I’ve been working for a few sessions now with a bright young client who is exploring his career options. He majored in engineering and landed his first job in computer programming, a technical field that plays to his quantitative strengths but isn’t giving him much satisfaction or fulfillment. In talking with him about the things he DOES find fulfilling he mentioned cooking. As our discussion progressed he came up with what I think is a brilliant way of characterizing two fundamentally different approaches to career planning, based on his familiarity with preparing food, contrasting baking with cooking.

One approach, he said, is similar to how he does baking. He finds a pastry or other kind of baked good he would like to create and then meticulously follows the recipe, using the precise types and quantities of ingredients called for, baked at the requisite temperature for the amount of time specified. To vary from the plan is to wind up with what will most probably be a sub-optimal result, but following the recipe with precision is quite certain to lead to a successful result.

The other approach is the one he tends to follow in cooking. Let’s say he wants to prepare a meal for a dinner party. He will go to the market to find out what’s fresh and abundant. He will combine those main components at home with the ingredients he has on hand, improvising as he goes along. Not an approach that works very well when baking. True, there’s a chance that his improvised main course will turn out to be a bomb. The baked item has a higher probability of being “just fine.” But the improvised dish has a much stronger creative component and thus offers him more satisfaction in preparation, even if the final product falls short.

An even more apt and detailed analogy is proposed by a senior official of the Department of Justice, Brittan Heller, in the wonderful career guidance book titled ROADMAP.

“There are two ways you can think about your career. One is a paint-by-the-numbers approach. In that way you’re trying to create this picture, you have this toolbox of all the different colors. And you go about it systematically knowing all along what the picture is going to be. That’s the path of least resistance. I like the other way. The ‘connect-the-dots’ approach, where you start off with one idea, or a conviction, something that really grabs you. Then you take the next logical step. You learn more about it, you learn more about yourself, and then you take the next logical    step. You’re not sure what the picture is going to look like when you’re at the beginning phases, but as you proceed you gain speed and you see suddenly that it’s a circus seal with a ball. You may not have known where you’re ending up, but you’re confidant that it’s a good place, and that the final picture will be right.”

Finally, ROADMAP offers another analogy for career planning:

“A career is a container, nothing more. We are each too dynamic and unique to cram into a one-size-fits-all mold. Choosing a career forces you to make a decision about something when you have limited experience about what that something really is. But those who’ve climbed out of the career ladder* tend to find exciting, unexpected ways to connect personal satisfaction to financial stability and success.”

* “Climbing out of the career ladder” means opening up your vision of career to embrace a more flexible and broader-than-traditional view. This can perhaps take the form of what I call the “potpourri career” which may have numerous components (e.g. one could spend 15 hours a week doing career consulting, five hours tutoring English, five hours trading on eBay, and five hours every Sunday at the local farmers market selling home grown flowers or vegetables). Or, ideally, it may allow for the integration of several core interests and strengths, as for example does my career as a life consultant, allowing me help others while earning an excellent income, to combine my interpersonal strengths with those in language and ideation to both teach and to learn, and to promote both creative expansiveness and regimented organization.