Much of my work involves helping people become more effective in their careers. For example, I might teach a portfolio management team creativity techniques to help them generate more and better ideas for investment. In this process, I’ve also found that we are profoundly shaped by our work and the ways in which we pursue our careers. This makes the selection of a career one of the most important decisions a person can make. Fortunately, the explosion of the online work world in response to the the recent pandemic has made it easier than ever to sample career fields through virtual internships. This, in turn, is helping students find the work that will best exercise and express their strengths.
A few years ago, I met with a money manager who was thoroughly miserable despite a history of profitability and career advancement. His focus on global macroeconomics and markets meant that he, in a sense, was always working. He woke up early to track and trade markets in Europe and stayed up late to follow Asian markets. His days were filled with meetings with sell-side researchers, analysts, and team members, making sense of data releases, monetary policy shifts, and domestic and international political developments. As his marriage and relationship with his children took a back seat to pressing work concerns, he came across as increasingly distant from those craving his love and attention. His team members similarly felt a lack of engagement and slowly became disenchanted with his leadership. Within a short period of time, he encountered a nasty drawdown in his portfolio, his wife raised the topic of separation, and his senior analyst left for another position. Suddenly, the successful manager felt like a total failure.
Contrast this situation with that of another portfolio manager who spent considerable time building a team to cover global markets and investment strategies. He carefully selected team members with distinctive areas of skill and expertise who also had track records of successful collaboration. Each team member was given a small allocation of capital to manage, so that they could build their own trading skills and develop new ways to take advantage of opportunities in their areas of expertise. The portfolio manager enjoyed serving as a mentor to the team members and their developing investment prowess, and the team members were highly engaged in adding value to the portfolio. That same teamwork and engagement extended to the manager’s home life and relationships with spouse and children, fueling a deep sense of fulfillment.
In both of these situations, the person shaped the work, but the work also shaped the person. As I recently described, our work becomes suboptimal when we underutilize our strengths, but also when we overutilize them. Our first portfolio manager so focused (and overfocused) on conscientious task fulfillment that he came across as personally and emotionally unavailable. What he recognized by the time he sought help is that he hadn’t always been that way. Gradually, adapting to the demands of his work, he became a worker—and little more. Our second manager, on the other hand, had no prior experience building and leading a team but focused on recruiting colleagues who would help sustain a stimulating learning environment. Through his approach to collaborative leadership in his work, he became a more constructively engaged partner and parent at home.
Referring to the strengths assessed by the VIA research group, Niemiec and McGrath outline several ways of developing our competencies, including appreciating the strengths of others, exercising existing strengths by applying them to challenges, and turning strengths into habits through our personal and work routines. Citing researcher Christopher Peterson, Niemiec and McGrath emphasize that “character is plural”: who we are reflects an integration of multiple strengths. From this perspective, our careers become virtual gymnasiums in which we can not only exercise the best within us, but also shape the combinations of strengths that allow us to adapt to new challenges.
As we all know, however, we can hurt ourselves in the gym if we don’t know what we’re doing. Spending hour after hour working solely on our upper body with weight machines will create a very sore, imbalanced physique. If our careers become one-dimensional, it’s not surprising that our development becomes imbalanced. The idea of appreciative inquiry captures the ideas that “words create worlds” and “what we focus on grows”. Most of us spend a significant portion of our waking hours on the job. What we focus on during those hours, what we think about, and what we discuss ultimately shape our development—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
Can we become better at finding the careers that bring out the best in us? Around the world, accelerated by the recent pandemic, we are witnessing an explosion of virtual internships, in which students pursue diverse global work experiences via the online medium. In the area of finance, for example, we’re seeing new online training initiatives from investment banks around the world. These are exciting opportunities for developing the positive career competencies emphasized by such groups as the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Such virtual internships are also expanding the diversity of workforces, as students from rural areas and inner cities can access training on a more equal basis. As NAFSA describes, the wide range of opportunities means that we have more tools than ever to construct professional growth plans, laying out paths to our development.
Perhaps most important of all, however, is that these training programs are windows on the career world: highly accessible opportunities to sample multiple work settings and fields. As one career development professional on a campus noted in a recent New York Times article, “This is not a time to be picky or overly choosy. This is a time to get experience.” The article advises students to “think shorter” and utilize these fresh online opportunities to explore career options. In a very real sense, virtual internships have become the career equivalent of online dating. They are great ways of getting acquainted before taking the next steps of commitment by “going live”. The virtual internship becomes a great vehicle for career exploration, while more intensive, live internships serve as tools for diving deeper into careers.
There is a deeper psychological significance to the virtual internship phenomenon, however. Well-constructed online work experiences become ways in which we can explore how different work settings and fields allow us to express and exercise our character strengths. As one student mentioned in evaluating his internship at a trading firm, being able to manage positions in the stock market provided him with a first-hand experience of the qualities that need to be cultivated to be successful. Similarly, an American student who interned virtually as a sports journalist for a publication in Dublin described how the experience helped her discover her talent and passion for video production. The internship was not just an opportunity to utilize her strengths, but also discover and develop new ones. This is the essence of what we might call positive career development: the intentional use of the work environment to further the growth of our potentials.
Positive career development suggests that our careers shape our personal development by molding the plurality of our strengths. The evolving hybrid work environment is providing us with new ways to explore and experience careers and find the virtual gymnasiums best suited to our character development. Over time, we will see this dynamic expand our opportunities for continuing education and career advancement. From the challenging constraints of the work-from-home environment, we are discovering creative ways of exploring frontiers and building fulfilling lives.
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