Director’s Interview

For the CDAA’s publication the CAREER PRACTITIONER
Professor Pryor was interviewed as a leading figure in Australia in the career development field.

When did you first know that working in career development was for you and what were the triggers that led you to this decision?

In the field of human thinking and behaviour what has always fascinated me has been individual differences. I have always marvelled at how different people are from one another and how these differences can be understood and used to assist others. When I first started working professionally in 1974 I was looking for work in which individual differences really mattered. Career development was one of a number of possibilities that I explored. I remember discussing entering the field with a friend who worked in vocational rehabilitation and later became a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney.Since there were opportunities to do research as well help individuals with career choices, I decided to join the New South Wales Government’s Division of Vocational Guidance Services.

Another motivation was the fact that when I left high school I tried clerical work and was so poor at it that I dreaded coming to the office every single day. I left and then worked in the clothing industry for two years but I can still recall the misery of doing a job that I really disliked. I saw the career development field as an avenue for helping others avoid such a fate.

The only other reason I can think of was that the first psychology text I ever read just after leaving high school from my local library, was J.P. Guilford’s General Psychology. In it he quotes Freud on what is the good life. Freud’s answer was to love well and to work well. Career development counselling and research are ways in which people can be helped to “work well”….. as for “loving well” I will have to leave that to the sex therapists!!

Whose theory guided you most when you started out? How have your views and uses about career development theory grown and changed shape over the years?

When I started as a vocational guidance counsellor in the mid-1970’s the theories of John Holland and Donald Super were the most dominant. Holland’s approach was to make theory as simple and as practical as possible. He used the traditional “matching paradigm” of encouraging individuals to explore and investigate the correspondence between their own characteristics and those of various occupations. He systematized the classification of individuals’ interests and the characteristics of those who worked in various occupations. The “Holland hexagon” has become the taxonomic standard for both ever since. Constructivist theorists are now critical of such approaches because they believe it gives the counsellor too much perceived authority and therefore diminishes the individual’s responsibility for exploration and decision making. In the case of Holland this fails to appreciate that with the Self Directed Search he sought to empower individuals to be “their own counsellor” to a large extent. The Australian adaptation of the SDS I think is the best piece of work of its type that I have ever seen. Meredith Shears and Adrian Harvey-Beavis did a wonderful job. I reviewed it extensively for the Australian Journal of Career Development a few years ago. In that review I also outlined what I believe to be the significant limitations in Holland’s theory. For example, his taxonomy is clearly lacking at the lower end of the ability of the labour market. The Realistic category is far too large. When I began constructing interest inventories I used Anne Roe’s eight category classification since it more closely accorded with my own factor analytic research which had clearly identified that the Realistic scale could be split into separate technology and nature dimensions.

Looking back now to the 1970s and 1980s I suspect I underestimated the significance of Super’s work as a whole. Even worse since Super and I became somewhat acrimonious theoretical adversaries over the concept of “work values”. I may have in retrospect, allowed my own personal dislike of the man to colour my perception of his ideas. Over a different matter in the latter 1980s, I had a similar dispute with John Krumboltz, however, in recent years, he and I have resumed an amicable professional relationship. Regrettably, Donald Super died before I was able to effect such a reconciliation with him. I know people like Mark Savickas in the United States and Jan Lokan in Australia, had the highest regard for the man on a personal as well as professional level. The reason I now think that I underestimated Super’s ideas in those days, was because of their limited immediate application to career counselling. I was working as a researcher for a career counselling agency and therefore tended to judge ideas in terms of their immediate practical application. Super’s theory emphasised developmental stages in careers and a multiplicity of influences. He then expanded his ideas to include life stages and roles – all of which I now consider to be quite important.

In the 1980’s in particular I had the privilege of working with (Professor) Beryl Hesketh. We tried to work out various ways to test Gottfredson’s theory, especially the place of compromise in career decision making, using techniques such as policy capturing and fuzzy logic. I also tried to meld social learning theory and circumscription/compromise into a composite theory of career development during that period. I did not realise it at the time but I think I was coming to understand that single perspective theories of career development were never going to be sufficient.

I became disillusioned with career development theory in the 1990’s. Attempts at converging theories undertaken at the time seemed to me manifestly inadequate. I was doing more vocational rehabilitation work then as well and I was conscious of how the general field of career development theory was failing to incorporate the sorts of career discontinuities that I was encountering with my clients. In the late 1990’s I started to become interested in more ecological approaches to career development theory. By this time I had caught up with Savickas’ career construction theory which had some promising ideas and techniques. Patton and McMahon’s systems theory framework also stimulated my thinking. John Krumboltz was talking to me again and we discussed his planned happenstance concepts. At the time I was a Senior Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales and started working with (Professor) Jim Bright on a funded research project looking at contextual influences on careers. The research confirmed both the multiplicity and diversity of influences on individuals’ career development as well as the prominent role of chance or unplanned events.

Jim and I fumbled around for about three years trying to find a theoretical framework in which to understand these results and the other contemporary theoretical developments and counselling innovations. I had heard of chaos theory at least a decade previously but thought of it as an obscure outpost of mathematics and astronomy. I imagined it to be the kind of subject that wins you a Nobel Prize partly because no-one else outside a small international coterie of academics has the slightest inkling of what it means or does and when one of them explains it, the rest of us are left none the wiser. Jim Bright and I started reading around the topic way outside the career development field – mainly in mathematics theory, physics, chemistry and biology. We became aware that some psychologists, almost all of them clinicians, had been applying chaos theory to psychology from the early 1990s. We realised quickly that chaos theory was hard to understand especially for those of us from a traditional empiricist background. Whereas the positivist tradition emphasised simplifying phenomena through controlled experimentation to understand nature, essentially chaos theory was contending that reality could only be understood as a complex and connected whole. Some even claimed it was the “third revolution in twentieth science” (the other two being relativity and quantum mechanics). Complexity science has now become a “Pandora’s box” – once opened it let out a whole string of uncomfortable new concepts such as non-linearity, emergence, the strange attractor, intrinsic unpredictability, resonance, bifurcation, turbulence, tipping points, autopoesis, dissipative structures, phase shifts, sensitivity to change in initial conditions, fitness peaks, coevolution and the famous “butterfly effect”.

What struck Jim and I as we sought to come to terms with such concepts was not that most career development theorists were using many of them but that it was career counsellors writing in the field who were using some of these ideas to describe new developments in their work! We started to conceptualise individuals and the contexts in which they functioned in terms of complex dynamical systems in which stability and change, pattern and unpredictability, order and disorder were not contradictory opposites, but in fact complementary components of a unified whole. This assisted us to account for the multiplicity of career influences, the inherent contingency of outcomes of such system’s functioning and therefore of chance and uncertainty as essential parameters of our lives and careers.We began to conceptualise career development barriers for individuals in terms of “closed systems thinking” – trying to know and control what it was not possible to know or control – all the outcomes of all our decisions and behaviours. We started to see the limits of goal-drivenness, role-balancing and organising-obsession in career development. We have sought to explore how uncertainty may be understood and to research and assess the characteristics of those who successfully confront it in their lives and careers. With some of our students we started to research the dimensionality of chance such as influence and control and the impact of multiple chance events on individuals’ careers. We also evaluated the effectiveness of chaos theory based career counselling with that of traditional matching based career interventions. More recently we have applied game theory to chaos based career counselling and have sought to link archetypal narratives with chaos theory attractors as ways to restructure individuals’ thinking about their careers. At present I am most focused on issues of the nature of career wisdom, spirituality and purpose in careers and the value of failing in career development. Chaos theory has re-ignited my enthusiasm for career development theory as a basis for research and counselling.

Why do you think career development is an important field to work in?

When employed by the Government it regrettably became a fact of life that every 18 months or so, I and the service in which I was employed, had to justify our existence to the bureaucrats in Treasury as purse strings became tighter and tighter and the axing of public services became more and more frequent. However, notwithstanding this, periodically I always ask myself questions like this. I think it is important for all of us to do so, to ensure that one still has the vision and the passion to do what you have been doing and want to continue doing it into the future. If you haven’t then go and try something else or reconceptualise work in utilitarian terms to fund some purpose outside of work that you really care about and need to money to pursue.

Career development matters because work matters. I believe we were made to work. In the book of Genesis, God is presented as a worker and the commission He gives to humankind is to work. I am using “work” here, not in the narrow sense of paid employment, but in the broad sense of engaging in purposeful activity. Eighty years ago Marie Jahoda’s research on unemployed people revealed that in addition to remuneration, work performed the psychological functions of providing a social identity, structuring people’s time, keeping individuals active, keeping them in contact with their community and giving them goals bigger than their own immediate concerns. Meaningful work in the broadest sense, takes us out of ourselves, unites us with others and provides a bigger perspective in which to understand why we are whom we are. It can give us a sense of contribution to others and to justify our belief that we can leave a legacy behind for having been here on earth. Assisting individuals to realise such aspirations on an ongoing basis strikes me as an incredibly worthwhile enterprise in which to be engaged. I have tried to see my own career according to the truism that I should take my work very seriously but not take myself too seriously.

What did you want to be when you were young? What is it about your current life that reflects this initial desire?

I did not have any clear ideas about what I wanted to be when I was growing up. I was good at acting at school and so I suppose that would be the closest possibility. My interest in literature (see below) reflects my interest in the stage but also in words generally. I write poetry myself, mainly for myself, but this is changing and I am contemplating publishing more of my verse. I think I try to bring a certain thespian quality to my talks, lectures and conference presentations. I like to be amusing when I speak publicly and I am not particularly self-conscious so role playing in presentations is no real problem for me ….. it may be however, for the audience?!

Which authors or poets or dramatists or musicians or filmmakers inspire your work in career development?

I read very widely so this is a difficult question to answer because many writers in particular have had a profound effect on my thinking and life in general. As a Christian Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is for me, simply the most startling and inspiring oration ever spoken. I love English literature and therefore Shakespeare’s plays and poetry hold an endless fascination. With pretensions to writing poetry myself I find the beauty, originality, subtlety and flexibility of his verse stunning. The characterization in the plays humbles my own attempts to understand human psychology.

I have a special admiration for Samuel Johnson in my view, the greatest Christian humanist that our language has produced. Ironically, the two best biographies in English are both about him – Boswell’s classic and William Bate’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece. Little wonder since Johnson’s own writing is both beautiful in resonance and perspicacious in content. Johnson’s sheer honesty with himself and his empathy for others makes him someone as a counsellor I hope to emulate. Fyodor Dostoyevsky also has a special place in my heart for the sheer apocalyptic nature of the scenes that he creates and the existential confrontations of his characters. My favourite philosophers are David Hume and Frederick Nietzsche. The rigour of Hume’s thinking, his capacity to challenge assumptions and explode cant, inspired the writing of my PhD thesis which has an extended quote from his Treatise on Human Nature, at its beginning. I profit from Nietzsche’s extremism, the sheer audacity of his thinking, continually challenges my own.

The greatest film I have ever seen is Welles’ “Citizen Kane”. If ever there was a masterpiece this is it. I also admire early German impressionist films especially Lang’s “Metropolis”. I am a besotted devotee of Woody Allen’s films from the very earliest to the most recent. I consider Manhattan one of the greatest romantic comedies in cinema, Stardust Memories one of the most misunderstood and underrated films in the last 100 years, Love and Death one of the funniest films I have ever seen, the Purple Rose of Cairo one of the most charming and elegiac and Annie Hall one of the most original and psychologically insightful. In particular Allen’s films highlight the ideas of luck, chance, the unplanned and the serendipitous in humans’ desperate search for love and purpose.

I must also confess to a certain penchant for self-help books. I hope this does not come from a feeling of personal inadequacy – I tell myself at least that it is the product of always trying to get better at what I do and to redress my many weaknesses. The best such publication I have ever read is undoubtedly Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. His emphasis on being proactive, having a vision, listening and understanding, seeking win-win, abundance thinking, mission and meaning, has been an ongoing basis for organising much of my own personal and professional activity. I have used the diary materials based on this work for the last 15 years and continue to find them helpful in encouraging me to organise around priorities rather than exigencies. M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled” trilogy I continue to find perceptive and thought provoking. His focus on life being difficult and complex and the challenges of seeing life as problem solving and the integral place of suffering in thinking and living, are all treasured insights for me. Recently I returned to his work and found new inspiration in his analytic condemnation of simplistic thinking, which coincides with the chaos theory notion of closed systems thinking as an inadequate defence mechanism against the inevitability of complexity.

I also read a lot of theology and some crime fiction – Carter Browne is an old favourite with Robert Kellerman (the main character is a psychologist!) and our own Peter Corris being writers whose work I enjoy for relaxation. I think the ongoing interest in this genre stems from the fact that people acknowledge the need to find answers in their own lives and so are pleased to read stories about others doing so. Also I think there is a nascent sense of the importance of justice and fairness which we all want to see triumph. The mystery and the apparent unfairness of our experience on occasions, implicit in such writing, are also matters that find expression in career counselling sessions.

I love music and would like to impress by adumbrating the great classical composers as those from which I draw endless hours of refreshment and inspiration. The reality is I do not mind the occasional classical music concert especially Bach and Handel, but basically I do not appreciate most classical music. Paganini is the only classical musician with whom I can identify because he strikes me as living like Dostoyevski and playing like Jimi Hendrix! Basically I am an old rocker and like musicians such as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen and many others up to Counting Crows, Snow Patrol and Simple Plan. From a career development perspective I look for songs that tell of individuals’ experiences, hopes, searches and what they have learnt from their lives.

What things keep you motivated?

In career counselling I remain motivated by a desire to help my clients to achieve a meaningful and rewarding career and to explore and develop their spiritual journeys.

In my medico-legal vocational assessment work it is both wanting those with disabilities to feel that someone understands their situation now and to contribute to a just outcome for them. I believe a humane society should care for those who have been hurt and limited in the process of contributing to the society. Also however, I want to challenge those who have disabilities to become resilient and to continue to find purpose and contribution through work insofar as they are now able to do so.

In my theoretical work the as yet untapped implications of chaos theory for understanding career development continue to thrill me. In my research I am essentially curious and get excited by results from empirical investigations.

Who (or what) keeps you enjoying what you do?

I have a strong sense of personal mission which in the words of one theologian, is to be in the place where the love of God meets the needs of others. For me, the field of career development is such a place. As well I have a strong intellectual interest in understanding the world and especially how people think and behave. I have also always been a fairly creative person and so I have found in career development theory, research and practice, opportunities to think and try new ideas and approaches. Over the last decade Jim Bright has been the person who has motivated me most in the career development field. His critical intelligence, his outlandish sense of humour and the originality of his thinking, in addition to his personal friendship, have all served to keep me excited about the academic work that I do. In my professional life very long time friends and colleagues, Trevor Hawkins and Neville Taylor, with whom I have studied and worked for almost 40 years, continue to help me enjoy working in the field of professional psychology.

What’s your favourite place? Why is this so?

The Blue Mountains about an hours drive from Sydney is where I spent many holidays in my childhood since I had relatives who lived there. I love the mountains in winter, walking in the afternoon in light misty rain, sinuses cleared by the moist air, the refreshing coolness on my face, the magical movement of the mist in the valleys, the softness of the colours, the self-generated warmth of walking and the smoothness of the silence that encourages contemplation.

However, at present I love where I live in the Northern Beaches region of Sydney. Our house looks out over Pittwater inlet and Scotland Island and several national parks. The bird life is stunning, the sea changes character with the weather and walking with Tauser, my Labrador, enables encounters with bilbies, owls, possums and the occasional wallaby.

What tips would you pass onto to career practitioners working in private practice, schools, universities and businesses?

There are many things I could mention but I thought I would share just one which I hope will be provocative even though I cannot claim any great originality for it since it will be found in every faith tradition of which I am aware as well as in the writings of all deep thinkers about the human condition that I admire such as Samuel Johnson, Viktor Frankl, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Stephen Covey to name but a few. The tip is to encourage all your clients to seek meaning rather than happiness in life and in career. Chaos theory tells us that happiness pursued is a deception since we are never in enough control of ourselves, our contexts and our world to be able to ensure that it can be achieved.All of us will struggle and suffer in our lives – some of us very greatly. All of us will die. Life is difficult, complex and uncertain as well as full of joy, hope and love. Happiness ensues from a life lived for a purpose that matters to us and to others. Challenge clients therefore to explore what is really important in living and working – what is worth effort, discipline and suffering in addition to just choosing on the basis of skills, exam results, interests and rewards. Help the people who come to you to discover/develop a vision of a life of significance. Many will not accept the challenge – that is their prerogative. But some will and I believe the effect of your help for them if that happens, can be profound and lifelong. Ultimately our only guaranteed human freedom is the capacity to decide how we will respond to the experiences of our lives and that in turn, will be a reflection of who and what we really consider to be of ultimate value.