we need to see that we can have a better future only when we move beyond the current terrors in the workplace. What faces each of us as workers is our individual need to innovate continually our capacity to work.

The big question in Stage One is whether we shall act at all. In addition to fear, laziness and complacency are major enemies. We make incremental adjustments to intolerable situations. It is safe and easy to let others define our lives for us. We are not culpable for mistakes. We are not responsible for how we are to use our gifts or even defining what those gifts are. Most of the difficult trials of career-decision-making are easily avoided if others make our decisions for us.

We need to be clear that vocational growth is largely a pain driven process. That is to say, the only exit point from any stage is alienation — unless we exhaust the illusions of a stage we are content to dwell in their grasp. If there is nothing to create cognitive discomfort with life at Stage One, the person simply will not grow.

The source of cognitive discomfort in Stage One, the thing that we discover about life in Stage One is the reality that careers do not follow static polarized definitions. They are dynamic human events and for most people there are multiple career alternatives and the person must make choices and set priorities based on an assessment of skills, interests, values, capabilities, and opportunities. That reality does not become fully clear until Stage Seven but the outlines are clear enough in Stage One to get us moving into our own futures.

For adults who somehow managed to survive into adulthood with Stage One assumptions in place, there are fewer and fewer employers willing to provide the kind of security and career development structure that people at this stage feel is necessary. Most companies want you to be an entrepreneur in managing your own career development. They want adaptable specialists who can move quickly from one area to another as companies try to respond to rapid changes in the economy and in market demands. The information explosion has evaporated inflexible expertise.

These realities are hard for us to grasp if we are in the grips of linear hierarchical dualistic thinking, and that is exactly the kind of thinking that characterizes the first two stages or perhaps three stages of this model. Psychologists are learning that babies seem to be wired to imitate adults. In Stage One we want to imitate the adult doctor rather than be the adult doctor. We apprehend only the external socially defined characteristics that tell us we are a “manager.” If in fact we become a manager, we are going to be stiff, wooden, insecure, fragile. We become the decision-maker so frightened to ask a question that we risk incorrect decisions (which will cost us our job security) rather than risk our shallow professional identity. Stage One worries about risking exposure as incompetent at playing our role are multiplied a hundredfold by the fear of job loss.

Stage Two: Awareness of the Possibility of a “Wrong” Decision

The key characteristics of Stages One and Two have to do with our inability to escape the tyranny, often benign tyranny of others, specially our parents, spouses, significant others, mentors, even professional helpers whom we see as the absolute Authority who will identify for us the Right Career. Obviously if we are in the grips of the authorities in our lives, for instance, our parents or our parent’s voices echoing down the distant corridors of memory, we are not in charge of our own lives. Stage Two embraces the possibility that even with the aid of the absolute Authority, a mistake can be made.

I have found that it is counterproductive to tell Stage One or Stage Two persons that they have to make a career choice. It is like saying the sky is green. When we are in Stages One and Two, we have a perspective on life, a definition of truth which says the external Authority in our life will define the correct career choice for us. We cannot do that for ourselves. This is not the place to tell people that denial of pain is to hold on to that pain, however true that is. Rather we want here to begin to build trust in a process. A process of career choice rooted in understanding our past, ourselves, our abilities and motivators. A process which begins to explore and clarify the impact of our genetic programming, our social situation, our complex self and all the baggage it carries.

The later stages of growth teach us that reality is obscured by needs and desires of our genetic programming. In a sense we have to move beyond our genes to be truly ourselves. Evolutionary biologists, like E.O. Wilson make it clear that as far as the genes are concerned, you and I are only a vehicle for their own survival, reproduction and further dissemination. Our genes are essentially indifferent to us and we have to raise our consciousness of their influence if we are not to be simply their slaves. Genetic determination of behavior is too fatalistic a view of the power of genetic programming. Knowing the genetic sources of our impulses, habits, predispositions, motives, biases, is the prerequisite of our freedom. We are not the compulsory victims of our genetic influences despite what the Bell Shaped Curve would tell us.

We also are not powerless victims of our culture, our social container. We can be counter-cultural in that we must learn to question the socialization we have received. The saddest example I can think of to describe thedisillusionment and betrayal that is often felt as one is ejected from Eden designed and built by others, were the newly minted but jobless Ph.D.s and assistant professors denied tenure I have seen over the past 25 years who were socialized to teaching careers and then told that career did not exist anymore. Unfortunately we are now adding to that number a whole generation of middle-level managers and engineers facing roughly the same obsolescence.

Most people today have experienced the disillusionment of Stage Two because parents or other relatives have been laid off or downsized outof a job and gone through subsequent agonizing reassessment.

In Stage Two, whatever shatters our worldview is telling us that wrong choices are a possibility. Career counselors do not know all. Tarot cards, aptitude tests, horoscopes, IQs, the size and shape of our skull or our hands or our feet cannot tell us what to do. We have to choose, to risk, to invent our own future. We are involved in a project no smaller than creating our selves, living our lives according the rules and commitments we make and accept for ourselves. We are not perpetually submitted to genes, to society, to selfish pleasure and pain. This is hard to accept and some people turn off the path here by saying that work is a curse, that you go to work for financial and social reasons. In Stage Two we mistakenly perceive that our work is not, nor can it ever be, an expression of our selves. Unfortunately the economy is reinforcing Stage Two perceptions of reality and this often makes further growth difficult.

When I say that movement from Stage Two often arises from the broken pieces of a shattered worldview, I do not mean to sound joyful about that. The breaking of our way of seeing things inflicts pain. At times we are in so much pain that we decide life is too hard and we want to end life sometimes literally but more often figuratively by stopping our growth.

Stage Three: Substitution of Process as Authority

As one deals with the anger and disillusionment aroused by the discovery that career development is not as simple as one thought, there is a crisis in identity. Is identity defined by external or internal means? Here we begin to shift our faith from the belief that one Authority exists to belief in the right decision making process which in turn will yield the Right Career. The Authority is now the process. The right process assiduously followed will yield the Right Career. This parallels a stage in our intellectual development where we believe that if we do all the homework we will learn and more important, to us in this stage, we will get an A, or at least a B+.

What Characterizes Stage Three is the continuing allegiance to the concept that one Right Career exists for me. I have moved beyond thinking an individual can tell me the Right Career, but I have not moved beyond thinking that there is, in fact, only on Right Career choice I can make. If I am to become my destiny, that is an active partner in the construction of the future, I have to see my potential beyond one limited static definition of self in the world, a definition mediated by one Authority. From this point forward in this passage of development, the authority becomes something like a primary care physician — our personal guide through the healthcare mazeway. We need the guide who helps us with self-assessment, skills identification, and what I call mazeway information -trends, what is available, job search advice.

I think that moving out of Stage Three has been made more difficult because the society has shoved pre-professional career sequences down into earlier and earlier stages of education. There was a cartoon in a recent New Yorker showing mother and child sitting at the desk of the principal of a preschool. The principal says: Yes, here at Dearborn we are always sensitive to those little signs that whisper “law” or “medicine.” You cannot get on the track of the Right Career too soon! By pushing the preprofessional track down into at least the middle-school, the chances of a mistake and everyone’s panicky concern about some stumble or faltering soon are communicated to the child. This forces us to follow the right process so we do not make any mistakes.

Let’s review the players at this point. The person is still not involved as an activist in her own development. She is aware of her role only to the extent that she must follow the process, no one can do that for her. The good news is that she is at least on the yellow brick road. The authority is now a process and not a person. Right Career as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is still fully empowered although weakening as we near stage four.

Stage Four: Awareness of Multiple “Good” Decisions

In stage Four, we begin to have inklings that multiple Right Careers, multiple good decisions, might exist and there is a need to set priorities for all the legitimate alternatives. The early stages have loosened the control of external Authority and enabled the move beyond one Right Career – the abandonment of the constructs Authority and Right Career now necessitates a decision maker.

One of the discoveries of Stage Four is that the person might be involved in the process of her own career development. This seems to be prompted in part by an awareness of theatricality, of playing roles for others and never asking the question – where am I, who am I. As one woman said, “I am a warrior at the office and I come home and I am still a warrior. I don’t know who I am really.” One of the stark discoveries of Stage Four is that is that if we are willing to be a victim, there are our fears, our social conditioning and plenty of people who are willing to exploitand oppress us.

In Stage Four we begin to sense that we may be living on the reflections of ourselves in the eyes of others. Drowning our sincerity and integrity in the applause of others, applause for performing our role, for keeping our poses. One person said she felt like the organ-grinder’s monkey dancing for coins and the praise of her owner – craving praise insatiably. Highly successful women professionals have lamented to me that they are still struggling for acceptance, praise, visibility, membership in this profession.

The need for priorities creates the foundation for the first big cognitive flip, the first big reorganization of the pattern of our perceptions: who will author the list of priorities -me or the authorities I rely on in my life? Who is in control of my mind? Who is exploiting me because of my mimicry of my stereotype of a career, my lack of awareness that I am plagiarizing a life? Recent research shows that proteges influenced the amounts of mentoring they received by initiating relationships with mentors. She who waits to be mentored is lost. Success of the mentoring relationship was influenced by one’s internal locus of control, high self-monitoring, and high emotional stability. In other words, being a real self enhanced initiation into the status of a colleague.

It is very important that we understand the concept of cognitive flip. When you look at an Escher drawing and think about what you see, your mind is trying to figure out if the stairs go up or down, if they originate here or end there. Your experience in looking at any figure-ground illusion is that your mind is organizing the perceptions that you have of that drawing. What you think you see changes from minute to minute yet the data field remains constant. What is changing is the way your mind is organizing the data.

T.S. Eliot in The Four Quartets said that “We shall not cease from exploration /And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”

A cognitive flip is the seeing of some event we have seen before but seeing it new, seeing it differently, seeing it for the fist time. In perceptual psychology, researchers are always dreaming up new figure-ground pictures where if you look at the picture one way you see one thing and if you look at it another way you see something different. At times you almost sense a flip in your perception – you see one image then another. Your mind is taking the same data set and making sense of it in two different ways and you can almost feel your perception flipping back and forth between the alternatives. In the same way that you can almost see your mind organizing and making sense of your perceptions when looking at an image, you can look back on your life story and see the ways your vocational self-concept is also flowing, growing, changing.

Multiplicity is sinister and suffocating for some at this stage. The far that the fight for identity is too ghastly happens to almost everyone at Stage  Six but a few begin in Stage Four to feel the oppression of freedom. There are too many options. Paradoxically the human mind is constructed so that when we are ostensibly most free, when we can do anything we want to, it is in that moment we are often the least able to act. For instance, if a person has in my grandmother’s phrase “independent income” and does not have to submit to the external demand to earn a living, that does not make career-decision making any easier, perhaps only more difficult. We often want to order our environment to prevent entropy. The certainties of fascism are always attractive to some for that reason. Psychologists teach us that human attention is most focused and thinking is easiest in situations providing narrow boundaries and clear rules. Playing the survival game at work offers just that framework for action.

Stage Five: Emergence of Self as Decision-Maker

Stage five is defined by your experience of the first big cognitive flip – the locus of control moves from outside of each of us: we develop an internal sense of self as the decision maker and the person responsible for the choices of life. We have finally worked free of the concepts Authority and Right Career. We are the Authority and we have options.

In cognitive development this is the most important act in the drama of development. Here we experience the reality that vocational identity is determined internally – using a kind of moral consciousness based on our decision and values clarification – and to a much lesser extent shaped externally by socially -defined roles into which we are forced but which are subject to our wills to a large degree.

We can choose the kind of parent or doctor or lawyer or truck drive or teacher or researcher or craftsperson we want to be. We can see our earlier self as a person inside a row of mirrors with endless reflections and counter-reflections. Trying to be what we should be as defined by others, trying to please or placate other by making the right vocational choice.

Here in Stage Five we have finally accepted that we are in charge, this is our show, we have awakened to ourselves. This is an exhilarating, exploring, doing phase which begins with the recognition of multiple possibilities and ends with the need to create personal order and clarification. We need to be clear about what needs to be done and we need to clear information and feedback about how well we are doing it.

Stage Six: Awareness of the Chaos of Free Choice

Pride goeth before the fall or so they say in Stage Six. All the alternatives now become a burden. In the beginning of Stage Five the range and diversity of alternatives was freeing and exhilarating but after a time they become chaotic and we enter the wasteland of Stage Six. This follows somewhat the emotional pattern post divorce: first the anger and pain of betrayal and eviction, then the exhilaration of freedom, then the burden of dating and the agony of singles bars, etc. ect. One client said she felt like she was a figure in a painting by Hieronomous Bosch: so tortured that she wondered why she had acknowledged her identity and individuality becoming intoxicated with life, with expressing herself vocationally. Another said he was shot dead in the duel between illusion and reality. That duel is often all the more deadly given the barriers that exist between what we have and what we want. The discrepancy between what I desire and what is actually happening creates an inner tension. How I resolve that tension is the basic barometer of my maturity and my mental health.

High ambitions produce a certain amount of discontent. We learn that the easiest way to decrease the frequency of negative thoughts is to selectively moderate our expectations. On some days, that can mean we think about quitting on our hopes for a better future. We learn that there are limits created by competition, demand, need, non-vocational responsibilities we have undertaken – family, mortgage, a dog and acat. We learn about luck and accident and illness. We learn that in most jobs we have to secure influence about authority. We learn that colleagues often act out of base and selfish motives. We learn that some people are predatory – vocationally, sexually, emotionally. We learn that some people get bored and like to create trouble just to see what will happen regardless of the cost to us and our productivity. We learn that we must continue to grow in our abilities and that growth usually arises from meeting new challenges. These challenges and crises which promote growth are often painful.

One of the great problems in Stage Six has troubled artists and social scientists from Dostoevsky to Carol Gilligan – we often prefer illusion to reality even though the illusions lead to tragic results. Our materialist society fosters all sorts of pleasant dreams that substitute illusion for reality – look at the millions who started smoking cigarettes because a phenomenally successful advertising campaign managed to create a subconscious link between smoking and self-confidence.

Stage Six is the stage where some people turn off their path to languish in self-deception, in vocational entropy, in working only to feed our habits and addictions, working only to finance our acquisition and maintenance of servo-mechanisms and/or our search for high exhilaration experience. The one with the most toys at the end of the game wins. In so doing we permit our lives and our work to be channeled away by those who would drain our lives, or self-conscious intentionality, to meet their own interests. In an era of reduction and loss, of sparse opportunity, the drive to generate security and invulnerability becomes almost manic. We cannot trade authenticity and integrity for security. That is a core insight from almost every human religion.

We turn off the path of growth we deny that we are a creative construction where we ourselves are the principal architects and laborers. We are, as selves, never complete and finished. It is who you will be in the future that defines who you are now.

Stage Seven: Beginnings of Integration of Self and Career Role

In Stage Seven we encounter the second cognitive flip-the end of the polarized career identity. The idea of choosing a traditionally defined role is abandoned in favor of seeing career as a form of self expression. In abandoning the idea of Right Career we often hold on to the idea of multiple Right Careers that enjoy a separate, distinct existence unconnected to us. Here the distinction between illusion and reality gets smoky – even smokier than Stage Six but for different reasons. Can you disconnect the construct doctor from the physical referent of all the doctors in the world? I do mean play the games of logical positivism. Stage Seven flips our cognition of our selves in the role we play.

In Stage Seven we now realize we define the role. We are not choosing a polarized thing, we are looking at careers as events with certain regularities that are socially defined in the Dictionary of Occupational Title but within those regularities are enormous variations and freedoms. We look at specific career opportunities as being expressions of our vocational self-understanding. The current economy is again supporting a suppression of growth by giving the impression that to hold on to your job you have to play your role, keep your pose as defined by the people with the power to fire you. Students of success skills have long confirmed the value of role playing with integrity and confirm the value of being yourself on the job. Investing yourself in work that you genuinely enjoy gives you an edge over the smooth sycophant survivor.

We are responsible for our vocational actions which means we can control ourselves, and it means we can know ourselves, our thoughts and feelings. We are always living in light of our potential – we can be more, we will be more than we are now! It also means we realize we do not derive identity from career role or institutional affiliation. Rather it is the reverse, we use career as an expression of our identity.

At Stage Seven we discover the core of our vocational freedom: we are more than what we do. What we do is but a small portion of who we are. Vocation transcends job sequences and career ladders, which are usually illusory devices created by clever compensation systems to give us at least the sensation of movement upward through the organization.

In the struggles of Stage Seven, we discover the courage of our personality – we exit the realm of perpetual transformations to begin to build real commitment to our particular expressions of our vocational skills. Mysteries are always emerging in lives and need to be unraveled. Why did this happen? Why didn’t this happen? But the mysteries of Stage Sever are truly profound. Slowly we see that what we are and can be is part of not only our vocation but we stretch to see ourselves as part of everything that is. People who were at ease in the physically self-evident world now have doubts. We are always losing sight of ourselves and our accomplishments. We want to carry our notebook into the labyrinth to remind us who we are.

Many of the mid-career professionals I see at Radcliffe Career Services are asking question not about career change (although that is the presenting issue); they are asking about career identity, who they are as a doctor or a lawyer or a manager.

The Stage -Seven caterpillar asks Alice in Wonderland? Who are YOU.

Stage Seven cognition requires that we gain some clarity about what we stand for, how we make meaning in our own unique expression of our vocation. When we have become the doctor who has never journeyed beyond Stage One or Two we wake up one morning horrified that we have to perform these meaningless tasks for the rest of our lives. That wake-up call comes in our mid-career because those tasks were never our choice – the Authority chose them for us – parent, spouse, advisor, whomever. The career and the self are not integrated above the level of sheer aptitude. Just because we can be a surgeon does not mean we should be a surgeon nor does it define the kind of surgeon we are. Career choice does not boil down to: “I did well on the MCAT, I wanted to help people and live well, my mother was a doctor who seemed happy enough.” That was a great formula for mid-life Stage Six cynicism: Life sucks and then you die.

At Stage Seven we see the unfolding of life’s adventure and begin to realize that life is constructed by us out of our own existential commitments to values, to people, to the kind of self we would be in the world, to our part in the unfolding complexity of life, to the acquisition and exercise of certain skills consistent with all of the above. I was shocked that a whole generation of bankers, accountants, government officials complacently chose to look the other way and allow the savings and loan crisis to occur. These are people who had not integrated self and career. Who were just doing the job as they were socialized to do it, or in this case, not to do it, not to fulfill their fiduciary responsibility.

Stage Eight: Experiencing Commitment

At Stage Eight, and I think to even enter Stage Eight, the consequences of commitments must be experienced; therefore some commitments had to have been made in Stage Seven. We learn that taking responsibility for the creation of the career means we also take responsibility for undesired outcomes. We do not hide from them or repress them, we acknowledge them. We also begin to see that powerlessness, loneliness, fear, pain, rejection are part of life – we change what we can and work around what we cannot change.

For most of our intellectual history, humankind stored truth in myth, in song, in proverbs or cautionary tales, in legend. That is why I love Joseph Campbell and his career advice to follow your bliss.

What happens at Stage Eight is the realization that following your bliss is not always blissful and we can come into doubts. I have a friend who has made a major contribution to education in this country but that contribution is not always in her view and is not always acknowledged by competitors who would like to exploit or oppress her by making her feel invisible – professionally dis-membered, an outsider at her own success. Another friend wrote a book promptly remaindered in the first year of publication and which was judged by the leading journal in her field as “not likely to receive any favorable review” from future experts in the field. That book went on to become one of the landmarks in the field, sadly after that person’s death by suicide.

Following your bliss is not always blissful. Your professional identity can be challenged, defeated, crushed but in Stage Eight you learn that life becomes serene and enjoyable precisely when you have become detached from a professional identity defined by others, precisely when you have left selfish pleasure and personal success behind as self-defining goals. If you permit others to define your professional identity, you are their slave.

Psychologists teach us that the fear of death derives from our becoming too closely identified with the individual self. That is, the more we are investing exclusively in differentiation of self without concern for integration with our family, our community, our world, the more frightening it is to confront the dissolution of self. That is why so many religious traditions teach that you have to lose yourself to find yourself.

The professional self follows the same rules. The more we get invested in a particular definition of our self the easier it is for someone to stick a pin in our balloon. A Stage Eight actress said that before she had a family of her own she was devastated every time she lost a part. Having a family gave her something transcending herself as a source of stability and personal worth. If we have emancipated ourselves from the control of others, the last enemy to conquer is our own self and its fear of nonexistence,
invisibility, and inconsequentiality.

The treasury of human knowledge now includes the understanding that reality is created as we try to comprehend it. (itals dlk) Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which describes the logical impossibility of determining simultaneously both the position and the velocity of a given atomic particle, was only the first tremor in what has become a devastating earthquake for physical science. A recent noble laureate in chemistry said, “What ever we call reality, it is revealed to us only through an active construction in which we participate.” That is perhaps the great truth of Stage Eight. Careers are realities in which we actively participate – our careers have no reality apart from our participation. To make things even darker, the definition of that participation and that career are largely invisible except with hindsight. Present success is usually only accessible from the future. The attributes, artifacts, and accessories of careers and success are fictions. Only you can judge your success and only from the perspective of your own future integrity. You are doomed to failure when you rely on others to judge your success. Focus on the intrinsic meaning of the task not the reward attached to successful performance of the task.

In Stage Eight we learn that we must painstakingly match our preconceptions with actual, ongoing experience to begin separating truth from reality. Yes you heard that right, not reality from illusion – we did that at earlier stages. Here we are distilling truth from experience, from reality. And the truth we distill form our experience is what guides our expansion of self-created career roles. We learn to celebrate ourselves, our vocational power, our authenticity, our integrity, even, dare I say it, our sanctity.

Stage Nine: Expansion of Self-Created Roles

Now we build an awareness of seeking out the inevitable and cooperating with it. We have awareness of working with the direction of life -learning the limits of our self-created roles, learning the value of cooperation with others, learning that our working is a form of self-expression limited only by the demands of justice, harmony, mutuality. Our center is now outside the control of those administering the system of rewards and opportunities in which we must participate. We are not owned by our career. We stake out where we want to contribute our unique constellation of skills and abilities and imagination and motivation and values. We truly focus on the task not the rewards.

We learn synchronicity (that is: we get what we need); we learn the magic of believing, going with the flow, the harmony of the universe, we are not life’s victims but life’s creators. We let go of the fears of the earlier stages – fear of making the wrong decision, fears of being trapped in the chaos of vocational indecision, fears not doing what we should do, fears of changing. We begin to love the self we are and the self we want to give to the world. Our unique qualities are not a problem but part of our gift. It is only when we transcend economic forces that we can plunge in fearlessly to create our vocation from the raw stuff of the marketplace.

To switch metaphors, we reach the top of the developmental mountain when we realize we have been in charge of our lives all the time, we have been responsible without knowing consciously our responsibility. In the end, if we successfully navigate this journey, we are liberated from everything including our self. We are journeying into a better future, a future freed from determinism and fatalism of the instincts, the weight of social tradition, the illusionary desires of the self, the oppression of being a wage slave. We are empowered to create with others a future that is compassionate, in tune with the reality that transcends our genetic needs and socially defined wants.

Much of life is spent resolving paradoxes: taking control while letting go, getting ourselves out of our way (to use Gandhi’s marvelous insight), finding out-there the truth that is in-here. In our work, whatever work that may be, we are always moving toward our natural responsibility for creating the work we do – for modifying and adapting and redefining the standard forms of employment to our vocation.

Our role in life is to recognize our options and, when we cannot see options, to create them. We identify the places where growth can occur for ourselves and then we foster that growth toward a more comprehensive vision of who we are in the world.

A major problem at Stage Nine is that what is always has the edge on what might be. It is easier to settle for reality than truth. The joy of doing, of accomplishing, of trying and achieving, is always within us and is very persistent in getting us to do things. It is accompanied by the joy of transcending our own ego boundaries to experience our own growth in being and becoming part of something greater than ourselves. When I say that I affirm the essential core of all mysticism – that the source of all meaning is a living presence within yourself.

This model of the growth process in career decision making is a model of the journey toward hope and life and vision. Taking the journey does not exempt us from the realities of our endowment, the realities of accidents, failures, betrayals, illness, luck. It does not exempt us from slipping on our doubts and falling from Stage Eight visions into Stage Six despond. But it does exempt us from the barriers we construct for ourselves – all the layers of fear that hold us back, all those voices saying to us that we cannot do what we believe in, voices saying we cannot do what we know is consistent with our deepest wisest self.

We sustain great losses resisting our growth. There are catastrophic costs attached to staying in one place developmentally. But it is important to understand that we are able to resist our own growth even though we do so at our own peril.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

jose quintero October 21, 2011 at 1:12 pm

This was the voice of the Spirit talking. I will read it again.


Deborah October 21, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Robert Ginn is the genius behind this and a former colleague. Glad you found it helpful.


Kerrie December 5, 2012 at 11:55 pm

Being someone who has never conformed to the consensus conditioning, I found this read retry confirming.
Repeated use of the word ‘reality’ in this post however, is incorrect. In “the essential core of all mysticism” this word has right context, outside of it in the changing paradigm, ‘reality’ truthfully reads as: consensus conditioning.
Reality is what we are discovering more as co-creators! No handrails, no net_ our true environment!
Thank-you so much for this resource!


Kerrie December 5, 2012 at 11:57 pm

Typo: retry is supposed to be: really


Deborah Knox December 7, 2012 at 11:46 am

again, I’m glad you found this helpful.


derm exclusive versus meaningful beauty May 27, 2014 at 7:32 am

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