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by Niels H. Nielsen | March 31, 2009


As a career counselor, I've advised many people on choosing a newoccupation. On the premise that the best predictor of future success is pastsuccess, I help clients take inventory of their successes and then transform andtransfer their accomplishments to other fields.

This sounds simple, but it's really complex. I need to know a lot about thekind of work my clients have been doing and even more about occupations theymight consider. I have to uncover their interests and skills, some of which arehidden. Among these are the hobbies or outside activities that absorb them. Infact, I always ask about their career fantasies -- their "WalterMitty" dreams -- so they'll stop straight-line thinking or worrying aboutfeasibility.

I used this technique when I worked with an architect and urban planner. Whenhe lost his job during a downturn in the economy, he was forced to changeoccupations. As I examined his successes, I noticed that he had a secondoccupation that sustained his primary one. He secured the financing on all hisprojects. After we altered his perspective, he landed a job at a leading bankdoing project financing at triple his former salary.

Another case involved a pastor who was burned out. In analyzing his duties, Iwas astonished by how many roles he had: inspirational speaker, teacher, chiefexecutive officer, social worker, fund raiser, planner, organizer, politician,salesperson, public relations spokesman, community leader, facilities manager,small businessperson, financial planner and controller, entertainmentcoordinator, show business impresario and others.

It's a great job, if you can do these things in the order they come at you.But he was overwhelmed by the complexity of his work. So using the techniques Idescribed, I helped him zero in on what he enjoyed doing most and he became asocial worker, a career he was well-qualified to do.

Not long after, my wife died prematurely and I had to consider my own careeroptions. She left me with enough money to do whatever I wanted, no holds barred,cost no object. My choices ranged from doing nothing to making a radical lifechange.

Making this decision was a daunting proposition. My career has been rich andvaried. In fact, I've had 13 different careers. The first seven were in largecorporations where I was rotated through a range of functions. The other sixwere in occupations I had to learn after founding my human resources and generalmanagement consulting practice in 1979. First, I had to become a professionalsalesperson to avoid starvation. Second, I became a small businessman. Otheroccupations arose out of different assignments with clients.

While I had plenty of experience with career change, this was a uniquechallenge. I used the gamut of tactics career counselors apply when working withothers, including paper and pencil tests, computer analysis, flashcard tests andmy own techniques. Nothing worked. Some produced bizarre results; would youbelieve rocket scientist?

I explored alternatives I hadn't been able to try earlier in life forvarious reasons. I had once thought about arts management, but gave that up andremained a volunteer for economic reasons. I considered earning a degree in anew field to round out my intellectual life. I briefly contemplated retirement,but ruled that out as too boring.

This process, which took me to various advisers, lasted about two months.During this time, I felt exhilarated and directionless. It was weird not havingto take jobs that came up or follow a compelling timetable. It was a frustratingand freeing feeling.

Ultimately, I looked inside myself. I thought about what had given me thegreatest satisfaction and joy over the years. Remarkably, I realized I was in myideal job -- solo operator management consultant. That discovery after all thesoul-searching came in a flash.

Being asked to look at a situation that needs to be fixed, figuring out what'sreally wrong (often not what the client thinks initially), conceptualizing thebest solution and putting it into effect -- that's what I love. And I'm paidto do it. What could be better?

The lesson here is to include your heart as well as your head when you'redeciding on your next career. Follow your passion. You'll be much moreeffective in a job you love than in a position you choose for the money orbecause it seems like the right or only thing you can do.

-- Mr. Nielsen is president of Princeton Management Consultants Inc., a Princeton, N.J., human-resources and management-consulting firm.


Filed Under: Job Search