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Career counsel on the cheap

No need to spend a fortune to learn the color of your particular parachute. A look at

There comes a time in midlife when you wake up, crawl out of bed, look at your grey stubbly face in the mirror, and see the naked truth about yourself. You will never be a big-league shortstop. You will never be a Land’s End model. You might be a client, but you will never be a president. You will never be a head greenskeeper. You will never be elected pope of this or any other joint.

You are what you are. You’ve settled into a role at a job that suits you. In my case, I’m an editor, which makes me a picky guy who loves to criticize others. I also have all kinds of rare knowledge about the English language that no one cares about, except other picky people who love to criticize others. It’s what I do. It’s what I am. To do is to be. To be is to do. Do-be-do-be-do.

I just wish I had known this about myself 20 years ago. I could have saved myself eight years of graduate school, a Lexus’s worth of student debt, and a liver. Why didn’t I find out back then? Well, how can you afford all that career counseling on a student budget? Besides, I was so sure of that dream to be a philosophy professor, I thought I didn’t need career counseling. By the time I got the letter–“You will no longer be allowed to pursue a Ph.D. at this institution-the damage was done, and there was no way I could afford to step back and figure out what my personality was best suited to do. As it happens, I lucked out and got an editing job–problem solved, except the lost years, all that debt, and the weak liver.

I’m living proof that career assessment is worth the money. Even at 150 bucks an hour for 10 hour-long sessions with a licensed personal coach, it is far better to find out for what career you’re best suited than it is to spend eight or 10 years learning through trial and error. As our economy is ever more influenced by globalization, your best bet to compete is to find out in what career you will thrive, and then go for it with gusto. No matter how much demand there is right now for a given job, if you are not suited for it, you will never be successful at it. Besides, demand for jobs is fickle. You can spend five years working towards a degree in a hot field only to find that the field has cooled off since you started, and there are millions of others around the globe who did the same thing you did.

The good news is, a service on the Web can give you the career counseling you need for the cost of one session with a personal coach. At, you can take the Motivational Appraisal for Personal Potential (MAPP) test and get a detailed personality assessment in return. Take the test and the site will give you some free content, including an executive summary and a more detailed personal appraisal. The free content comes in narrative form that describes general tendencies, which can be hard to interpret into job preferences. But offers additional services, ranging from $39 to $129, which interpret the results in as much detail as a dedicated career coach could do.

Even though I know I’m well suited for my job and not well suited for things like project management or data center administration, it doesn’t hurt to verify this through the site. So I took the free assessment and read the resulting materials. The test consists of 71 questions that ask you which of three activities you would most like to do and which you would least like to do. Based on your answers, the site generates an executive summary of six bullet points about you and a full 29-page assessment. And that’s just the free stuff. The test interface was easy to use and took about 10 minutes. The online results were almost instantaneous, and within an hour I had an e-mail with a Word version of the assessment attached.

Reading my executive summary is a jaw-dropping experience. It concisely and precisely describes what my natural talents are and what motivates me in ways I could not express. For example, it tells me that I have a strong intuitive sense of the logical connections between things, which makes me a big-picture thinker. I will spare you all the details, but suffice it to say, I was shocked at how well a simple 71-question survey did at assessing my personality.

The detailed personal assessment contained more qualified statements about my personality traits, and it also was eerily accurate. It broke my preferences down to job titles, and went so far as to recommend a career in journalism, creative or technical writing, engineering, or education. This set of job titles comprises all of my work over the past 20 years.

You might say the fact that I have worked in these areas has shaped my personality traits. In other words, my personality caused me to naturally seek these fields. True enough, but the tool is not designed for people my age. I was only taking the test to validate what I already knew, and I was not disappointed. The majority of the people who take the test are high-school and early-college age kids who want to make sure they pursue the right degree for them. If they answer the questions honestly at that young age, it will give them an accurate sense of which fields to pursue and which to avoid. It also will tell them important facts about their educational strengths and weaknesses so that they can maximize their learning potential when they do pursue a degree.

More than 4,000 such kids take the online version of the assessment each day and more than one million have taken the assessment in the past year. Enough of the kids who take the test buy the additional resources to make the site profitable and to generate business for the nearly 150 career coaches affiliated with the site. According to the site’s founder and President Henry Neils, the site is just starting to generate traffic from companies that want to screen candidates to make sure their personalities match the jobs for which they apply.

Tomorrow I will wake up and crawl out of bed, as usual. But when I go to the mirror to peer into my bloodshot eyes, I expect to see more peace behind those pupils. The assessment has given me the confidence to say I know I am doing what God intended, even if it doesn’t involve scooping up grounders or changing the holes at Augusta.

James Mathewson is editor at large for ComputerUser and editor of IBM’s VIC-H Web site.

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