Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What color is a chameleon?

House, MD is one of my favorite TV shows. Having done psychiatric diagnoses for years, I appreciate the fact that his final decision is built on mistakes and “rule-outs.” Often the process for determining what something IS centers on determining what it ISN’T. My biggest single frustration as a career development professional is contending with people who come to us with the belief that there is a single thing that they can be… one perfect job. I tell people all the time about the interactions I have with students and alumni who seem convinced that I am hiding jobs and careers from them and if they just ask in the right way, I will ceremoniously retrieve their long-lost career path from its hiding place and they will never have to worry about this decision again. Today’s post? What color is a chameleon on a pane of glass?

Running with the pack.

When I was younger there was something oddly comforting about dressing the same way as everyone else, although I really didn’t want to put that much thought into things. Jeans and sneakers (there were no cross trainers back then) would have been fine, but there was that whole peer pressure deal and this extended to how I saw my future. My father was a chemical engineer, my friends were generally smart kids, and my teachers thought I should be something important… like a doctor or lawyer. So, when I went to college I started as a pre-med student and found out that I freakin’ hated the funky smell in the labs and was not particularly fond of the fact that memorizing the 206 bones in the body seriously cut into football and beer drinking time. So, I switched to pre-law.

In point of fact, I just changed my major from biology to political science, because apparently the only difference between a pre-law student and a political science student was that the pre-law student would actually TELL people he/she was pre-law. Imagine my happy surprise when I discovered that I could major in English and just continue to say that I was pre-law and it was exactly the same. Cool, huh? The bottom line is that what I claimed as aspirations were largely configured by others’ expectations, as opposed to interest on my own part. I became a career chameleon in college, just choosing protective colors that matched the background.

Give me that test that tells me what I am good at.

I will spare you all the gory details, but my freshman year I took a career inventory called The Kuder Occupational Interest Survey, that told me that the occupation with which I shared the most interests was… farmer. I have tried several things over the years, but farmer has never been among them. Perhaps I would have been satisfied as a farmer, but the fact is that I have not suffered great discontent in my rambling journey to where I am today. You can imagine, then, how I feel to be on the receiving end of the following question:

"I’m having trouble deciding on a major and my mom told me come here and ask if you had that test that tells me what I am good at. So, do you have that test?”

One summer when I was doing parent orientation for incoming freshmen, I ask the 200-300 parents that were assembled that day for a show of hands for those that thought their son or daughter would benefit from a test to measure their interests. I would estimate that 250 hands went up. I then asked how many people in the room had taken such a test and saw about 25 hands. When I asked how many people were satisfied with their current career, again I got about 250 hands. Asking them to keep their hands up, I asked all people who had taken an interest inventory to raise their other hand. Of my original 25 or so, only half were included. The unscientific survey does not suggest that interest inventories do not work, but that people do not pay attention to them unless they get the information that they wish to get.

Yeah. I can do that… I think.

I will also suggest another hypothesis; we are highly unlikely to attempt anything that pushes us past what we think we are good at. Some of us have wildly over-estimated our ability to succeed, while others of us are crazy low in our estimates. The counseling literature is awash with research regarding this where it is referred to as perceived self-efficacy. There is some pretty cool research, but generally it does not push us much beyond the intuitive notion that we are much more likely to try things that we believe we will be good at doing. The source of these believes range from things as simple as “My father did it, so I should be able to do it, too,” to the much more complex cultural determinations of what is “women’s work” or “men’s work.” Ultimately, we are like little career chameleons changing our color and appearance so that we do not stand out too much, because birds only gobble up the lizards that they can see.

A chameleon on glass.

Very early in my career as a clinical supervisor, I was working with a group of novice counselors discussing a case in which the client seemed to adapt his personal style to match those around him. He drank heavily with one group, was racist in another group, and even acted “dumber” when around a group of friends that he considered “dumb.” Intriguingly, with the counselor, he had deep, rich insights into his behavior and seemed to understand the things that he was doing that were self-destructive, but as soon as he left the session, all that insight evaporated. The counselors very quickly picked up on the fact that he was a chameleon and most of what he did was reflexive and for self-protection. They were surprised when I pointed out that he also mimicked the counselor and they asked if the counselor should “mirror” this behavior to the client. In one of my rare moments of lucidity, I said,

"No. It’s not the counselor’s role to mirror anything. The counselor should be transparent, like glass… no purpose, no opinion, no bias. What color is a chameleon on a pane of glass?"

This led to a hearty discussion about the purpose of counseling (which I will spare you) and eventually branched off into thinking about how hard we as human beings work to be what others want us to be. I have grown to believe that one of the most salient challenges that we face daily is that of being ourselves, largely because we spend so much energy trying to accommodate others. Don’t think, by the way, that this is a completely bad thing. Much of the truly good stuff I have done over the years is because I did what I thought my wife and kids wanted me to do, and most of the truly bad stuff I did when I ignored their wishes for me. The only thing that astounds me more than how often people are wrong about me, is how often they are right.

Sadly, when the dust settles, there is no test that tells you what you are good at because you are the only one who will ever really know that. You have two basic choices as you make decisions about life and career… you can be the chameleon on the wall or the chameleon on glass. The chameleon on the wall is safe and secure with no real highs or lows. Imagine that chameleon on glass, shifting from one color to another, trying to figure out how to do “clear.” Sooner or later, its stops with its “real” color.


  1. I just ran across your wonderful blog today.It's very beneficial for me, Keep coming up with ideas.

  2. Daryl... Kudos! Impressive. I laughed out loud four (4) times and learned a few things from this delightful read. Cheers, - Amanda