Sense of Control and Career: Too Much Gloom Spells Doom

It's that time of year when graduating college students shift into career victimization mode. "I'll never get a job. Nothing I do will ever matter. I might as well go curl up in a ball and watch endless reruns of The Walking Dead while gorging on Cap'n Crunch." It's the hard knock life!

During my ten years of teaching, I've heard variations of this statement every single year. Simply alter the TV show du jour.

Do young people feel more out of control during a down economy? Slightly. But you'd be amazed at how consistent the "I'm totally sunk" sentiments are.

That's because the comments are about a way of viewing the world. They're not about reality.

You can't control the job market, you can't control whether interviews result in offers, you can't control how many pounds you gain from the Cap'n Crunch, but you can control your thoughts about career. Even when you receive so few responses to job applications that you check your resume to make sure the contact info is listed right. (I've done that.)

Feeling In Control...or Out of It

The key question to answer is this:  do you generally feel like your efforts matter, or do you feel like a victim of circumstance?

Actually, it may be better to ask your friends this question. They're the ones who hear you talk. Ad nauseum. They know whether you generally act like you're in control (called an internal locus of control) or generally think life is out to get you (an external locus of control). In common parlance, whether you're a whiner.

Perception of control is much more important than actual control. The economy is screwing all young workers over. No arguing there. But some of my seniors believe they're in charge of the job search process all the same. They say things like, "I need to send out more applications. And I'm gonna start using the alumni network. And maybe I'll start volunteering at that clinic I'd love to work in."

This Isn't Optimism

Before we get too far, let's clear up a common misconception:  having a sense of control isn't the same as being optimistic.


Which I think is a good thing.

I don't know about you but I find perpetually optimistic people to be grating. I mean, 53% of recent college graduates are out of work or underemployed. To be like, "oh, this is delightful, you all have so much more free time!" would be absolutely ridiculous. (Although I must admit to toeing that line in my post "Why the Bad Economy May be Good News for Millennials" Sorry about that.)

Sense of control and optimism are related, yes, but they aren't the same. So feel free to increase your sense of control without worrying that you'll lose your cynical street cred. You can be the person who says, "The job market totally sucks. Yet there are things I can do to work toward a satisfying career. After I'm done bashing the pick of Gwyneth Paltrow as world's most beautiful woman."

Why Sense of Control Matters

This isn't some "positive thinking" infomercial. Sense of control has been found by psychologists to be key to career outcomes. College students who have an internal locus of control are more decisive about their careers, have higher career aspirations, and have less career choice anxiety than people with external loci. They're everything we Career Avoiders dream of being.

And in middle age, people who have a strong sense of control are more satisfied with their jobs and have better job performance than those who feel out of control. Not bad for just a difference in outlook.

Are You Stuck With a Certain Sense of Control?

The good news is that your sense of control is not part of your personality. It's completely changeable.

The bad news is that it takes a good deal of intention and effort to make the change.

But we're in it together, aren't we? So next time we''ll talk through some strategies for changing your sense of career control. Because gosh knows the economy ain't changing any time soon. Might as well change ourselves instead.

I want to know:  how in control of your career do you feel? Be honest!

Duffy, R. D. (2010). Sense of control and career adaptability among college students. Journal of Career Assessment, 18, 420-430.

This dog looks the way some of my graduating seniors feel. (Photo credit: Ruben Bos)

I'm not asking you to become this guy. (Photo credit: hynkle)