Many of the modern career theories and approaches to guidance have moved away from the focus on objective measures of person-environment fit to an increasing emphasis on the importance of personal meaning within career choice.
But what about meaninglessness?
Shouldn’t we be looking at that too?
If we want to spend time pondering the essential pointlessness of all human activity, where better to go than existentialism?
In a nutshell, existentialism proposes that our life has no ultimate or absolute meaning other than the meaning that we ourselves give to it through our actions and our attitudes. We are ultimately responsible for giving our lives a purpose.
A number of people have tried to apply elements of existentialism to careers work. For a quick summary of some of the main themes, see this pdf.
However, I recently came across an article which links existential thinking to career change. What appealed to me most about it was the use of a metaphor called ‘The Four-Roomed Apartment of Change’. This rather picturesque image is used to capture some of the things that happen to people and organisations when they experience change.
The four rooms represent four frames of mind that an individual may pass through as they encounter a change in their lives. They are as follows:
- The room of Contentment. In this room people feel relaxed and free from threat. They are focussed on the present moment. They may even be a bit complacent. From this room it is hard to picture any change or need for change. Spend too long in this room and there is a danger that you will end up in the Sun Lounge, ignoring the real world altogether.
- When people do begin to perceive change they might fall down the trapdoor into the Denial room. There is no direct way back to contentment from here. In this room people try to find excuses for what is happening to them outside themselves. They may try to cling on to old ways and hope that everything will just go away. In order to move out of this room, people need to acknowledge that change is inevitable and that they have to engage with it somehow. If they don’t, they may end up stuck in the ‘Dungeon of Denial’.
- The door into the next room doesn’t open easily and people may have to push their way into it. When they get there, they will find the room of Confusion. This is where people have to re-examine themselves and face up to their existential uncertainty. People may react irrationally and impulsively here as they struggle with the responsibility of finding new meaning for their lives. They might fall into the ‘Pit of Paralysis’; finding that the responsibility of taking charge of their own lives is too much for them. It is very likely that they will go through the ‘Revolving Door of Reality’ a few times as they experiment with new identities.
- Eventually, the fog may clear and they will find the ladder which leads to the Renewal room. Here things begin to come together as people start to see a future which might hold meaning for them, and they start to get excited about it. At the same time they start to impose their own meaning on to the turmoil they have been through. There is a potential danger in this room; the floor is sloping and you could end up wandering unintentionally into the room of Contentment if you are not careful.
I’ve come across models of transition before, but I have a feeling that this one will stick in my mind for a while.
- Existential issues do sometimes come up in my work with career changers, but do you think they could also apply to students and people at an earlier stage in their career?
- Given the number of people who are likely to be facing enforced change because of government cuts, do you think that this model could be helpful?
- What room are you in at the moment?
- Cohen, B.N. (2003) Applying existential theory and intervention to career decision-making. Journal of Career Development, 29(3), 195-209.
- Schultze, G. & Miller, C. (2004) The search for meaning and career development. Career Development International, 9(2), 142-152. DOI: 10.1108/13620430410526184
- Hind, P. (2005) Making room for career change. Career Development International, 10(4), 268-274. DOI: 10.1108/13620430510609118
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