Are you a career pioneer?

One of the questions I am frequently asked by other career professionals whom I train and mentor is ‘Can you recommend a good book on career theory?’ Up until a few years ago my answer would have been Career Theory and Practice: Learning Through Case Studies by Jane Swanson and Nadya Fouad, two professors of psychology from the States. I liked it because it was aimed at guidance practitioners. Each of the theories covered was applied to a client case study.

Understanding careers - book cover

I'm not jealous!

I still think it is a very good book, but a few years ago it was supplanted at the top of my list of recommendations by Understanding Careers: The metaphors of working lives from New Zealand professor of management, Kerr Inkson. I have a love-hate relationship with this book. How can you not love a book on career theory which starts a chapter on the narrative approach to careers with a quote from the 80s hit Don’t you want me, baby by the Human League. It is very comprehensive, thought-provoking, practical and exceptionally readable for a book on career theory. I hate it because… I wish I had written it!

However, this book was not the first time I had come across Kerr Inkson.

A Wild West Pioneer

No careers advice around these parts

Since about 2002 Prof. Inkson has been interested in the use of metaphor in describing careers. In a contribution to the book Career Creativity: Explorations in the Remaking of Work, he explored the metaphor of career as a journey. In doing so he identified three types of career travellers:

  • Type 3 — These are the people who follow the firmly established and clearly marked routes. They want a defined professional identity, probably with qualifications, a predictable career structure and sequential progression.
  • Type 2 — These are the early settlers. They follow in the footsteps (or jump on the bandwagon) of the pioneers and work to establish the boundaries and parameters of a relatively new career area. They can be quite adventurous but only if there is an example to follow. These are the people who eventually set up the professional qualifications for the Type 3 people to follow.
  • Type 1 — These are the explorers and pioneers. They create careers that didn’t exist before, or perhaps they take an existing set of skills into a completely new environment. They are not restricted by existing definitions, boundaries or structures, and tend to pursue their own personal drives rather than striving to follow an existing path.

Since I started experimenting with writing this blog I’ve become involved in things like Twitter and LinkedIn. There I have come across people who describe themselves as ‘Innovation Coach’ and ‘Personal Branding Consultant’ — names you don’t yet find in the standard occupational directories. However, I suspect many of these people are actually Type 2 early settlers because they have got around to giving a name to what they do. A true Type 1 pioneer may not even think in terms of job titles, just activities, environments and outcomes.

It’s quite interesting to see how the term Entrepreneur is moving more and more towards a Type 3 career. You can do courses in enterepreneurship, perhaps there will eventually be a recognised professional qualification.

  • How often do you discuss with your clients the option of creating their own career path?
  • To what extent do you think the ‘professionalisation’ of a career stifles creativity within it?
  • How would you recognise someone with the potential to be a career pioneer and what advice would you give them?

Further reading

  • Inkson, K. (2002) Thinking creatively about careers: The use of metaphor. In Maury A. et al. (eds), Career Creativity: Explorations in the Remaking of Work, Oxford University Press, pp. 15-34.
  • Smith-Ruig, T. (2008) Making sense of careers through the lens of a path metaphor.  Career Development International, 13(1), 20-32.

Related post: How intelligent is your career?


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  1. Boundaries on the boundaryless? « Careers – in Theory

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