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Knowing Yourself is the First Step in Career Development

David J. Smith

February 22, 2018

This week I had the chance to work with two very different groups in thinking about careers.  On Tuesday morning (2/20/18), I spoke to students at Centreville High School in Fairfax County, VA.  All of the students were volunteers in the school's peer mediation program.  I was there to share with them about  careers related to conflict resolution. This is the focus of my book Peace Jobs: A Student's Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace. On Wednesday (2/21/18) night I spoke at a dinner of the National Capital Area Chapter of the Fulbright Association in DC.  This is the professional association of individuals who have participated in a Fulbright Program and live in the Washington, DC area.  It is very much a young professionals association. Though the groups were different, I took a similar approach in working with them.

Career exploration starts with understanding our own experiences and how those experiences can relate to professional work.  We often don't recognize what we know and what we can do.  Sometimes we are not good judges of our own abilities - at times we short change our own experiences.  This is unfortunate, because many of us have developed aptitudes and abilities from our current situations that offer much in a new career pursuit.

With the high school students I started with getting them to think about what they have learned about themselves as peer mediators and what abilities are needed to be a good mediator.  The list they came up included good listening skills, asking meaningful and appropriate questions, and having patience.  These aptitudes are  at the core of best practices in mediation and conflict resolution work. And they are transferable to any job.  Even with the changing job market - we don't really know what careers will look like in  10 years - these attributes will still be necessary, especially as our society continues to diversify.

I asked the same question of the Fulbrighters, but in a slightly different way.  Here, I asked them about what was gained through their Fulbright experience: What did they learn about themselves? 

Again, as with the high schoolers, the Fulbrighters recognized that the experience of being overseas had provided them with the chance to grow, challenge themselves, and build confidence.  For several Fulbrighters, they learned to be comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings.  Others developed language skills.  Still others learned  how to present themselves in front of a group: give a talk or presentation.  And again, these aptitudes will not go out of style.

Regardless of your career aspirations, it is best of start with where you are, and think about what you already know and understand about yourself.  Your present situation - be it a job or  as a volunteer or in an education experience - has allowed you to grow.  Start with assessing what that experience has offered you, and  pivot from that.

David J. Smith is a member of  PCDN's Career Advisory Board and the author of Peace Jobs: A Student's Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace.  He is also the president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education, Inc. 

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