career planning, spirituality and work



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Nicholas W. Weiler, in collaboration with Stephen C. Schoonover, M.D.

"Filled with practical, researched advice that is simultaneously both spiritual and profoundly down to earth." -M. Scott Peck, M.D., author of The Road Less Traveled

Excerpts from YOUR SOUL AT WORK, by Nicholas W. Weiler in collaboration Stephen C. Schoonover, M.D., copyright © 2001 by Nicholas W. Weiler and Stephen C. Schoonover. Used with permission of Paulist Press.

Life Stages and Career Planning

Earlier we mentioned the work of people such as Erik Erikson and Daniel Levinson, who conducted extensive research and identified a series of very predictable life stages healthy people go through in their journeys through life. At each stage we tend to reassess and re-balance our life values priorities. It's helpful to know what some of these stages are so that when we pass through them we can be aware of what's happening and know that it's normal. Since our focus here is on careers, we will briefly summarize six stages of adult career development that we have synthesized from the work of many who have studied the adult growth process. For a more in-depth understanding we recommend the writings of Erikson, Levinson, Groeschel, Fowler, and others (see bibliography) who describe the process in more detail.

Stages of Growth

Addressed with the right mindset these are stages of personal growth. The movement through the stages is a progression. As we pass from one stage to the next, often with some difficult periods of transition, we learn and mature in the process. If we acknowledge and work through the issues of each successive stage we become better human and spiritual beings.

These following stages carry us from our late teens to post retirement. The ages shown for each stage are only rough estimates. People may pass through the stages several years earlier or later than the estimates shown. Individuals vary widely in their progression through the stages.

Stage 1. Autonomy and Tentative Choices (Approximately 18-26)

In this stage we are typically developing personal autonomy and leaving the family to establish an independent home, finances etc. We're developing our own sense of personhood as separate from parents and childhood peer groups. We try out new relationships (e.g., romantic interests, professional associates, peer groups and friends). This is typically a period of tentative or provisional commitments. We're comfortable there is plenty of time ahead to change our minds on provisional decisions concerning things like location, occupation, plans to marry or not marry, friends, key life values, etc. Our focus is on defining ourselves as individuals and establishing an initial life structure.

Stage 2. Young Adult Transition (Approximately 27-31)

This is usually a period of significant turmoil - of looking at who we are becoming and asking if we're really journeying in directions we want to go. We question most of our earlier tentative choices. Have we made the right decisions? Are we running out of time for changing our decisions? Are our decisions becoming permanent before we want them to? Do we really want to make this location, career path or romantic relationship permanent? Will we or will we not settle down and have a family? Is time running out? Often with considerable angst similar to the better known mid-life crisis we rethink our provisional decisions and maintain them or change them in the process of making more permanent choices.

Stage 3. Making Commitments (Approximately 32-42)

This is typically a period of relative order and stability where we implement and live the choices made in the young adult transition. We settle down into deeper commitments involving work, family, church, our community ties etc. We focus on accomplishment, becoming our own persons and generating an inner sense of expertise and mastery of our professions. By now we have a better developed and fairly well defined, though not usually final, dream of what we want to achieve in life. We put significant energy into achieving the dream.

Stage 4. Mid-Life Transition (Approximately 42-48)

This is the stage of mid-life questioning that's been discussed so much in the popular press. Here we tend to question everything again. If we have not achieved our dreams we wonder why not. Were they really the right dreams? If we have achieved our dreams we look at what values we might have neglected in their pursuit. Was it worth it? Either way we're probably disillusioned. A period of reassessment and realignment usually takes place, including recognition and re-balancing of key polarities , such as:

Immortality vs. Mortality - While young people know better intellectually, emotionally they seem to feel they are immortal. In mid-life we start to realize it may be half over and we want to make the best of what remains. This typically requires some revision of priorities and values - perhaps less emphasis on values already achieved and more emphasis on those we have neglected.

Constructive vs. Destructive - Up to mid-life, most of us fool ourselves that our behavior has been constructive while we had to deal with others' destructive behavior. In mid-life we get the uncomfortable insight that we have also engaged in our share of destructive as well as constructive behavior. This insight is painful but essential if we want to continue growing intellectually and spiritually.

Nurturing vs. Aggressive - Whether we have focused on aggressive (e.g., fast track corporate careers) or nurturing (e.g., teaching, social work, or homemaking) behavior to date, in mid-life we often want to re-balance. Some aggressive corporate people want to spend more time nurturing with their families or in socially oriented work, and some who have been in more service-oriented nurturing careers want to pursue something more aggressive or financially rewarding.

The experts stress that acknowledging the turmoil, experiencing the pain, and facing and resolving the polarities is essential for continued growth and satisfaction. Refusing to acknowledge or experience mid-life anxieties and questions - or at some unconscious level trying to go back and be twenty again is usually a sure way to get stuck and disgruntled in a way station.

Stage 5. Leaving a Legacy (Approximately 49-65)

The period after completion of the mid-life transition can be one of the most productive of all stages. We are usually at the peak of our mature abilities here. If the issues of the mid-life transition have been acknowledged and addressed we can make our greatest possible contributions to others and society. Here we can be less driven, less ego-centered, less compelled to compete with and impress others. Instead we can focus on what really matters to us, on developing younger people, on community with others, on leaving some personal legacy that really makes things better for people (whether it's recognized as our personal legacy or not), and on accomplishing values that our maturity and greater spirituality tell us have the most true meaning in the overall scheme of life.

Stage 6. Spiritual Denouement (Approximately 66 and Beyond)

This is the stage of tying things up, of completing the design of what we want to become, of finalizing our growth and assessing/fine-tuning the persons we have made of ourselves. This stage can go on for many years. It can be hopeful or cynical depending on how realistically, humbly, and effectively we have resolved (or now finally resolve) the issues faced in earlier stages. We may move into this stage sooner or later depending on how rapidly we have developed in earlier stages - how much we have moved beyond our narrow selves. Here we come to grips with the ultimate limitations of life, ourselves and mortality. We can look hopefully and unflinchingly at the ultimate meaning of our life and the life of others in the larger context. We do the best we can to pass whatever wisdom we have gained on to others. We accept others for what they are, seeing them as growing like we are and part of humankind's diversity. Our sense of community continually expands as we prepare for survival of the spirit beyond our mortality.

A Reason to Be

What ultimately is career and life success? What are we striving for? Why? What is our reason to be? The answer to these questions, and the significance we find in each of the life stages, will be very different depending on which world view we take.

[In another chapter, we discussed two worldviews, Naturalism and Supernaturalism. Naturalism is based on the asumption that human reason is supreme and this world (i.e. nature) is all there is. Supernaturalism is based on the assumption that there is more - that beyond nature as we know it there is an intelligence far surpassing our puny human intellects and we are charting our courses to a higher place.]

If Naturalism is our world-view, much of this life, including the life stages, doesn't make much sense. There is no ultimate goal. We perfect ourselves more every step of the way in life and then, at the height of our growth, we cease to exist. Not a very motivating scenario. Also a risky scenario. If we were betting on the wrong world view the negative consequences are far more severe and lasting than anything that happens to us in this life.

Naturalism's idea that we humans represent the ultimate intelligence can seem - at least momentarily - very sophisticated and flattering to our egos. Many very intelligent people have been seduced by this idea and spent their entire lives stuck in this rut. However, inevitably, those who have tried to replace God with human reason (especially when it has been their own reason they decided to revere) have done more harm than good. They have usually also ended up disillusioned and unhappy. However well meaning their original intentions were, the seduction of power - the idea of 'being' rather than 'serving' God - got them, and us, in trouble.

The result has been much suffering, pain, unequal justice, and bad things happening to good people in this world. Hitler and Stalin occur to us as two extreme examples of people who took this path. Naturalism has not given us much to celebrate. The reality of Naturalism is that, when we get beyond its original seductions, it tends to keep our gaze focused down, on the mud. Most of us from the depths of our too often neglected souls ache for more. Something in our innermost being cries out for a higher purpose - real meaning and goals that can be more satisfying and enduring than the transient successes, the 'vanities' of this life. We long to make that all-important simple turn of the head. We don't want this troubled existence to be all there is. We want to lift up our eyes beyond the restricted ceiling of earth and hope for heaven.

Supernaturalism gives us that hope. Supernaturalism goes substantively beyond Naturalism and provides meaning, even to our sufferings. Supernaturalism makes life a positive journey towards a higher place, with rewards far surpassing anything Naturalism can promise. Also, not only our spiritual, but even our finest scientific leaders tell us the 'faith' of Supernaturalism is much more consistent with the universe's observed logic and order than Naturalism's faith in the chaos of nothingness built solely on chance. Supernaturalism gives us an over-arching reason to be, an ultimate destination. Fortunately, it turns out that the most advanced modern research on life stages helps outline a path to that destination with defined way stations that can help us map our progress during the journey.

They tell us the purpose of each stage is to further our growth - to increase our learning and give us new, more mature insights. Our primary purpose in life is not business, money, recognition, professional expertise or career progression. Our primary purpose is to become complete human beings and to help others become complete human beings as we work together in cooperative community on resolving the issues of each life stage. How open we stay to this never-ending learning, and how effectively we assimilate and grow from the often painful insight of each stage, seem to be critical determining factors in how far we progress - and in whether or not we experience satisfaction and the peace that can only come from movement towards an ultimately meaningful goal.

Effective progression through the stages is congruent with what generations of spiritual writers have defined as the real purpose of life, spiritual growth - the process of purifying and preparing ourselves for a higher life. This is much more important than what specific career field or profession we choose, or how much material recognition and reward we receive for what we do. A successful career is one that enhances our spiritual growth. Our occupational choice should be one that can best enhance that growth. In later chapters we will present some proven techniques for helping us make that important choice.

If you continually track your progress, as we recommend, you may find you even want to change career fields occasionally as you progress over the years, reach plateaus, and need new challenges to start you towards the next stage.

There are many who have received very high levels of material recognition and reward, but appear to be frozen and unhappily stagnated at one of the lower level life stage way stations. Likewise there are people who are wise and at peace in very high level developmental stages who have never sought or received much material recognition and reward. Which group would you consider more successful?

There is nothing wrong with material success and recognition, if they don't distract us from more enduring realities and endeavors. If material success and recognition become ends in themselves, if they define the ultimate destination in our career and life journeys - there has been a great deal of social, psychological and spiritual wisdom accumulated over the centuries - that tells us we will find arrival at that ultimate destination terribly disappointing.

The rich man in the parables, who ignored the beggar Lazarus at his gate, discovered too late that Lazarus and not he found his final destination in heaven. In recent times we've all read about case after case of wealthy, renowned media, literary and financial personalities who ended their days in very public alcohol or drug ridden despair. Like the poet we cited earlier, most of these probably needed to lift their eyes and discover a higher reality.

Figure 1 outlines some key issues contemporary research tells us must be addressed and resolved at each life stage if we want a happier and more rewarding destination at the end of our journeys.

Figure 1. Adult Life Stages


Key Issues


Goal Focus



Autonomy / Tentative Choices

(18 - 26)

Autonomy vs. Dependence,
Tentative vs. Lasting Choices

Developing sense of personhood as separate from parents and childhood peer groups

Defining self as an individual and establishing an initial life style

Testing out new relationships (e.g., love interests, peer groups, and friends)

Realigning focus from family of origin to new peers and groups

Young Adult


Turmoil vs. Certainty,
Settling Down vs. Keeping Things Open

Questioning sense of self and who/what we want to become

Re-assessing initial life style and making more permanent choices/ commitments

Sorting out and deciding which relationships will become more permanent

Re-thinking and evaluating commitments and connections

Making Commitments


Master vs. Apprentice,
Permanent vs. Tentative Choices

Firming up/establishing a more permanent sense of self and who/what we want to become

Deciding a life direction and defining/ aggressively pursuing a dream of what we want to accomplish in life

Making more permanent commitments to love relationships, friends, and peers

Establishing more permanent connections and community ties/ responsibilities

Mid-Life Transition


Resolving Key Polarities
Immortality vs. Mortality,
Constructive vs. Destructive,
Nurturing vs. Aggressive

Re-examining realities of projected ego and image vs. true self and struggling to define/accept true self

Questioning the dream whether or not it was achieved and developing a more mature sense of what is really important

Recognizing/ acknowledging one's own negative, as well as positive, impact on relationships and correcting course for deeper, more authentic connections

Disengaging from group and cultural pressures/norms to re-evaluate and restructure priorities

Leaving a


Contribution vs. Personal Benefit,
Other vs. Self Centered,
Social vs. Independent Accomplishments

Letting go of earlier inaccurate ego images and accepting oneself as a worthwhile being with weaknesses as well as strengths

Making the best of the time one has left to help others and leave a positive legacy

Settling into more realistic and rewarding relationships based on recognizing/ forgiving each otherís imperfections as human and helping each other grow

Re-engagement on a deeper, more objective, less driven and more productive, level with family, friends, and society

Spiritual Denouement

(66 and beyond)

Hope vs. Despair
Survival of Spirit vs. Mortality
Surrender vs. Control

Accepting self as dependent on a wisdom greater than oneís own, recognizing that wisdom as benevolent, and submitting oneís self and life to that wisdomís will

Tying things up and completing the development of the person/spiritual being we want to become

Accepting others and recognizing/ respecting humankind's diversity as part of a greater wisdom's plan

Recognizing that life is only part of a larger, more enduring spiritual community and helping others understand that


Where Are You Now?

We do not, of course, move in simple linear fashion from one stage to another with no going back. It isn't that simple. Instead we move through the stages in cyclical fashion, hopefully with a longer term forward momentum, but inevitably cycling back and re-working concerns of earlier stages as we face unpredicted events, traumas, and fluctuating career, family, or interpersonal situations.

As you review these life stages think about where you are now. What stages have you passed through and which do you face next? What might that mean in terms of what you're thinking and feeling about your work and life today - and about your choice of life values to focus on at this point in time? As you look through Figure 1 how are you progressing? Which of the key issues have you resolved and which are you working on now? Where do you stand today in terms of the key issues and other categories listed across the top of Figure 1? Where do you want or need to concentrate your efforts next? The following brief reflection can help you consider these questions.

Brief Reflection

Read down each column under the categories listed across the top of Figure 4 (Key Issues, Self Image, Relationships etc). Using an erasable pencil, put a checkmark () in the one box in each column that best defines where you think you are today. It may not be a perfect fit, but pick the one that comes closest. Then look at the boxes above the one you checked and put a question mark (?) in any you feel may still need some attention.

Look at your checkmarks and question marks as clues to where you currently are in your progression through the stages. What does this tell you? What impact might it have on the life values you feel are most important to you right now - or on your sense of changing if you are in a transitional situation between stages?

If you are part of a couple, you're not assessing your values or passing through the life stages alone. Two of you are making value choices and tradeoffs. It's helpful to know and share where you both are now in your life stage progression and where each wants to go next in your individual and joint journeys. There will probably be differences that you need to accommodate while also respecting each other's individual growth needs. Then important future career decisions (e.g., a job offer for one of you at another location) can be made with full awareness of what values each is trading off, and plans can be made to maximize growth for both of you after the decision.

It's important that we continually revisit, re-evaluate, and link our life values to our deeper, more spiritual aspirations and growth as we pass through each life stage. It's important that we recognize and accept the fact that the values we are spending our time pursuing might have to change, sometimes dramatically, as we grow and mature. This doesn't necessarily mean we've taken a wrong turn. However, most of us do take wrong turns along the way, and recognizing that gives important insight that helps get back on course. Correcting course and continually re-balancing are not signs of failure. They are simply signs we haven't frozen our designs. We're still moving ahead and improving the final product of what we want to become. We're still focusing on the stars and lifting our gaze out of the mud.

Prioritizing your life values and tracking your life stage progression are the first two tasks in the Taking Charge Process. The next task is deciding what kind of work will best achieve your values and advance your progression in directions you choose.

Critical Success Behaviors