The Purpose of Career Counseling

By John D. Krumboltz

I used to think that the purpose of career counseling was to help clients decide which occupation they wished to enter.  To some extent the Strong Vocational Interest Inventory (SVII) was an ideal tool for that purpose.  Here was a questionnaire that matched a client’s current interests with the interests of people successfully employed in named occupations.  The counselor was successful if the client left the counselor’s office having agreed that one of these occupations was her/his goal.


I no longer think that making a career decision is the goal.  Instead the goal should be to launch the client on an exploratory task of talking with lots of people, helping other people with whatever tasks they faced at the moment, reading interesting articles about future occupational trends, applying to whatever jobs happen to be open now, interviewing people who are happy with the work they are doing now, and never making a permanent occupational choice.  Career exploration should be a constant, thoughtful alternative.


A Career Change

My parents thought I should decide on my future occupation when I was 12 years old.  After much thought I decided that I would play first base for the Chicago Cubs baseball team.   I did play first base for a team of 12-year old boys and enjoyed the activity.  One day for unknown reasons we played a team of 16-year old boys.  The pitcher on that team was named “Lefty” and was 6-foot 3-inches tall, much bigger than any of the boys on our team.  When I came up to bat against Lefty, I waved my bat threateningly, but Lefty did not seem to notice.  He wound up and threw the ball directly at my head traveling at 90 miles per hour. I ducked down in the dirt and watched the ball curve over the plate for a called strike.  At that moment I changed my career plans.  I did not want to get killed by a pitched ball.  I did not know how to distinguish a curve ball from a fast ball, and I did not want to experiment with the alternatives.  The Chicago Cubs would have to get along without me.


So, you might be wondering how I got into this business of doing research, teaching and writing articles.  I give a lot of credit to Bill Farquhar, a fellow student in the doctoral program in Counseling Psychology at the University of Minnesota.  Bill and I were the youngest two students in the program.  We called ourselves the “boy scientists.”  During the very first quarter Bill said to me, “Hey John, let’s write an article.”  I said, “Bill, we don’t know anything to write about.  We just arrived.”  Bill said, “Sure we do, we are taking a course in research methods.  Let’s just summarize what the professor is saying.”  So we sat down together, wrote a two-page manuscript about the big ideas in experimental research, and mailed it in to the editor of a professional journal.  Amazingly, the editor accepted it and published it.  The faculty at the University of Minnesota were amazed and pleased that two of their first-year students published an article about experimental research.  I never would have done it if Bill Farquhar had not suggested it.  I give Bill full credit for starting me on the path of publishing research articles.


Career Counselors Should Be Active In Helping Their Clients Learn From Experience

So what is the take-home point?  Do something!!!  Take some action!!!  Try doing something that helps other people.  Career counselors should be active in helping their clients learn from experience.  The eventual outcome is impossible to predict.  My whole career life has resulted from a long sequence of completely unexpected events.  So the bottom line for career counselors:  “Help your clients to initiate actions that will be helpful for one or more other people.”  Helpful actions are noticed and appreciated and often rewarded.  Where they will lead can never be predicted.  So launch yourself on a helpful path for others from wherever you are now.   


John KrumboltzJohn D. Krumboltz, Ph.D., Professor of Education and Psychology at Stanford University, is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A leader in the theory of career counseling, his notable previous books include Assessing Career Development and Luck Is No Accident. Dr. Krumboltz has received the prestigious Leona Tyler Award in Counseling Psychology from the APA (1990), the Distinguished Professional Contributions to Knowledge Award from the APA (2002), and the NCDA Eminent Career Award (1994). He can reached at jdk@stanford.edu


Dr. Krumboltz will be co-presenting a Professional Development Institute (PDI) at the 2015 NCDA Global Career Development Conference in Denver, Colorado:

PDI #4 Overcoming the Fear of Failure, Monday, June 29, 2015 ~ 8:00 am - 12:00 noon
The best way to learn a new skill is to begin doing it. We will involve you in action steps to help you discover ways for you and your clients to overcome initial fears of trying new activities in order to explore new career-related opportunities. We will motivate each other to become willing experimenters in life.

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Magdalena Mot   on Wednesday 04/01/2015 at 11:24 PM

Agree. My career too was the result of a long sequence of unexpected events. It was an inspiration to meet Dr. Krumboltz at the CDC Conference in Vancouver in 2012. Well said, John, as you always do!

Kelley O'Hara   on Wednesday 04/01/2015 at 11:27 PM

I love this continually refreshing view of courageously moving forward toward an ultimate goal (or not ) keeping open for serendipity along the way- Thank you John for your generosity of spirit.

Jan Newby   on Thursday 04/02/2015 at 09:44 AM

I absolutely agree. I am intrigued by continual growth, exploration, and discovery. At the early age of 4 I began playing piano, by age 7 I was featured on the local news. Certainly my parent's were determined my destiny would be to attend Juilliard School of Music to become an accomplished concert pianist. My thought on the other hand I simply deemed my piano as "a dear friend" and just enjoyed meeting with my friend daily to make sweet melodies together. Later I discovered that if I could just put a smile on someone's face through the calming of music, they were happy, and I was pleased. Hence, going into the business of helping people became my desired destiny. I love what I do... a private music instructor on the weekends, and license professional counselor during the week. I am fulfilling my ideal purpose in life, I never left my first love, I simply added to it. I learned the true meaning of balance: enjoyment of personal work / life, and determination to help others evolve and successfully transition into a desired preferred purposed future.

Eileen Mahoney   on Thursday 04/02/2015 at 12:04 PM

The suggestion that we encourage action that will be helpful to others is brilliant. Cllients in transition can be mired in fear and uncertainty. This is a particularly difficult place from which to reach out to strangers with requests for information. Encouraging clients to find ways to be helpful is a way to build confidence and subtly shift perspective. It is easier to believe people would be willing to help you if you are living a willingness to help others. Thank you for adding this element to your theory of happenstance.

Leigh G. Mundhenk   on Monday 04/06/2015 at 04:18 PM

John, thank you for sharing your perspectives. I completely agree that career development is a fluid and multifaceted process, and very much based on the influence of experience. We are very much looking forward to having you be our keynote at the Maine Career Development Association annual conference on June 19.

Tammy White   on Monday 04/06/2015 at 05:05 PM

Thank you for sharing from your own experiences. I agree that we learn by doing and sometimes we happen upon something we love so much, we can't imagine "not" doing it. Your article is refreshing and motivating.

Paul Timmins   on Sunday 04/19/2015 at 11:57 AM

Thanks for your passion, John! And I can't help but note: The Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series since the day you changed your career plans.

Jim Peacock   on Friday 05/29/2015 at 10:00 AM

Thanks John for raising this important perspective again.
I think the world of work has changed so much from the days that careers were linear and you started in a job and stayed there until the "gold watch".

Today, change is all around us and it is skills & passions that people should embrace as well as viewing themselves as 'free agents' in the economy.

If you believe this to be true, then you WILL change jobs and you WILL be open to those unplanned events that spark curiosity and excitement in our lives.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.