Contemplative Career Planning


Helping students draw on their inner guidance counsellor

When I was a guidance counsellor, I found myself asking a 14-year-old, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Immediately I realized what a silly question this was as it only added to his confusion. Granted, there are some students who know exactly what they want to do and exactly how to get there. But, in general, I have found that they are few and far between. How in the world could he possibly know what he wanted to do when he was older? He likely didn’t even know what he wanted to do that afternoon. Why do we persist on asking this question? It confounds more than clarifies. Instead, we could consider asking students what interests them now. So I tried it with this student. After many, “I don’t knows,” he honed in on the fact that he really liked skateboarding. Unfortunately, there was no Skateboarding 101 offered at the school, but he was at least starting to mine his own self to gather information—something that is quite foreign to most school experiences.

Fear-Based Messaging

When students came to me to “figure out their life path” at 14 years old, the encounter was often fraught with either tension and anxiety or despondency and apathy. In a 20 minute time slot, they felt they needed to choose their courses for the upcoming year, which would determine their path through high school, which would determine what college/ university they would have the opportunity to attend, which would determine what job they could get, how much money they could make, what house/car/vacation they could buy and, therefore, what kind of life they would ultimately have. As adults we know that life doesn’t always go as planned, that we will get sideswiped by surprises, and that some of the best things come out of the worst circumstances. And yet we often perpetuate the notion that life is planned and ordered and that we must figure it all out, right now!

These ideas are borne from an outdated version of how life appeared at some point. For a brief period in our history, maybe life did seem quite sequential and organized: school, job, marriage, kids, retirement and death. Today, it is clear that only one of those is actually true for all human beings. All of the others are variables. But this rigid, narrow view of the human life cycle remains pervasive even when our world is an entirely different place than it was only a few years ago.

The messaging we give young people in schools is predicated upon this antiquated view of Life After School. I encourage you to take a look at the way course selection and post-secondary planning is addressed at your school. Much of the messaging I’ve encountered has been largely fear-based:

 If you don’t fill out this option sheet, you will end up in courses that won’t be helpful to you.

If you don’t pick the right courses in high school, you will never get to university.

And here’s one from a letter home to parents I once came across: Hastily made decisions may exclude students from certain universities or from certain courses which may lead to costly mistakes both financially and emotionally.

Talk about pressure! No wonder students and parents get stressed out during option sheet time. There is clearly something amiss in the way that we approach future planning with our students. When we put ourselves in this fear-based state, research shows that we are unable to think creatively. Narrowing their creative capacities through fear is clearly counterproductive for students needing to open to the possibilities that life has to offer them.

When we put ourselves in this fear-based state, research shows that we are unable to think creatively.

Inner Curriculum

Students could be forgiven for thinking that life is just something that happens to them because, in many ways, schooling is exactly that—a steamroll of courses and expectations where students have little opportunity to effect any change or outcome, where they tick off boxes and jump through academic hoops to get to the next stage, whether that is the next grade or the next degree.

Instead, can we help students understand that they actually do have some agency in this thing called life? Sure, much of what happens may be out of our control, but much of how we live is actually within our control. We have the ability to make choices that can impact how our life unfolds. And this ability could stem from what one actually believes rather than from being told what to do. In order for this to work, we need to encourage young people to listen to themselves.

Think with the Whole Body

The pre-frontal cortex, the part of our brain that deals with planning, strategizing, organizing—with all of the skills necessary for creating a future—is not fully formed until the mid-twenties, yet we persist, in fact, we often insist, that young people figure out their future in their mid-teens. This is not to say that we can’t teach them these skills, but it is to say that we also need to let them know there are other valid forms of knowing that do not rely solely on the brain. Knowledge can come from our mind and body and heart, not just from the left pre-frontal cortex. We need to help them understand and value the wisdom that can arise from their own being.

Discernment: The Foundation from which to Base Decisions

We would serve our young people well if we offered them the possibility of discerning. Defined as the “ability to judge well,” discernment is the foundation to healthy decision making. It is the clarity that encourages certain decisions over others. It stems from our deepest self.

There is a delightful Buddhist story (referred to by Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love) that says there are two forces that bring a mighty oak tree into being. One is the acorn itself—the one that everybody knows and sees. The other is the already formed oak tree that wants so badly to be that it pulls itself into existence. I believe that it is not only necessary but also imperative that we help young people learn to “listen to their own oak tree.” We can encourage them to be their own guidance counsellor.

Still Point of the Turning World

Rachael Kessler, author of The Soul of Education (2000) says that at their developmental stage, young people seek answers to such “Mysteries Questions” as: Why do I feel scared and confused about becoming an adult? What kind of life do I wish to have? What is my purpose in life? How can we expect our students to answer these questions— questions that require a deep inner knowing— when we have never taught them the skills or even the value of listening to one’s own self?

But what does it mean in practical terms to actually listen to oneself? Contemplative practices like mindfulness, journaling, stillness, silence, being in nature, waiting and deep listening are a few ways of cultivating this ability to access our deeper knowledge. Sometimes the “thinking mind” can only take us so far. Developing an awareness of how we feel about something, such as tuning into what sensations arise in the body when we are faced with certain decisions, listening to the cues in the body (for example, a tightness in the stomach or chest, a lightness in the face and eyes), and understanding our emotions can all be clues to determining our next steps. This ability to be in connection to one’s self, to value the messages from the body, mind and heart, is crucial in helping young people develop discernment and decision-making skills— skills that can serve them as they begin to direct their lives in the way that they want.


Amy Burke
Amy Burke is an educational consultant who spent 15 years as a high school teacher, guidance counsellor and Student Success Lead in Ottawa. She holds a Master’s Degree in Contemplative Education from Naropa University and in 2012 she co-founded MindWell ( whose aim is to support educational communities in fostering wellbeing through mindfulness and social-emotional learning. Amy is a lead teacher trainer for the Mindfulness in Schools Project and is also a facilitator for the CARE program (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Educators). She is currently developing Contemplative Career Planning programs for high school and college-aged students, combining contemplative practices with design thinking. Amy works internationally in schools and universities providing workshops and retreats for educators, students and parents with a focus on self-care and stress management.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2019 issue.

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