Travel often shakes up the way one views the world. The trip I recently made to Norway was eye-opening, and not simply vis-a-vis the magnificent scenery. I noticed numerous, stark contrasts between what is considered “normal” there and what is accepted, quite unconsciously, as “normal” here; ways of thinking about things that translate into big differences in many arenas. For example, the strong conservation ethic embedded in Norwegian culture is reflected in what were to me surprising ways: many public toilets are equipped with two “flush” settings, one for urine and the other, stronger one for solid waste. In most hotels, electric lights (fluorescents, not high-energy-using incandescents) can only be turned on if the room key is inserted into a slot by the door; if you exit the room and wish to reenter at some point you must remove the key from the slot and the lights are turned off automatically.

Those are fairly obvious examples of how different norms (“givens,” or accepted ways of doing and thinking about things) are expressed in visible ways. But norms dictate and proscribe behavior in ways that may not always be so transparent. I hope this posting can help begin to move some unconscious, unobserved acceptance of norms you may be experiencing vis-a-vis your career into a greater state of awareness. Then you can begin to see to what degree the norms are confining you in ways you may wish to start to expand by taking some action. Here are some examples:

Last night I had dinner with a longtime, successful and well-to-do friend and her 20 year old son, who is about to choose a major. He was leaning towards “food marketing,” and when I asked him what about food marketing appealed to him he said “they told me I’d be guaranteed a job.” Who is “they?” I asked him. “all my friends and my faculty advisor,” he replied. As we discussed possible majors and career paths I asked him “what about architecture?” (which he’d been interested in since childhood). “Oh, I love that stuff, but there aren’t any jobs in that field.” Turns out he’d not spoken to anyone who actually is an architect and was primarily following the shared ” wisdom” of his peers.

Similarly, last week I had a session with a client doing very well, over 10 years into a career path she’s discovering doesn’t really turn her on, and so is looking to switch. In the course of our conversation she happened to mention that she loves clothing, and had actually designed and had manufactured several hundred pieces in a limited line (she was wearing something from the line – it looked quite stylish to me). She even had a rep in Los Angeles. But, although the items had been met with some buyer interest, my client felt the odds against succeeding in the fashion industry were too great, and so she’d stopped considering pursuing that path. Again, however, she’d not really done due diligence. My suggestion to attend an upcoming trade show and talk with some designers, manufacturers, and buyers had occurred to her previously, but her rep in Los Angeles told her that there wouldn’t be room in the both they were planning to erect at the show – and that was enough to discourage my client from pursuing it.

An engineer with a major defense contractor and almost 16 years of experience came to me ready to “hang it up” at his long-time employer. He had been unsuccessfully trying to move from engineering into general management; his boss told him that the company had an inflexible path that would take him years to navigate. My client is educated, ambitious, and happens to be fluent in Arabic. When I suggested that he informally approach a unit of the company pitching a major contract with one of the Gulf Emirates, he was very reluctant – it was going “outside of channels,” and frowned upon. Nonetheless I prevailed on him to make the overture and four months later the company landed the $400 million contract, my client having been enlisted in the pitch. His contribution was so notable that he received an “employee of the year” award (not to mention a very serious bonus).

The lesson from these three very different examples: don’t let yourself be stopped too early in the process of exploring career options. You might be selling yourself short based on other people’s ideas about what’s normal, expected, or possible. This is not to say that you should ignore all caution or warning signs; just try to get more comfortable with the inherently uncertain but invaluable exploratory phase of contemplating alternative career work.