Book Review: You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career. By Katharine Brooks. Penguin Books, 2009 (320 pages).
If you are a career counselor who works with liberal arts students (or perhaps you were a liberal arts student yourself a “few” years ago), you are most likely intimately acquainted with “The Question.” Brooks begins her engaging career guide by acknowledging the question most likely to strike fear in the heart of a liberal arts student: “What do you plan to do with that major?”
Brooks quickly explains why linear career thinking does not work for the average liberal arts major, preferring instead the messy science of chaos theory. In layman’s terms, chaos theory comes from mathematical formulas that were created to better predict outcomes despite multiple variables in a very complex system (originally, a better weather prediction system). For the purposes of this book, Brooks distills chaos theory to one of its most simple elements—the butterfly effect, terming it “a butterfly flaps its wings and you get a job.” She introduces five basic tenets of chaos theory, explaining how they relate to the complex system that is career planning:
Even if you can’t predict the future, you can assess what you currently know, what you cannot know and what you can learn
Abductive reasoning is more helpful than deductive or inductive reasoning (in other words, keep an open mind)
Change occurs constantly; you can expect the unexpected to occur
Despite areas out of your control, systems do ultimately reveal an order
Point attractors in our lives move us toward or away from something
The best way to harness the power of chaos theory, Brooks contends, is to follow a path of “wise wandering.”
With this theory firmly in place, Brooks walks readers through a thorough set of self-assessment activities, many of which will appeal to visual learners. Readers first create a wandering map, essentially a mind map of the most significant or interesting things they have done so far in life. They later go back and look for categories and themes on the map. Readers then explore the ten mindsets employers seek. In chapter four, they create another map, this time mining experiences related to their majors. Once readers have assessed these past experiences, they move to mapping their futures, creating a “possible lives” map. Depending on the results of this exercise, Brooks then presents three possible approaches: probability planning, possibility planning or “seeking the butterfly.” The first approach is for the student who feels fairly confident in a direction, but understands the need for multiple options given the complex system. The “seeking the butterfly” approach, on the other end of the spectrum, is for the student who still feels lost. This approach centers on intentions instead of goals.
For readers who feel especially stuck, Brooks advocates creating an intention box—a compilation of images that attract or interest the reader. As I read this section, I couldn’t help but think future editions of the book will recommend the website Pinterest as an ideal online tool to create this type of visual compilation.
As a career counselor who spends the majority of my days working with liberal arts students, I found this book to be an extremely valuable addition to existing career literature. As a practitioner, I picked up new tools and questions to use with liberal arts students as they begin the complex process of self-discovery. Brooks does a commendable job of creating a career guide that speaks to liberal arts students—her guide is peppered with unique quotes and anecdotes from the liberal arts as well as from pop culture. The writing is conversational, friendly and engaging and I often found myself reading farther than I planned in one sitting. Don’t be fooled by the 320 pages—they will go quite quickly. Even the obligatory section on resume writing felt fresh and engaging to someone who has read quite a few books on the subject.
I have only two small critiques of what I feel is an especially compelling, useful and readable book. As I worked through the self-assessment activities, I did feel there was a particular emphasis on visual learning. In full disclosure, I am not a visual learner and at times I found some of the activities a tad overwhelming. I agree, however, that these types of activities make the most sense when dealing with something as nebulous as chaos theory. Visual learners in particular will love this book, as it allows immense room for the creativity and flexibility not afforded by most other career guides or routine assessment tools. My only other concern with the book is whether students and readers will make the rather substantial time investment needed to obtain the maximum value from the book. The students I work with are often looking for a “quick fix” and might not be willing to spend the hours needed to fully complete each of the book’s activities. I think Brooks makes a particularly compelling case throughout the book, however, for why creating a quick answer to “The Question” is not in the reader’s best interest. I feel confident students who take the time to work through the book will end up on much more solid footing and even if they don’t have the final “answer” to “The Question,” they will be much better positioned to engage in “wise wandering” and happen upon their best career move. Whether you are looking for innovative ideas to apply to your own liberal arts career counseling or a book you can recommend to students (or use in a class), I highly recommend this book.
Kate Juhl is a Program Director with the University Career Center & The President’s Promise at the University of Maryland, College Park. In this role, she serves as a liaison to the College of Arts & Humanities, College of Journalism and LGBT students/organizations. Previously, she worked for five years in the Career Services Center at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, VA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.