I often like to say my clients when I’m providing career counseling and coaching at my office that I’m “one of those obnoxious people who has his dream career.” You know the type: they are happy, contented people who seem to be doing what they love, making a good living, and just all-around having a good go of it. They stand out, because they are somewhat unusual. A lot of people have complaints about their job, and I believe that most of it stems from not actively planning and strategizing to both do what you love and make a good living at it. These things take thought, they take planning, they take almost constant action, and they take ongoing strategizing and maintenance, including networking and learning.
Career coaching helps with all of these. For gay men, there are additional pressures for career planning, because the cumulative (even traumatic) effect of all that anti-gay negativity that gay boys in America (and all over the world) grow up with can have the effect of diminishing our self-esteem, which can dampen our ambitions, motivations, and ultimately our accomplishments. Gay-affirmative therapy and coaching (especially using Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, as I do) helps to counteract these depressing, negative influences, and helps to re-affirm our professional sense of self, and raise our confidence back to where it should have been all along.
I often paraphrase the work of John Bolles, who wrote the seminal book on career planning, What Color Is Your Parachute? Clever author that he is, he publishes updates to the book on an annual basis (which makes for evergreen royalties), so its advice is relevant and timely for current economic and hiring trends. He advises something along the lines of considering three things in your career planning: 1) the skills you want to use; 2) the setting you want to use those skills in; and 3) for the benefit of a worthy audience. In other words, when you have to get up early on a Monday morning and start another work week, who are you helping? Why are you bothering? Who benefits from your daily toils? There has to be an intrinsic motivation to what you’re doing, or it’s hard to sustain the motivation over a long term (theoretically, decades of a career).
Let’s look at my own example: The skills I use are being a psychotherapist, coach, grad school professor, and clinical social worker, such as doing counseling, coaching, writing, speaking, consulting, and expert witness testimony, all on gay, and/or HIV, and/or psychiatric issues. The setting I work in, is my own private practice office (though I used to work in clinics, hospitals, or non-profit agencies). The “worthy audience” I have chosen to devote my professional life to is gay men, my brothers in the community, and I was originally moved to do this as a response to the devastating toll that AIDS was taking on gay men when I started my career well over 20 years ago.
But you can substitute any other variables in the areas for skills, settings, and audiences. Maybe your skills are that you’re a storyteller and writer. Maybe your setting is that you work in LA as a staff writer on a television drama. Maybe the audience worthy of your efforts is the viewing public – millions of them – who are fans of the show. Or, maybe you’re an accountant. The setting is a corporate finance office of a startup that develops smartphone apps. And the worthy audience for your efforts is the users of the apps the company produces. Try this with yourself: What are your skills, settings, and audiences? Think of what they are now. Now, think about how you would LIKE them to be. Are they the same? What would you change about any one of those three variables?
If there is a gap there, that’s where you need to consider making changes. The closer you are functioning to what your IDEAL is, in all three of those categories, the happier you will be in your work.
John Bolles in What Color is Your Parachute? can elaborate on these concepts and more. What I’ve been working on lately with some clients in my office is also looking at what primarily motivates you in your work, especially if you look at the long term of your life, your entire career arc, and what you want your impact and legacy to the world to be.
I see three broad categories: Working in service to Aesthetic, Altruistic, or Lucrative pursuits. And pursuing something that is lucrative shouldn’t be a “dirty word”. Don’t feel guilty about working to make a lot of money. We can’t all be Mother Teresa (and even Mother Teresa wasn’t a saint by many recent accounts). There are millions of people who just need their careers to be lucrative, because they want an especially high standard of living, or they want to support their families in style (many men and women with children put this first, because they see this as fulfilling their role as a parent). For (childless) gay men, maybe the goal is to have a lucrative job to afford lots of comforts, conveniences, and luxuries, and working a demanding corporate job is the price they pay to get them. All of that is OK. We see famous examples of that in investment wizard Warren Buffet, or (lesbian) financial services guru/author/speaker Suze Orman, or media entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey.
Working in service to aesthetics can mean professions in creative expression, design, or the arts. Stephen Schwartz, composer of big Broadway musicals like “Godspell”, “Pippin”, and “Wicked”, as well as Disney films like “Pocahontas”, worked in service to music for the theatre or musical film. His royalties have made him a millionaire many times over, so it’s been lucrative, but he started out devoting his skills to the aesthetics of music. Walt Disney devoted his life to the aesthetics of beautiful and entertaining films, and then to Disneyland and other theme parks, where the goal was to delight and transport individuals and families through wonder and fantasy. Martin Scorsese has devoted his professional life to the aesthetics of the art of directing film, and Coco Chanel to the aesthetics of extraordinary fashion design. Many gay men pursue careers that require them to be devoted to the aesthetics of arts, design, architecture, landscaping, and fashion. If this is you, the challenge is always to make yourself succeed by serving both the creative (making beautiful things) and the commercial (being able to make a living doing it).
Working in service to altruism motivates many people. I am driven by my vicarious satisfaction in seeing gay men thrive in all areas, and helping them to heal where they were once hurting. My sister, Jill Howard Church, has devoted her professional life to helping animals, through her writing, editing, and activism in various non-profit animal welfare organizations, over many years. Erin Brockovich has devoted her professional life to environmental issues, and confronting corporate pollution. Jack Canfield, author/editor of the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, had a goal of donating $1 million to charity on the royalties from that book/series (but only as a “tithe”, a percentage of his own royalties). So, while working in altruism is not always aesthetic (some of this work can be a messy business!), it can be lucrative, or not. Often, a career devoted to altruism is a balance between commercial reward and an intrinsic reward, sometimes with extremes on either side.
In all of this, for gay men, we need to focus on empowering ourselves and committing ourselves to the concept that even though homophobic parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, bosses and peers might have given us a lot of antipathy, bullying, or discrimination in our past just for being who we are, we can’t let that stop us from having the life (and career) that we really want. We have to really challenge any of those hateful, selfish, negative messages that we received growing up or in our adult past that said, “You can’t”, or “You’re not good enough”, or “You can’t do/have/earn as much as the straight guy.” The truth is, you can so! You have to really stare down those negative voices that you might have internalized and declare, affirm, and assert yourself that you have just as much right to achieve, have, and grow as anyone else. (People of color, women, and people with disabilities often struggle with this same issue; thinking less of themselves and dampening their own ambitions before they even try, because of negative messages that sapped their motivation growing up.) Using positive affirmations of, “I can learn this,” “I can do this,” “There’s very little I can’t do, if I put my mind to it and get the help I need,” are incredibly useful for building up our confidence. Focus on the skills you want to develop, study them (school, college, graduate programs, training programs, mentorships, on-the-job training), and then do the networking and community collaboration to ask for the help you need.
Hopefully, this gets you thinking about the variables that go into professional success. For help with these (identifying or implementing them), consider having counseling or coaching. Often, the simplest step toward having your dream career is embracing the idea that it is worth the effort to plan and pursue.
For individualized help with any of these tips, or for more support (and maybe a li’l ass-kickin’ accountability, where needed), consider counseling, coaching, or therapy sessions, at my office, via phone, or via webcam, from anywhere in the United States or the world. Call/text 310-339-5778 or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com for more information.
I am also available for expert witness work, consulting for organizations, and speaking at conferences.
To get your copy of my 2013 self-help book, Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want!, click here. It’s your “portable therapist” for the challenges you face today in your mental health, health, career, finances, family, spirituality, and community.