Of Earth Quakes and Careers

The part of the U.S. where I live was roused from its collective sleep in the wee hours of Friday’s pre-dawn morning by an earthquake that measured 5.2 on the Richter scale The Richter Magnitude Scale and lasted for more than 30 seconds. What was so different from this one and previous others was the intensity — and the fact that there was time to wonder whether it was going to stop, get worse or maybe even escalate into the “big one” that is long overdue here in the Midwest.

It was a little unsettling. But amazingly, there were no personal injuries, though some people narrowly escaped harm at the epicenter, a small community that is about an hour north of where I live.

As one of our local TV stations was already doing its morning news run, coverage was immediate – and calls and e-mails from throughout the region quickly pored in to the media. All had a common theme. People were reporting that their loved ones from nearby or far away had felt and heard it, too. Aside from the realization that a single phenomenon could be experienced simultaneously hundreds of miles away, such events are unique in other ways. Instantaneously, they capture and define a moment in time. They also evoke an immediate and unchallenged awareness of whom you need to call, whose well-being you hold dearest, and whose voice and frame-of-reference you most need and want at that moment.

These are “strong” ties.

You might wonder what this has to do with careers or career theory — and you would be justified in asking. Strong and weak ties are concepts that have been defined and studied — and proposed for further study to help us understand how careers unfold and advance. They are particularly meaningful in considering networking and job-finding.

Emotionally, you and I might think of strong ties as those that we hold with the people who are most important to us – families, best friends, even pets. But in the career world, we can think of strong ties as the connections we have with the people who are most like us, who are part of our world day-in and day-out. An example of a strong tie might be the editorial staff of a newspaper. Reporters and editors work late into the night under pressure to get the facts right and out there on time, night after night, week after week, year after year. At the end of the evening, they meet at a local pub to chill and recount a post mortem on what it took to get the job done.

On the other hand, weak ties are different.

An example of a weak tie might be someone you worked with 10 years ago and now e-mail once a year just to stay in touch. Both of you now work in different occupational sectors than the one that you once had in common. Another example could be two people who serve on the board of directors of a local not-for-profit organization. One is a banker, the other a hospital administrator. Except for regular board meetings, the two have little outside contact; but they’re well-enough acquainted to stop and chat if they meet by chance in public.

Which kind of tie do you think might be of greater benefit to your career?

Think of “strong” ties as “redundant” ties, and you can see where an argument for the diversity suggested by “weak” ties comes from. Ibarra & Deshpande (2007; in Gunz & Peiperl, 2007) write, “weak ties are argued to be more valuable since they act as bridges among diverse networks and bring new information not available through redundant ties in close objective networks.”

They go on to report that the empirical support for the value of weak career ties is strongest for “finding a job” versus “other outcomes such as promotion and salary. (e.g. Boxman, et al., 1991; in Ibarra & Deshpande, 2007; in Gunz & Peiperl, 2007).”

Notice the mention of “networks.”

Ibarra & Deshpande say that “networks of relationships” are the “social resources as well as social contexts in which careers take shape.” So let’s think about this for a minute… You’ve just been downsized and need to find new employment. Your first thought might be to query the people you work with every day (strong ties) about possible opportunities elsewhere. But the “weak ties” argument mentioned above suggests that you might get better results by mobilizing your weak-tie network — if you have one. If you don’t have one, you can ask your strong ties to approach their strong and weak ties on your behalf, but that can get tricky… because it requests third parties to spend their social capital on people whose skills and work ethic they can’t actually vouch for. (We need to talk about this in a future column).

But I digress… so back to the point.

Job seekers: Get your own network – and make sure it includes plenty of weak ties. If you don’t have a network, you can start building one through short-term volunteer projects that involve team work and meeting groups of people — people whose jobs, interests and abilities are very different from yours. There are also organized networking opportunities; but I have to wonder how much good it really does, for example, when women go to a networking group luncheon and sit at the same table with people they already know.

Yes, I know, we are talking about moving beyond one’s comfort zone here — but will a little anxiety really be all that bad? And don’t take your best friend with you because it will be too easy to cling to him in retreat. The idea is to forge new acquaintances, so get out there and dance.

A couple of other points need to be brought in here:

One is a term – “homophily” – that I was unfamiliar with until reading about it earlier this week – before the earthquake, actually. “Homophily” refers to the degree of demographic and identity similarity of individuals who regularly interact with one another. (Ibarra, 1993; in Gunz & Peiperl, 2007). Mayrhofer, Meyer & Steyrer (2007; in Gunz & Peiperl, 2007) report that “homophilic reproduction” and “reduction of opportunities” have a tendency to be linked. In other words, if we continue to associate only with people we know, people who are like ourselves, people we feel comfortable with… then we are reducing the possibilities (career and otherwise) that may be open to us in the future.

The second point comes from Weick (1996; Thomas & Inkson, 2007; in Gunz & Peiperl, 2007), and it has to do with context. Think of “context” as the circumstances you begin to explain when starting an answer with, “Well, it depends.” Weick describes strong and weak “situations,” rather than strong and weak “ties;” but there may be a caveat for us here. A “strong” situation is one that is highly constrained. The careerist doesn’t perceive a great deal of freedom to choose her actions. A “weak” situation has few constraints. The “actor” is free to move about at will. An example: You work for a rigidly bureaucratic organization in which it would likely be a career-ending move to bypass your supervisor and request an appointment with the company president to tell him about a great idea that you have for a new product. However, if both you and the president of the company get downsized, the constraints are off. You can approach her without fear of anything more than embarrassing yourself. This is a “weak” situation.

Thomas & Inkson interpret Weick as stating that “career outcomes can be powerfully enacted by their career holders in an environment relatively free of constraints…” but in strong situations, “perspectives encouraging individual enactment may be limited.”

So the lessons put forth for your consideration today are:
1) If you don’t have a network of weak ties, please get busy and start building one.
2) Before you start using those ties, pay attention to the degree of constraint in your environment – i.e. whether you are acting in a weak or strong situation.

And, I guess, if there’s a third piece of advice this week, it is this: Get under a doorway or a desk if there’s an earthquake.


Want to know more?

Primary ReferencesGunz, H, Peiperl, M. (2007). Handbook of Career Studies. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: Sage.

Ibarra, H, Deshpande. (2007). Networks and identities. H. Gunz & M. Peiperl (Eds.) Handbook of Career Studies: Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: Sage.

Mayrhofer, W, Meyer, M, Steyrer, J. (2007). Handbook of Career Studies. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: Sage.

Secondary References
Boxman, E, De Graaf, P, & Flap, H. (1991) The impact of social and human capital on the income attainment of Dutch managers. Social Networks, 13: 51-73.

Ibarra, H. (1993). Personal networks of women and minorities in management. A conceptual framework. Academy of Management Review, 18 (1), 57-87.

U.S. Geological Survey. (Accessed April 20, 2008). The Richter Magnitude Scale. U.S. Government Printing Office. Abridged from The Severity of an Earthquake, a U.S. Geological Survey General Interest Publication.
The Richter Magnitude Scale

Weick, K. (1996). Enactment and the boundaryless career: Organizing as we work. In M.B. Arthur & D.M. Rousseau (Eds.), The boundaryless career: A new employment principle of a new organizational era (pp. 40-77). New York: Oxford University P

Careers and Common Sense

Still in the interest of trying to get something going from those of you who may be viewing out there, let’s approach the topic of careers and common sense. More specifically, I’m talking to parents, students, school-leavers, high school guidance counselors, dissatisfied employees and others facing a difficult career decision. I would like to hear about your personal experience and how “common-sense” has guided your decisions. Hopefully, this will provide a bridge for introducing theory and illustrating its value. Really, theory is very cool. Stephanie, I would imagine that you are cringing at the term “common-sense,” but hold on. I’m going to address in a minute.

Common sense and careers: Questions to get us started:1) When you were a child, did you ever have a dream occupation that people discouraged you from because it wasn’t right for you — i.e. because of your gender, personality, etc? For example: “No you can’t be a doctor because you are a girl; everyone knows women can only be teachers or nurses.”
2) If you are a parent, are you absolutely convinced that your child is making a right or wrong career choice? Example: “Jimmy is a decent basketball player; but he has no hope of going pro, so he needs to finish college.”
3) If you are a prospective graduate or new hire, have you received career advice from someone who told you that you were absolutely making the wrong decision? Example: “You can’t hope to rise through the ranks of management if you are a woman and intend to start a family within the next few years.”
4) If you are already-careered, can you look back on your career decisions and see one or more “obvious” places where you were either wrong or right? Example: “I never should have majored in computer science because all of the jobs in my area are now being outsourced.”

The above statements in quotes may or may not seem like common sense, but it’s much more interesting and useful if we examine them with theory – so maybe someone out there will give us a personal example to work with for subsequent posts.

But now… to common sense:

If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, it would not be surprising to hear that, at some point, someone has told you, “That’s just common-sense.” And don’t we all feel a little stupid when we hear that – like it’s something that everyone else knows but we’re not smart enough to have been endowed with such a fundamental, creator-given basis of knowledge.

Really Now, What is Common Sense?
But what is common sense really? We can turn to the academic literature for some interesting takes on that question.

In an article examining common sense in relation to management, Albanese (1970) offers that people believe that common sense: 1) Implies that “no additional study is required,” 2) is “the intelligence expected of adult persons in practical affairs,” 2) is “obvious knowledge that everyone seems to possess as a result of being alive and having gone through some experiences.” Consistent with that description, Allyn & Bacon (2000) say it’s what people perceive as “It just makes sense.”

If Albanese and Allyn and Bacon are correct, this doesn’t cast a great deal of credibility on the term common sense – and doesn’t suggest much hope of acquiring it for those who don’t have it.

But let’s try to get closer to what it really is or isn’t – and that’s something we can actually look at. Liefooghe (2003) tells us that common sense is not an evidence-based approach. Allyn & Bacon (2000) say that it’s an alternative to research in learning about the social world.

Common Sense Unmasked
An interpretive study by Fearfull (2001) actually looked at clerical workers in an attempt to understand what managers and workers meant when they said some workers had common sense, but others didn’t. What she found is pretty interesting. Turns out that no one could actually define what he or she meant by “common-sense;” however, everyone seemed to be able to identify those who had it versus those who did not based on job competence.

After analyzing interviews with subjects, Fearfull discovered that what was being called common sense was actually knowledge distilled from hands-on experience. Older workers who seemed to perform instinctively had knowledge gained when certain clerical tasks requiring customer interaction were still performed manually. When these activities were transitioned to use of a computer system, the older workers didn’t miss a beat. They weathered the change flawlessly because they understood the reason behind the methods they were still using. However, the new-hires who had not had the benefit of doing things “the old way,” were basically dazed and confused – and they knew it. They lacked the underlying knowledge gained from the experience that seemed to be second-nature to their colleagues. So here, common sense turned out to be “a depth of understanding arrived at through experience.”

Albanese (1970) has a similar view. He says that common sense “comes from knowledge gained through experience and that developing it takes time.” (It’s worth noting here as a brief digression, that this appears to have some similarity to “thin-slicing” or “rapid cognition” described by popular writer Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling but not peer-reviewed “Blink.” I add this here in case this connection should pop into the minds of “Blink” readers as it’s a popular book and a fun read. But, after taking an admittedly quick look through the academic literature, I couldn’t find any peer-reviewed writings that used the terms “thin-slicing” or “rapid cognition.”).

The Perils of Common Sense
Back to common sense: If the perils of it are not becoming clear by this time, then let’s look at them head on and ask, “What’s wrong with common sense?”

Well, here’s “what.”
● Although it may be useful in daily life, common sense can allow logical fallacies to slip into one’s thinking. Though it’s sometimes correct, “it can also contain errors, misinformation, contradiction and prejudice.” (Allyn & Bacon, 2000).

● Different parties may have different but equally valid and legitimate opinions of what constitutes common senses. Au (2006) pointed this out with regard to environment impact assessment policy in Hong Kong. So, this begs the question: “Whose common sense are we talking about: Yours or mine?”

● Finally, and I love this one, Albanese (1970) quotes Kant (1968) who says that common sense is “one of the subtlest inventions of modern times by which the emptiest talker may coolly confront the profoundest thinker and hold out against him.”

I hope that we have by now cast doubt on the validity of common sense (in the form of well-meaning advice) to tell you what you should do with your life – and that we can now move on to what science can do for you. On this, Liefooghe (2003) quotes the delightfully acerbic personality and trait theory researcher/writer Gordon Allport (1985) who says, “science has the aims of understanding, prediction and control above the levels achieved by unaided common sense.” Paraphrasing, science seeks to do better than common sense in helping us understand, predict and control our world. (Note: I’m attaching a list of readings by Gordon Allport because his writing is as clever and entertaining as his research is enlightening.)

Dear reader, if you have made it this far, then maybe you have an ill-advised common-sense-grounded career experience to share. If not, we’re running out of lead-ins, and I may have to start introducing theory by talking about my own career.


Want to know more?
Albanese, R. (1970). Management and common sense. S.A.M. Advanced Management Journal. 35:77-81.

Allyn & Bacon. (2000). Science and Research. In W.L. Neuman (ed), Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Needham Heights, MA.

Au, E. (2006). ‘Common sense’ means different tings to different people. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal. 24: 14-15.

Fearfull, A. Using interpretive sociology to explore workplace skill and knowledge. International Journal of Social Research Methocology. 8: 137-150.

Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink, The Power of Thinking without Thinking. Little, Brown & Company: New York, Boston.

Liefooghe, A. (2003). Organizational analysis subject guide. University of London Press: London.

Secondary References
Allport, G.W. (1985). The historical background of social psychology. In G. Lindzey & E. Aronson (eds), Handbook of Social Psychology. New York: Random House.

Kant, I. (1968). Philosophy of Common Sense. Encyclopedia Britannica. 6: 66-67.

Additional Readings by Gordon Allport
Allport, G. (1921). Personality and character. The Psychological Bulletin. 18: 441-455.

Allport, G. (1924.) The study of the undivided personality. The Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Social Psychology. 19:132-141.

Allport, G. (1927). Concepts of trait and personality. Psychological Bulletin. 24: 284-293.

Allport, G. (1931). What is a trait of personality. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 25: 368-372.

Allport, G. (1966). Traits revisited. American Psychologist. 21:1-10.


Copywriting a very odd term; and there are quite a variety of jobs that it can pertain to, but the most common probably refers to someone who writes “copy” for an advertising agency. Generally, that’s not what I do, though I have written advertising copy. The term “copy” refers to the text as a design element, so I’m not much of a fan of the term – but there doesn’t seem to be a better one available at the moment. Usually, the people I work for just refer to me as “our writer” or “one of our writers,” which is just fine.

What I do is kind of function as a Jan-of-all trades when it comes to whatever needs to be professionally written for a business. This might include image brochures, internal articles, executive speeches and letters, press releases, Website content and scripts for internal videos. I also do quite a bit of editing and consulting for punctuation, grammar and syntax urgencies and sometimes get to do some public relations strategizing. I don’t get a byline and, in fact, don’t always see the finished product because most of the time, what the people I work for really want is something that’s about 90 to 95 percent there. We might go back and forth several times as the drafts progress; but ultimately, my role is finished and the project is theirs to tweak further as they wish and disseminate.

As for how I approach the work that I do, it varies greatly from project to project – but it’s almost always very collaborative – with the people who assign the work, the stakeholders who are interviewed, and sometimes graphic designers and video producers. Usually, I’m given a verbal briefing on what the message is supposed to be and who is the target audience along with background materials to pull from. Sometimes, additional telephone interviews are necessary. But eventually, there’s no choice but to sit down in front of that blank screen and just hope that something comes. That’s because copywriting requires that you write in a voice other than your own. The posts that I do in the career counselling thread just flow naturally because that’s me talking to you. But when you’re writing an article, similar to a feature article in a magazine or newspaper, or an image brochure, you have to almost conjure an entity and listen to what it’s telling you. It’s difficult. You know the idea you want to communicate, you try to imagine the persona that’s speaking through you… and just hope something comes. So far, it has.

As for how I got interested, it was really a matter of survival and of declining opportunities to do anything else that I might have done. My background is in journalism; but I have an autonomous career anchor (see this week’s career counselling post) – and after five years’ covering health and social services for one of our city’s former newspapers, it became obvious that it was time to move on. A year spent as editor of my college newspaper was more than sufficient to reveal that I didn’t want to manage; and reporting the same events year after year was getting old. There were also some other workplace issues that defied attempts at resolution and had, in fact, escalated into a situation that felt like “learned helplessness;” so one day – I calmly walked in, wrote a resignation letter, handed it to my editor – and left.

One of the businesses that I covered, a hospital, offered a position it its public affairs department; but I thought it would be more interesting to free-lance and see what kind of business could be generated on my own. I really liked the idea of working from home. So, over the next five years, I called on local businesses and acquired free-lance projects writing various kinds of communications materials. It was financially challenging and somewhat frustrating having to write on a typewriter; but eventually, I had a portfolio that was sufficient to secure a “copywriting” position with a large and very well-respected organization in our city. After two and a half years, my position was there was eliminated. It was my good fortune that the organization offered many opportunities for me to write as a consultant, so that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 15 years or so.