For Effective Decisions, Look Beyond Career Stereotypes

You’ve probably been taught not to stereotype people based on race, religion or sex. But when you make a career or business decision, do you still make decisions based on stereotypes?

“Insurance sales reps must be gregarious.”

Hal, a successful insurance agent for many years, has developed a portfolio of loyal, happy clients. Hal can be described as an introvert. He rarely speaks unless spoken to, and then he speaks briefly and softly. His clients have learned that he’s a caring, dedicated agent who never misses a detail.

“Accountants sit quietly and crunch numbers.”

These days, accountants, especially those in the large firms, have to become experts at client relations. Often they’re expected to steer business towards the firm’s consulting division.

“Want to travel? Be a travel agent!”

Once upon a time, when nobody worried about security and airlines gave us more than an inch of legroom, I loved to travel. When I sought ways to combine my love of travel with a career, I would often hear, “So become a travel agent.”

Surprise! Travel agents rarely travel. After all, someone has to stay in the office and answer calls from clients. A major perk involves the “fam” or familiarization trips, when agents are invited as a group to preview a new resort or discover a new locale. There’s rarely time for leisurely sight-seeing.

These days, a corporate travel agent is more like a traffic cop than a friendly guide, charged with enforcing regulations of the company who pays her commission: “The non-stop flight is two hundred dollars more than the connecting flight with the two-hour stopover. Looks like you’ve got two hours in Cleveland.”

After dealing with hundreds of less-than-thrilled employees, one agent told me he was quitting the industry, probably for the more serene life of a bill collector.

“Big cities are unfriendly.”

Any place will feel hostile to newcomers. I’ve lived in several of the largest cities in North America and found helpful, caring people everywhere. Often businesses are more helpful simply because there’s more competition.

“The desert is all sand and cactus.”

In the high desert of New Mexico, where I live, we have green trees, flowering plants, and snow in the wintertime. We have abundant fruit trees and sometimes we have to rake leaves in fall.

“Small towns are conservative, you have to join a church and country club, and you must be married.”

Probably some are. My town has less than twenty thousand people, yet I know lots of very happy residents who forego churches and country clubs in favor of coffee shops and art galleries. We have many single people and a sizeable gay population. Generalizations? Well, nearly everyone has a dog or cat and you’ll find numerous multi-pet households.

How can you avoid stereotypes?

Traditional career tests often are based on outdated or stereotyped visions of careers. Stereotypes of locations tend to be perpetuated by folks who have never visited, let alone lived there.

I encourage anyone contemplating a life change to follow the Rule of Six. Talk to at least six people who have real, hands-on experience on the path you want to follow. If they clam up and say they’re too busy to talk, you’ve learned a great deal already.

Most people will begin with a happy, party-line spiel. Dig deeper till you start uncovering negatives and warnings.

On the rare occasions you hear a lot of negatives, keep going until you discover a positive.

Harry almost gave up on his goal when four people talked about problems getting clients for a unique consulting business. After we talked, he realized they had all used the same time of marketing — and they weren’t very good at it. He broadened his search to gain a new perspective.

The Bottom Line

I’m always amazed at how many “experts” base recommendations on stereotyped versions of careers and places to live. That’s why you may be advised to become a funeral director or a florist when you really belong in outside sales.

There’s no substitute for gathering your own information from people who have been there and back. If something sounds too good — or too bad — to be true, it probably is.

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