Career counseling is gaining increasing importance in India today, as families and education institutions search for methods and systems to help young people make career choices suited to their aptitude and potential.
A few years ago, I presented the idea of school-based career guidance and counseling to a ‘high powered committee’ in Delhi. I thought it was quite a good presentation! But response to the paper however, was startling and unexpected. My ideas were criticised as simplistic, and the notion of career guidance was written off as being “too Western”.
This experience proved to be a turning point which prompted me to think deeply about the subject. One question in particular, opened my eyes to deeper issues relating to the subject. I realised then, that most Indian languages don’t have a word equivalent to ‘career’. The closest equivalents are ‘work’, ‘job’ and ‘occupation’. Ever since, I have listened more carefully to how work is commonly described. Here are some examples of what I have heard:
‘I want to be a police officer. But I can’t, because my mother says it’s not a job for girls.’ — High school student, Pondicherry.
‘I must take up science. That’s what you must study if you are intelligent. Then I can become a doctor or engineer’ — High school student, Bangalore.
Embedded in these statements are broader reflections of prevailing philosophies, socio-econo-mic influences, political factors and cultural norms, all combining to mould attitudes and mindsets towards vocational choices and the world of work.
As a career psychologist, I have discovered five principles of Indian philosophy that I keep in mind when I counsel young people about career choices.
Career development as a spiral. Ancient Indian philosophy describes a cyclical approach to life. But I like to think of the cycle as a spiral. Nature is full of examples of spirals ranging from the structure of galaxies, to the shell of a snail and the blossoming of a rose bud. Applying this analogy to career counseling, I bear in mind that rarely does a career progress in a linear and sequential manner. Therefore career counselors in schools and colleges must remember that a rewarding career path is built by assessing previous achievement and development — learning from the past while looking to the future — all through life.
Assessment before acceptance. Indian philosophy exhorts individuals to exercise objectivity and practice dispassion (nishkama) while making decisions. The pattern and pace of contemporary economic development presents the Indian youth with a smorgasbord of career opportunities. But this doesn’t mean that just because an opportunity arises it should be taken. Prudent career development requires the skill to assess opportunities and match them with one’s interests and aptitude. Career counselors and teachers need to apply the philosophy of dispassionate assessment before recommending acceptance of opportunities.
Anticipating conflicts of interest. Sensitivity to Nature is a deeply valued Indian philosophical construct. Global warming, biodiversity, conservation of water and energy, renewable energy, waste management, transportation alternatives, environmental health and social justice issues have an impact on career choices. Today, growing numbers of youth aspire to environment-friendly careers. Therefore to avoid mid-career frustration and disillusionment, counselors and teachers need to ensure that conscientious eco-friendly youth are not advised to choose careers which may create conflict of interests.
Factoring mid-life career changes. Mainstream Indian philosophy regards the cosmos as a paradox which simultaneously accommodates change and constancy. Applying this philosophical strain to career counseling requires an awareness that the world of work is constantly in a state of flux, with new opportunities emerging continuously. Thus career paths which factor in the possibility of change need to be advised, bearing in mind aptitudes that can accommodate change.
Advising life-long development. Indian philosophy says that every individual progresses through clearly definable stages (ashramas), and at each stage there is an inherent conflict between working for personal gain and rendering service to society. Intelligent career counseling requires a larger vision of commitment to society, in return for receiving its benefits. The post-industrial economy requires educational and career planning not just at the end of school, but throughout life.
India’s massive manpower resource pool offers this country the prospect of economic leadership in the 21st century. But to ensure optimal resource usage, leaders, managers and workers need to be doing their work with enthusiasm and accomplishment. Therefore far from being a peripheral ‘westernised’ concept, career counseling will play — or should play — an increasingly important role in institutions of education.
(Dr. Gideon Arulmani is the Bangalore-based founder- director of The Promise Foundation)