Sunday, 27 December 2009

The truth about career choice

Every magician knows that there are three tricks that he should never perform in public: predicting catastrophes, letting wild animals free, and making food disappear.

As it happens, career counsellors have also inherited a deep abhorrence against these practices. This is why you will seldom hear them recommend anyone to take risks, go for an artistic profession, or choose a path that might lead to unemployment.

Studies have identified a dozen factors that contribute to career success, but so far, nobody has been able to build a convincing model to predict an individual's future or how much happiness a certain profession will bring him.

Conscious of their inability to foretell the future, most career counsellors have narrowed their purpose. Advice is no longer intended to ensure satisfaction, but to achieve social insertion. Risk is identified as a problem; boredom has become the solution. The problem is that recommendations based on convention never inspire daring adventurers.

In the year 1820, Bertel Thorvaldsen, an acclaimed romantic sculptor, travelled back from Rome to his native Denmark. Thorvaldsen was then 50 years old and at the pinnacle of his fame. During his stay in Copenhagen, he talked to many aspiring artists, giving them advice and encouragement.

One night, when Thorvaldsen returned to his hotel after a reception in his honour, he was told that a boy had been waiting for him all day. Intrigued, Thorvaldsen looked around the hotel hall and found a poorly dressed kid asleep on a chair.

He walked up to the boy, shook his arm gently, and whispered to him “It is late, kid, go home.” Startled, the boy opened his eyes and jumped to his feet. “I was waiting for you, Herr Thorvaldsen, I have been waiting for you all day.”

That must be true, thought Thorvaldsen, since the boy looked so exhausted and hungry that he was pitiful to see. “I wanted to ask you for advice on my career choice,” the kid went on. “I cannot decide whether I should become a novelist or a poet.”

Out of compassion, Thorvaldsen ordered a glass of warm milk for the boy and listened to his story. It was a heartbreaking tale. With adolescence, the kid had lost the striking voice that had gained him some praise and donations in his home town, turning into one more unemployed youth on the streets.

“This is why I have thought of becoming a writer,” the boy explained shyly, taking three ruffled pages out of his pocket and handing them over to Thorvaldsen. Strange enough, the idea of asking a sculptor for literary advice seemed to fit the kid's pathetic situation.

Thorvaldsen devoted a few minutes to reading the text and was appalled to see innumerable grammar and spelling mistakes. It was obvious that the boy had no chance of becoming a writer. Even if it was cruel, it was better to tell him the truth, so that he could at least learn a trade.

“What is your name?” asked Thorvaldsen, returning the pages. “Hans-Christian,” replied the boy full of hope. “Hans-Christian Andersen.” A silence ensued, as the sculptor searched for the least hurtful way to express his judgement.

He stared at Hans-Christian Andersen for a long while as he remembered his own artistic ambitions as a young man, many years ago, but of course, his own situation had been completely different. Thorvaldsen took in a deep breath and shook his head. “Look, Hans-Christian,” he began, “I don't know how to tell you this.”

At that moment, Andersen nodded and gave the sculptor a crazy smile. That was what he had been waiting for. He was about to hear the words of encouragement that he needed so badly. He was sure that an artist of the calibre of Thorvaldsen would be immediately able to recognize his talent and point him in the right direction.

“What do you think, Herr Thorvaldsen, should I become a novelist or a poet?” he asked again, this time full of confidence. Fascinated, Thorvaldsen looked at the kid straight in the eye and realized how foolish he had been. “I have no doubt, Hans-Christian,” he answered softly, “that you can become both.”


[Image by Vividy under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]