a user's guide

Puzzled about how to make that next career decision? Worried about making the wrong choice? Kate gets you off to a good start with help from some unlikely sources.

You're standing in front of the careers section in your local bookshop. There are a few rows of books in front of you and you're perusing the titles, desperate to find something to help you nail that next career move. You hope there's a book here that can help, but don't know where to start. Which one will you reach for first?

Sheer boredom, returning to work after a career or family break, retrenchment, a move to a foreign country, and any number of other reasons or crises - credit or otherwise - will, sooner or later, push most of us to start thinking about what we might do next. The days of one job for life are well over, with most of us trying our hand at a few different careers in our lifetime. But deciding what to do, in what are most certainly uncertain times, is not easy. In a saturated field of books and consultants promising the world, it can be hard to know where to start searching for inspiration.
You run your finger along the shelf, skimming the titles as you go. Your finger stops and you excitedly pull out "The Perfect Career in Ten Easy Steps". Ah, this makes it sound so easy you wish now you hadn't wasted time worrying about what the future holds! You bend down for a closer look at the adjacent book. "Perfect Job Search Results" and there next to it, "Brilliant Careers: A How to Book." Hmm. Which is better: perfect or brilliant? Perfect is definitive, brilliant sounds so bright and shiny. Can you be definitive and shiny? Should you read both, just in case?

For many of us, our last brush with careers advice was sitting down with a teacher or career advisor to discuss our best subject and therefore which usually well-trodden path to follow. But unless you are one of the few who discovered their life-calling at age seventeen, deviation from the path comes sooner or later, and it's then we realise the decision making is up to us.

We search for the right answer when we're not sure of the question. Beguiled by job security and benefits, waylaid by new relationships, kids, and the need to earn some money. We're shackled by the threat of not surviving on meagre pension handouts, and driven by the fear of not working. Perhaps too ashamed to acknowledge that we don't know what to do next, as if we've failed ourselves and our teachers from long ago. And sometimes we're too embarrassed to admit that we like what we do. Should we always be aiming higher? Is standing still worse than doing nothing at all?

You reach up for another book. "In Search of the Perfect Job: 8 steps to the $250 000 executive job that's right for you." Well, you hadn't really thought about becoming an executive (what is that, exactly?) but that's a lot of money so why not, right? But there next to it is "Charity: Working for Change", and you feel guilty about your brief dreams of wealth.

How can we work out what suits both our heads and our hearts? Is it too late to become an astronaut or to reconsider that law degree your parents thought was such a good idea? Perhaps in these times of increasing unemployment, we should just look to our responsibilities and be thankful for anything we can get. But it's hard when we're told from childhood that we can be and do anything we want.

Your shoulders slump as you realise these books aren't really right for you. How can you make a decision this important on your own? You need help! Just then, a small boy runs past clutching a handful of books, one of which drops at your feet. You pick it up. 'Oh, the places you'll go!' by Dr Seuss! You read 'Green Eggs and Ham' when you were a kid.

Then there is that constantly changing balance between work and the rest of our lives. Can we compromise between doing what we're good at while still having time to do what we love or be with the ones we love (or can we have both)?
You open the book.
"You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go."
Finally, a book that speaks to you! Inspired, you run to the children's section, dodging a little girl clutching "Miffy Goes Shopping".

As Po Bronson, author of "What Should I Do With My Life?" says, the '…obvious questions don't have obvious answers'. Why, he argues, do we focus so much on following a set career path when it is both the unexpected and everyday which have the potential to transform our working lives? Why do we look so much to others to guide us or to already established pathways to follow?

There, on the top of a pile of picture books, is "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" by Eric Carle. You remember this, too! Eagerly you open it up. 'In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf. On Sunday morning…out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar."

The answer is we want to get it right. But right for whom, and is what was right for us ten years ago still right for us now or in the future? Perhaps it's time we started trusting our instincts, having more faith in the skills we've picked up along the way and in our flexibility to take in our stride and then adapt to any working situation in which we find ourselves. Gary Pyke and Stuart Neath, authors of "Be Your Own Career Consultant" put it succinctly when they say that if we don't take ownership of our own decisions, how can we possibly trust others to do it for us? We know ourselves best, our values, our likes and dislikes, our strengths, our weaknesses.

"Then he nibbled a hole in the cocoon, pushed his way out and…"

We each have a career story as intriguing as it is convoluted. Rarely do we go straight from A to B and on to Z. We meander, double back, stand still. False starts and dead ends abound, we take breaks, have kids, study. We long for lunchtime then can't believe it's already the end of the day.

"He was a beautiful butterfly."

But always, in the telling, we find we've reached somewhere. It might just be for a short while, sometimes longer, sometimes a surprise and sometimes not. And like any story, it has a beginning, middle and end. The sequel is up to you.

Bronson, Po 2004, What Should I Do With My Life?, Vintage, London
Burkeman, Oliver 24 January 2009, This column will change your life, Guardian, retrieved 21 May 2009,

Carle, Eric 1969, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Penguin Books, London

Figler, Howard and Bolles, Richard. N 1999, The Career Counselor's Handbook, Ten Speed Press, California

Geisel, Theodor, S and Geisel, Audrey. S 1990, Oh, the Places You'll Go!, Random House, New York

Pyke, Gary and Neath, Stuart 2002, Be Your Own Career Consultant, Pearson Education Ltd, London

Terkel, Studs 1974, Working: People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do, The New Press, New York.