The Highlands Company Blog

Family Influence on Careers

Our family of origin – and where we were born and grew up – is an important and powerful influence on our lives. Our abilities are stabilized by the age of 15 and our personality is formed by the age of 6. By watching our parents work or not work, we learn subtle messages about making a living, surviving, and success.

Last week, Michael came to see me. He had been laid off as an attorney. He told me that his father had been a janitor his whole life, and he had wanted to do better. He had gone into law “to make money ” but he hated the work. He wasn’t sure what to do next.

The day before my conference with Michael, I had seen Maya, who had gotten her degree in social work and was thinking about starting a private practice. Her parents were Holocaust survivors and they did not have an education. But they had strongly encouraged her to go to college and find a career in which “she could help people.” She was very satisfied with social work.

In my working with people who want to make a career change, “family background” is one of the eight factors that are important to examine. When we talk about family “background” issues, we are looking at how parents and extended family have influenced a person – in both positive and negative ways. Where we grew up, the economic realities facing our family, illness, our parents’ countries of origin – all these play an important part. Some of the other factors we consider are: abilities, skills, interests, personal style, values and goals.

What factors are important to look at when we assess family influences?

1. Be aware of family issues or messages concerning work, money and success. How have they played out? In my conference with Shannon, a 32-year old woman who was trying to re-invent herself, she told me her father was a tough, mean-spirited attorney. For her choice of a husband, she had picked David, who at the age of 33 had no career or job. It had taken him 6 years to get his BA. However, he was very kind and thoughtful, though he had little ambition. He was Just the opposite of her father, but she felt very comfortable with David.
The person we choose as a spouse reflects the inferences we have drawn from the conduct and attitudes of our family members. And our choice influences our lives in many ways.

2. How is your present career related to your own family of origin? Did you choose the career of your dreams? Or did you have to choose another career because of your family’s finances? Were you influenced in your choice by a family member you respect? Was there pressure to please your family? How did your parents react to your career choice?

3. What is your reaction as an adult to your family’s messages?
Sarah grew up in a poor family in the 50’s. As a child, she chose the cheapest clothes and looked carefully at every price tag. As a result, even though she now earns well as an accountant, she feels guilty buying the clothes that suit her professional standing.

If possible, interview your parents about their feelings about the work they do. Ask them about their schooling and what they were doing when they were your age. In my work last month with John, I advised him to interview his dad and ask what he was doing when he was 30 – John’s age. He found out his father had really wanted to go into real estate, but that everyone told him not to do it – too much risk. John has been thinking of grad school but is afraid he won’t make enough money – but he doesn’t want to give up his dreams in the way his father did.

Looking at our family influences can be painful, though revealing. The more aware we become of our own parents’ struggles or challenges in the world of work, the more we can use the information in a positive way to go forward.