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Questions Career Coaches Rarely Ask, But They Really Ought To Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit

Back in my late 20's, when I'd already had enough of corporate life but had only a few real clues as to what to do instead, I turned to a career coach for help. Ellen Hendler at JVS (Jobs-Vision-Success, at did a terrific job. She ran me through scads of tests and inventories. They had strange names, like the GATB (General Aptitude Test Battery), Ravens Progressive Matrices, and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

The results? I sheepishly admit to failing the Ravens. Hey, I'd like to see you assemble that elephant puzzle in the allotted time! But it wasn't so much the 'tests' as the many questions Ellen asked me, and our conversations flowing from my answers, that benefited me most. Questions like, 'What do you genuinely value in life?' And 'If you had millions of dollars and never had to worry about money again, what would you do or be?'

During my own time as a career counsellor, I've posed a host of revealing queries to a wide range of clients. For instance, 'What do you consider to be your most gratifying gifts?'What do you like, and truly dislike, about the work you've been doing so far?' And 'How do you define success for yourself, regardless of how others might perceive it?'

No doubt this is an excellent starting point. Self-knowledge is the key to choosing satisfying work. Yet there are many subtle, though absolutely critical, aspects of career satisfaction that are not always addressed. For instance, the natural pace of life you're born with. Or your attitudes toward things like money, altruism, or even death.

What I'm proposing is that we ask ourselves a few hard, some might say controversial questions, when considering what drives us. The following examples illustrate my point.

What does your family expect of you?

Research shows that family influences are key in forming our perceptions about career appropriateness. What about your mom and dad -- have they been supportive of your career choices? And your siblings, if any: Do they brag to their friends about you, or when your name comes up at parties do they slink away to the far corner?

Are you more individualistic, or tribal?

Right now the U.S. is run amok with personal success, regardless of the impact on others -- watched any good 'reality' shows lately? If you're born with an instinct for community, or have strong nurturing and social justice leanings, it's important not to tune them out (the feelings, not the reality shows, that is).

How readily do you 'sell out?'

Most people know when they are compromising their principles to the point of discomfort. Like the brilliant musician whose life's desire is to play for an orchestra, but who settles for creating advertising jingles -- and making megabucks -- instead. Or the deeply religious CEO whose company is involved in unethical dealings. At what point do you give up chasing easier money and go for the gusto in your heart?

What will be your legacy when your time on earth is over?

Some people want to be remembered for doing something lasting, such as creating a somewhat better world, or for defending liberty and democracy. Take a moment to write your own epitaph. What would you like your own tombstone to say?

When, and how, do you believe you are going to die?

Since we're already into the morbid, let's go all the way. Pretty much everyone has their own internal sense of how long they're fated to live. If you believe you're going to be healthy until 100, you've got plenty of time to reach your goals. But what if you're secretly convinced time is short, fast and brutal?

Have you ever experienced a life-altering trauma?

Scratch any social worker, doctor, nurse, police officer, or anyone else in a helping profession, and you're likely as not to reveal someone who's experienced an ordeal (personal injury, assault or health issue, severe family dysfunction etc.). Is there something in your past you yearn to turn into a positive way of using your skills and talents?

What's your ethnic, sexual, religious, or cultural orientation?

A piece of advice for those of us outside the mainstream: try not to go against your natural grain for too long. There are plenty of employers who have diversity policies in place these days. Or perhaps you can find work that assists your community of choice. It's time to celebrate who you are, not hide from it!

How much wealth will make you happy?

It's amazing to see how reluctant people can be to calculate the actual price of their dreams. Much as I admired Marsha Sinetar's best seller 'Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow,' (Dell Books), reality beckons. No sense giving up your job as an investment banker to become a florist if you're determined to earn as much as you've been used to. Do some financial projections and see what trade-offs you'll have to make. Is your personal time worth more to you than earning that extra dollar, reaching the next rung, or upgrading to more square footage? Can you 'downsize' your wealth and feel freer and less burdened?

Of course, I haven't covered every contentious question possible. And I realize that some of these are not for the feint of heart. I mean, who wants to ponder their own demise? Or delve into the past to dredge up old injuries, with all the psychic pain that might involve? Hardly a superficial way to gain insights.

However, in the final analysis, doing so gives you the best possible shot at finding career fulfillment. Wouldn't it be great to never again have days where you feel like an impostor? What if you didn't awaken with constricted breathing or a heavy heart, worrying about keeping up with the day ahead?

One way to move forward is via honest, occasionally ruthless, self-questioning. Then talk these issues over with a trusted friend, colleague, family member, or career coach. You'll thank yourself years from now when you look back, see the changes you've made, and smile in a way you'd forgotten was possible.

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