Career Flow: A Hope-Centred Approach to Achieving Dreams

By Roberta Neault

Hope is related to optimism. Snyder (1998) described hope as “the perceived capacity to derive pathways to desired goals, and motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways” (p. 249). In Career Flow (Niles, Amundson, & Neault, 2011), hope is at the centre of a career development model and essential to each of the stages (i.e., self-reflection, self-clarity, visioning, goal-setting, action-planning, implementing, and evaluating). Without hope, clients are unlikely to be motivated to engage in career planning activities or ongoing career management.

Of course, career development is also impacted by factors external to the individuals. In the Career Flow model, therefore, environment is acknowledged as a significant and dynamic influence. Just as environmental shifts (e.g., global recessions, earthquakes, or tsunamis) can impact individual careers, so too individual career decisions can impact the environment – the “butterfly effect” often mentioned in articles about chaos theory describes how very small changes can create far-reaching shifts.

The career flow metaphor illustrates different types of career experiences through comparing them to water conditions (e.g., still water, white water, stagnant water, or waterfall). Optimal career flow occurs when individuals are well-suited to the types of work challenges they encounter (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997; Neault & Pickerell, in press). They are fully engaged, focused, and accomplishing their goals. Career conditions, however, can change quickly. For example, through an increase in challenge or a decrease in resources, optimal career flow can transform into a white water experience. Similar types of white water challenges may be perceived as exhilarating by some people and overwhelming by others, depending on internal and external resources available to get the job done. Sometimes individuals get stuck in their careers – peaceful still water experiences may slowly become stagnant and, over time, even toxic.

Hope, however, can help individuals navigate challenging career experiences. Whether in white water or a stagnant pool, a belief in one’s own ability to cope (i.e., self-efficacy) along with a belief in the organization’s potential to supply interesting opportunities and sufficient resources, combine to motivate people to keep paddling when conditions are less than perfect.

As counsellors, we’re less likely to see clients when all is well with their careers. Our job, therefore, may be to instil or strengthen hope when times are tough. Here are some tips to build hope at each of the career flow stages:

  1. Self-reflection. Encourage clients to recall moments of career success and accomplishment. To foster a sense of agency, ask how they contributed to that success.

  2. Self-clarity. Ask clients to share stories from other types of flow (e.g., if the story was one of optimal flow, ask for a white water experience or a time when the water was slow-moving or stagnant. Help your clients to identify patterns or themes: How did they navigate through troubling times? What resources (internal or external) did they use?

  3. Visioning. Help client envision their dreams. Prompt them for details to help clarify their visions.

  4. Goal-setting. SMART goals (i.e., those that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-limited) can help foster hope. Strengthen your clients’ likelihood of achieving a dream by co-creating pathways that are within their capacity to navigate.

  5. Action-planning. When waters are exceedingly rough or when they’ve been stuck in a toxic environment, your clients may be overwhelmed. To develop hope, help identify small steps to build career management capacity.

  6. Implementing. Create opportunities for success . . . and celebrate achievements! Hope motivates action. If your clients have an inspiring vision of the future, specific goals to aspire to, and a realistic action plan to move toward it, they will likely begin to believe in the possibility that they can achieve it.

  7. Adapting. Just as water doesn’t flow evenly down a river or ocean waves are inconsistent, so career flow can’t be perfectly scripted. To ensure your clients maintain hope, prepare them for the unexpected. Brainstorm alternate possibilities and, as Krumboltz (2009) advised, equip them to capitalize on chance opportunities.

As Snyder (1998) identified, hope has three key components: goals, perceived pathways to those goals, and motivation to follow those pathways (agency). Through the Career Flow model, counsellors can strengthen hope through reminding clients of their previous accomplishments, facilitating visions of a positive future, setting goals, action-planning, and supporting clients to implement their plans. Recognizing that plans are dynamic, counsellors can prepare clients for times when career flow is less than optimal, equipping them to adapt and respond to changing conditions.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Krumboltz, J. D. (2009). The happenstance learning theory. Journal of Career Assessment 17, 135-154. DOI: 10.1177/1069072708328861.

Neault, R. A. (2002). Thriving in the new millennium: Career management in the changing world of work.Canadian Journal of Career Development, 1(1),11-21.

Neault, R. A., & Pickerell, D. A. (in press). Career engagement: Bridging career counseling and employee engagement. Journal of Employment Counseling.

Niles, S. G., Amundson, N. E., & Neault, R. A. (2011). Career flow: A hope-centered approach to career development. Pearson: Columbus, OH.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1990). Learned optimism: How to change your mind    and your life. Toronto: Pocket.

Snyder, C. R. (2002). Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry, 13, 249–275.



Roberta NeaultDr. Roberta Neault, CCC, RRP, GCDFi, CCDP is a counselor educator at Yorkville University, just completing her term as editor of the Journal of Employment Counseling, and, with Spencer Niles and Norm Amundson, co-author of Career Flow: A Hope-Centered Approach to Career Development, a book published in 2011 by Pearson. With her co-authors, Roberta presented on this topic at the 2011 NCDA conference in San Antonio. For more about the book, go to:http://www.pearsonhighered.com/product?ISBN=0132241900 Contact Roberta at roberta@lifestrategies.ca.


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Thadra Vrubel    on Tuesday 11/08/2011 at 09:18 PM

This is so helpful! More helpful that simply encouraging clients to maintain a positive outlook and to keep applying for positions.

Roberta Neault   on Thursday 11/10/2011 at 10:53 PM

I'm so glad you found this helpful, Thadra. In earlier research, I found that optimism was the single best predictor of both career success and job satisfaction. However, as you said, it's not enough to simply tell a client to be positive and keep applying. :-) Instead, as career practitioners and counsellors we need tools to help to strengthen their optimism or boost their hope - not naively but grounded in the reality of their unique context.

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