Perspective and Your Career, Part 1

Image by josiejose via Flickr

It’s been an interesting week, to say the least – one of those weeks that reminds you that the world is a crazy, messed up place.  While up here on Burnaby Mountain we enjoyed the rare luxury of a snow day, there was plenty going on elsewhere in the world to give us a sobering reality check.  Of course, there was the recent shooting in Arizona that left 13 wounded and 6 dead, not to mention the consequent political warfare that seems to erupt in the States following any major act of violence.  And to put that in perspective, more than 450 people were killed in Brazil during a massive mudslide on Wednesday.

It’s when things like that happen that I sit down to write for this blog, and have a hard time coming up with something meaningful to say.  The topics that I typically treat with full seriousness seem truly diminished in importance – after all, finding ways to craft the perfect resume or to succeed in your next job search are revealed to be “first world problems” when compared to the deaths of hundreds of people.

It’s true – no matter how bad you think things are going, they can probably be worse.  Of course, that’s not a particularly cheerful viewpoint, but in the strictest sense of the word, there’s no arguing it.  I had a friend in high school whose yearbook quote was actually: “Remember, the worst thing that can happen is that you die.”  Morose, yes.  But untrue?  I think not.

I’ve mentioned in previous entries that I consider myself to be an optimist.  Sometimes I refer to this as being “doomed to optimism.”  I guess that, most of the time, I err on the side of looking at things positively, even if that side of seeing a situation isn’t really obvious to anyone else.  I’ve reflected on this quality before, and my belief is that it ultimately boils down to your perspective.

Studies in psychology have revealed that people with depression tend to look at the world in a certain way – they have a particular perspective that differs from those who are not depressed.  Not surprisingly, this typically means that depressed people see things in a more negative fashion than the average person.  They tend to be more pessimistic – interestingly referred to as “depressive realism” because most people are more optimistic than reality actually pans out to be.  Depressed people also tend to attribute failures to personal causes and successes to external causes.

As is the case with many psychological phenomena, it’s unclear whether this correlation is a causal factor for depression or if it’s the depressed mood that causes such a pessimistic perspective.  Likely it’s somewhere in between.  Regardless, many effective treatments for depression include measures designed to change the automatic pessimistic perspective into one that is more optimistic.  For example, the aim of cognitive behavioural therapy, one of the most empirically supported treatments for depression, is to change automatic negative thoughts, particularly those about oneself, into more realistic, neutral (if not positive) ones.  Treatments such as Emotion Focused Therapy work in much the same way, but by targeting the emotions underlying the pessimistic outlook and negative thoughts.

I think the issue of perspective can be usefully applied to many areas in life, including career development.  I know from experience that it doesn’t take too many unsuccessful job applications before you start doubting yourself and your abilities, your value, your ability to even land a great job at all.  It can be a very demoralizing process.  But at times like that, you’re actually looking at the world through a very narrow lens – your perspective has shrunk down to the point where it’s hard to see the true scope of what you are doing.

Pleiades Star Cluster
Image via Wikipedia

Next time you are having a bad day and the sky is clear, take some time to really look up into the night sky.  Look at the stars.  Try to think about how far away they are, how that light that has travelled thousands, millions, billions of light years to reach your eyes, is probably older than the human species.  Try to imagine the impossible size of the planet, the solar system, the galaxy, the universe.  Embrace that feeling of feeling like a tiny, insignificant speck.

But what a wonder it is that an insignificant speck can comprehend its place in the universe at all.

That’s perspective.

But how can you take steps toward a healthy, positive perspective?  Read next week’s article for my tips (that is, my perspective).

*Cross-posted at the Career Services Informer.