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Composing a Career: Coaching as Artistic Self-Anthropology

I recently listened to a recorded interview[1] of Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of the famous American and British anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, and author of the book “Composing a Life”[2], that struck me as a treatise for the justification for professional or career coaching.

Since the 1990s,  she says,  “Consistant career paths aren’t there for anyone. We now live with constant change.”  Yep, I know all about that; I have been helping people swim upstream in rapid change for nearly two decades now.

She goes on to say, “I like to think of men and women as artists of their own lives, working with what comes to hand, through accident or talent, to compose and recompose a pattern in time that expresses who they are and what they believe.”

I like the metaphor of people as artists creating their own lives, with “what comes to hand” being a metaphor for opportunity.  Knowing how to recognize let alone exploit opportunity is often more a “lost art” than an art because it requires alertness, preparation and an aptitude for positive action. We ordinary mortals are more likely to field opportunity with the randomness of “accident”, as Bateson calls it, than in any conscious, planned, well-thought-out, or strategic manner that might be equated with “talent”.

When it comes to creating one’s own successful and satisfying career, not everyone is a da Vinci or a Michelangelo.

Career or professional coaching takes some of the “accident” or randomness out of attaining professional success by helping to develop “career proficiency” that can carry The Artist as a Young Professional through a lifetime of career change.

Through well-structured dialogue, a seasoned coach will provide a colorful and playful palette for his or her client to explore the many facets of needs and desires, limitations and possibilities.  Coachees often quite literally paint in their mind’s eye, thanks to visioning techniques, a self-portrait rich in potential and devoid of self-defeating beliefs that then, properly anchored in their psyche, will accompany them on the path forward, enrich their vision and enhance their resilience in the face of change.

At the risk of inextricably tangling my metaphors,  I would say that in a certain sense, career coaching helps one become an anthropologist of one’s own life – exploring, observing, learning from feedback in one’s own environment and culture – to gain the necessary distance and perspective to see the long arc of life rather than its smaller, in-your-face, day-to-day context.

Attaining a long-range view of one’s life or career can appear like an impossible task for young people in their twenties.  When my master students are confronted with having to write a Life Plan for the first time in their lives, with required life expectancy of 100 years of age, they are at first shocked and unable to project themselves into the future.  Those who have positive role models among friends or family have an advantage: they have seen the realm of the possible.  But they are still incapable of projecting themselves into the unknown distant future of potential;  some even refuse to use their imaginations, holding the self-defeating belief that to simply imagine something for their future will in and of itself jinx the possibility of attainment.

Career coaching provides the future life artist with a safe master course in authentic ambition, breakthrough techniques, and creative vision that will help him or her leap over self-limiting barriers to explore career alternatives with long-term perspective.