I love to drive! Recently, looking at a map of the United States, I realized that, without ever having established a goal, I have driven in 49 of the 50 states. (Look out, Alaska, here I come!) I grew up driving on rural (and pothole-laden) Pennsylvania roads and didn’t drive on an interstate highway until I went on a college visit. I was impressed by the entry and exit ramps, dismayed at the detours and construction zones, and chagrined at how if you missed an exit, you had to either go miles out of your way to get back on the correct path or choose an alternate route. And there were no Garmins or smartphones back then, only maps.
Driving across varying terrain in different parts of the country is a perpetual reminder that we are immersed in a cultural experience filled with local norms and customs, some of which require substantial adjustments, and that we must make many choices to complete the journey. Have you noticed that in Washington, D.C., cars sometimes start to honk the millisecond that the light turns green? In New York City, the traffic signs seem more like “traffic tips” or “traffic suggestions.” The most laid-back drivers seem to hail from the Midwest, while the most genteel drivers I have encountered reside in rural Virginia, where the interstate traffic sometimes slows from highway speeds to a near stop in order to let a driver merge from an on-ramp. In many places that would never happen. Ramps in some cities seem more like launch pads. I find myself adopting different styles of driving in different locales to adjust to different norms.
Driving in other countries is also a fascinating cultural immersion. I was born to drive the German Autobahn: fast, efficient, safe! In India, a two-lane paved road is packed with people, bicycles, ox-drawn carts, electric carts, cars, trucks, farm equipment and animals, all passing, bobbing and weaving to miss each other while trying to get to their destinations at break-neck speeds. India is a beautiful country with wonderful, warm people. It also has the highest per capita traffic fatality rate in the world. I white-knuckled it every minute I was in the car in India — and I was a passenger! No matter where you are, driving involves a journey and serves as an interesting metaphor for the journey of life and career.
This month’s Counseling Today cover story focuses on career counseling and the important role that career and life planning plays in our profession and in the lives of the clients and students we serve. The roads to success — our professional journeys and the journeys of the clients and students we serve — have many detours, construction zones, on-ramps and off-ramps, even if the miles seem to fly by at times. The challenges and obstacles we have all faced have guided us toward, and sometimes diverted us away from, important lifestyle and career opportunities. As reflective beings, we are mindful of how we are treated and how we treat each other. As counselors, we advocate for and promote client and student access to career opportunities and choices. Are people cut off or courteously welcomed onto the road to success? Are barriers to success removed so that clients and students have control over which on-ramps and off-ramps they take?
One of the most personally meaningful career counseling concepts is John Krumboltz’s “planned happenstance,” which essentially means that unpredictable events and social factors influence our career and life journeys. In other words, we become who we are because of the opportunities we encounter and pursue. Sometimes the “accidental detours” we take lead to the most profound change opportunities. As I grow older, I am becoming ever more cognizant that time really is the only variable of importance. We cannot control time; we can only control our actions with respect to time by choosing what we do and do not focus upon, and to what we dedicate our energy and spirit. And the miles keep flying by.
Finally, it is important for us and our clients and students to understand that mistakes or unintended consequences happen, sometimes altering the course of our lives, even if only for a short time. A resilient person will identify the new opportunities offered as a result of the mistake. We cannot change the past, but we can help our clients and students make today a new beginning that will forever change their lives. Counselors are planned happenstance in action.
So, the next time you hit the road, as the miles and time pass by and as you encounter those detours, construction zones, on-ramps and off-ramps, think about the challenges that lie ahead as opportunities. Enjoy the journey — wherever it may lead.