The art of career

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About the author:
Wolfgang Mayrhofer is Professor at WU Vienna, Austria
You can read more at his web-page 
And contact him at his email address

Kerr Inkson, one of the most creative thinkers in our field, unfortunately already retired and back in his beloved Aotearoa, the Māori expression for New Zealand, wrote a wonderful book about the metaphors we use to describe careers (in the second edition: Inkson, K., Dries, N., & Arnold, J. 2015. Understanding Careers (2 ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA et al.: Sage). Metaphors have a holistic quality. They use powerful analog language and point towards certain qualities of a phenomenon, trying to give us a holistic and emotional rich picture. The career-related metaphors in the book point towards concepts such as ‘journey’, ‘theater’, ‘seasons’ or ‘narrative’ – all of them powerful, all of them pointing towards unique characteristics that are important to understand what career is.

One metaphor I was missing when reading the book was ‘art’. For me, the metaphor of art points towards a number of aspects that are essential when looking at careers. I would like to emphasize three in particular. First, ‘true’ art is unthinkable without creativity. I guess some would even argue that creativity is one, if not the core element that is a conditio sine qua non for any ‘true’ artistic endeavor. The same, I would argue, is true for career or at least for somewhat rewarding careers. Without at least some kind of creativity when making career choices, when dealing with outcomes of one’s choices or coming to terms with the cards that contextual forces beyond one’s own reach have dealt us, our careers most likely become stale.

Second, the major works of art are unique – unique in terms of their production, of their message, of what they constitute. There is little difference to our careers. We as career actors are unique human beings encountering contextual settings that are constantly changing and that not simply ‘are there’, but that we enact, i.e. we assign meaning and create them to a certain extent. Hardly surprising, then, that the result of our patterned wandering through a bounded social space and through time is unique. Yes, it has some commonalities and regularities – why else would we as scientist deal with it? If it would be pure coincidence and/or without any underlying rationale, our search for explanation and prediction would hardly make any sense. But in its totality, every career is a unique result of the interplay between me as the actor and my context.

Third, many, if not all ‘true’ acts of creating art requires the crossing of established boundaries. These can be boundaries made of conventions of what constitutes art, of long-standing wisdom about what ‘works’ and what ‘does not work’ with regard to the material I use, or of the public view of what is acceptable. Career also in this sense is a piece of art. There is no career without crossing various forms of boundaries, including organizational or job boundaries, positional boundaries that mark specific places in the social context, boundaries of meaning that we ourselves and the people that look at our careers assign to the emerging pattern of our career transitions, or simply (simply?) geographical and cultural boundaries that separate the known from the unknown.

Are we then all artists of career, constantly at work with regard to our own career and the career of others? I strongly suggest a wholehearted yes…

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