I pride myself on having an excellent record of success in guiding my clients to solutions to the full range of career-related dilemmas, whether that takes the form of showing them how to Improve the odds of landing a great job, strengthening their leadership abilities, teaching them how to improve their networking skills, or handling delicate political issues in their organization. But, there’s an area of career work where my success rate is somewhat lower, namely in leading clients to the identification of better career paths. Why? I’ve contemplated and analyzed this question intensively, and I can trace most disappointing outcomes to one or more of three factors:

1. Unrealistic expectations of what to expect from career counseling

Career counseling is NOT job placement. Nor is it just a different version of a personality or career test that purports to provide an answer to the question: “What is the right career for me?” The counselor instructs, inspires, and guides, but in the final analysis it’s the client who has to do the heavy lifting. That lifting depends of course on the nature of the client’s goal, but you can be sure that in all but a handful of cases a lot of work is required. That fact leads to the second reason for failure:

2. Inadequate or poorly directed dedication of time and energy

I almost always assign homework to be completed by the next session. Often, though, the next session arrives and the client confesses to having completed only part of the assignment (or, rarely, none of it). ” It was a really busy week and I couldn’t find the time” is a not infrequent refrain.

I invariably reject that explanation, and explain that it was simply a matter of not giving the assignment a high enough priority. Naturally there are times when unexpected developments derail even the best-intended plans: a sick child, the death of a relative, or a crisis at work. But those instances are unusual and hopefully very infrequent. (Another reason why time and energy aren’t optimally directed can relate to one of the conditions listed below).

Another issue that sometimes crops up is the fact that looking for, and applying to, jobs online provides a quick reinforcement to the idea that meaningful action is occurring, even though the online route to career clarity or a job is generally a barren one. Sending in a dozen job applications may much more promising than having a dozen networking conversations, but it almost certainly won’t be.

3. Behavioral and emotional blocks 

I find that my skills as a psychotherapist get tapped in working with a large proportion of my clients. Just a few of the issues that can stand in the way of success:

  •  Low self-confidence
  •  Shyness
  •  Procrastination
  •  Excessive anxiety or pessimism
  •  Depression
  •  ADD related disorganization
  •  Peer, familial, or cultural pressures

Exploration of alternatives is an absolutely essential element in making a wise career choice. That exploration should be undertaken with curiosity, openness, diligence, creativity, and some boldness. The factors listed above (and many others) can stand in the way and lead to a suboptimal outcome if not addressed. Just to take a few examples, shyness will inhibit the essential networking component of exploration; pessimism can lead to hopelessness and a loss of energy and enthusiasm; peer, familial, or cultural pressure can push someone down paths that their heart isn’t in to, but which they feel obliged to pursue, resulting in half-hearted effort.