Positive Aspirations

I would like to thank Vinny Potter from Queen Mary, University of London for contributing this post — David
Spire by Gerry Balding

A spire... (I'll get my coat)

I work in two distinct careers settings. One is with high-achieving students at the University of London and the other is with clients who often have few qualifications (if any) at a small job club where I volunteer in the evenings.

At the job club we try hard to engage with NEETs (those Not in Education, Employment or Training). We have limited success. The biggest issue I have found with this group is not their low economic status nor lack of decent qualifications, but a major lack of aspiration.

There have been quite a few studies into the link between achievement and aspiration. One of the latest has come from researchers at Queen Mary University of London (Rothon et al., 2011) and it demonstrates a clear association between aspiration and achievement.

educational aspirations had a strong association with actual achievement, remaining associated even after controlling for a number of other variables, including prior achievement

I work extremely hard with my job club clients to help them aspire to greater things, with a view to increasing their future success (if you are unsure of what I mean by success, please see David’s previous posts on the subject).

One thing I have started wondering recently is whether I should be trying harder to raise the aspirations of my main client group of University students, or whether I should actually be trying to lower them for some students.

For some students, it is essential to raise aspirations. The recession and subsequent issues for graduates finding employment has been given wide press coverage.  I speak to many current students who know graduates that are still unemployed a year after graduation. Because of this they are negative about their own prospects. This can all lead to a lowering of aspirations and potentially could mean they might not work as hard to get decent graduate level jobs.

However, for some students, could lowering their aspirations be a positive step?

A student who will not settle for any job paying less than £50,000 a year could stay unemployed for a long time. A student with consistently poor grades and no work experience who expects to walk into a job as an actuary will find a lot of closed doors.

But this is where the term “aspirations” might need to be broken down. Instead of looking at aspirations as just what a person aims to do, we can split it into two parts: Desires and Expectations.

Desires are what a person wants to do.

Expectations are what a person thinks they will be able to do.

These two factors are heavily interlinked. If you want to earn £50,000 a year but don’t think that it is possible, then you won’t try.

Low expectations can also lead to the reframing of desires to be (according to your own world view of what is possible) more ‘realistic.’ An illustration of this is what one of the clients at the job club said a few weeks ago: “People like me don’t get good jobs so I’m just going to claim as much benefits as I can.”

I am of the opinion that we should always try to keep the client’s desires high.

With those who are classified as NEETs, both desires and expectations usually need to be raised.

However, for some of those who are already high achievers at University, although we should ensure that we do not negatively impact on their Desires, we might need to be honest when addressing their Expectations to make sure they are realistic about how they could achieve their goals.

How do you increase their aspirations whilst staying realistic about their prospects?

I have a few ideas based on some theories and research (links at the end):

  1. Be positive with the client and have high expectations that they will succeed. Your expectations influence their decisions. (Law, 1981)
  2. Highlight the theory that hard work is what gets good results rather than innate skills — that way they are more likely to try harder and aim higher. (Dweck, 1975)
  3. Show them role models of other people (preferably those they can most closely relate to) who have gone on to achieve great things. (Lent, 1994)
  4. Make it systematic across the whole institution. If all their peers have high aspirations, then the individual is more likely to. (Law, 1981)
  5. Provide realistic advice about the steps they can take to achieve their goals. Make sure this is put across positively as being solutions for them to achieve, instead of barriers that are in their way.

So what is your experience?

  • Have you noticed a problem with poor aspirations among your clients?
  • Are there times when it is better to be brutally realistic with a client, or should we always try to be positive with them?
  • Should we try and talk our clients round to a “Plan B” when we can see that their chances of achieving their career goals are doomed to failure?

Further reading

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