Metaphors of Career 1: Matching

This is the first post I’m putting together for my series in looking at how various metaphors can be used to help define and expand our view of what career is. Especially I hope that reading this will help challenge people on how they see career so they can better understand themselves. My ultimate hope is that this is beneficial as I believe better personal reflection can underpin better action and people being able to overcome problems in their careers. The idea of using metaphors comes from Kerr Inkson and his book “Understanding Careers: The Metaphors of Working Lives.” Inkson uses nine metaphors for career and this post will look at one of these, the metaphor of matching.

I have a son who at the time of writing is coming up to two. One of the surprisingjoys of having a toddler is the kids books that I get to read to him. One of my favourites is called “Tyrannosaurus Drip” by Julia Donaldson (of Gruffalo fame) . I’m about to spoil this story so do feel free to skip this paragraph. Tyrannosaurus Drip is a Duck-billed Dinosaur, a green vegetarian amphibious dinosaur who as an egg is stolen from his nest and ends up in the nest of a T-Rex. Now T-Rexes, as you may imagine, are mean, meat eating dinosaurs while Tyrannosaurus Drip is peaceful and plant loving. Drip does’t want to go around hunting or sing about war and such like with his sisters. He finds himself feeling excluded and decides he doesn’t belong and so runs away. On running away he finds a herd of Duck-billed Dinosaurs who eat veg, live quite lives and swim. Drip finds he fits in with them and not the T-Rexes he grew up with. Drip is a square peg being pushed into a round hole until he finds out life would be a lot better for him if he lived in a square hole.

Intellectual Origins

This idea of needing square pegs for square holes is central to the idea of matching. If you match pegs to holes they fit, if you match people to jobs they will be happy. As Phil McCash as pointed out is his piece We’re All Career Researchers Now the idea of matching has a distinct intellectual heritage. We find some some of the intellectual routes for this view from the biologist Charles Darwin, the economist Adam Smith and the occupational psychologist John L. Holland. Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest states that some creatures survive better in a given circumstance than others. Over time this will led to the fitter or the better acclimatised species surviving while the others will not. Darwin describes a matching process in nature between species and their environments. The economist Adam Smith applies a similar idea to economics. In Smith’s  famous illustration from his magnum opus “The Wealth of Nations” he contrasts two ways of making pins in a factory. Either all of your work force accomplishes all of the steps needed to produce a pin or you divide your workforce into various tasks and each individual performs one task in the process leading to the manufacture of pins. Smith argues that the later is more efficient as it allows workers to become more specialised and so as a whole work more effectively. Here there is a matching between someone’s skills and their ability to do their job well. The occupational psychologist John Holland claimed that both people and work environments can be categorised and then matched to each other. Holland has a particular scheme around a six point hexagon which focuses on six types of person and in turn six types of job (Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising and Conventional). Darwin, Smith and Holland all describe a process based around a subject’s suitability for a situation. All of them describe a scientific process that looks to describe the subject fitting an environment which in turn leads to a desired end.

When you take these ideas and try applying them to bring about a match there are two required stages. You need to analyse both a person and their environment and you need to split people and environments into various fixed categorise. This allows you to match the two together which should lead to your desired result (survival, efficiency, satisfaction etc.) Matching is underpinned by a scientific view of reality which aims at a certain desirable outcome through categorising and matching.

Matching as a Metaphor

Rather than asking how good a model of reality is of this I want instead to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of matching as a metaphor. This means not asking “is it a good idea to think of career as a matching process?” but “if I think of my career as a matching process what benefit would that be to me?” and “how might I find this metaphor limiting and constraining?”

The big benefit of the matching process is that it offers a path towards a realistic option. Schools, universities and employers all look to find people with certain abilities. Therefore knowing what our abilities are and what situations they can be best employed in helps us with this. It encourages a simple form of reflection with obvious practical benefits. The scientific nature of the matching metaphor encourages us to be able to analyse ourselves, categorise our abilities and then prove our statements to those who act as gatekeepers to various opportunities. It also asks us to do the same with the opportunities we come across in life, to attempt to understand what a opportunity requires and what sort of person is suitable to it. At first glance matching seems simple and powerful as a metaphor. The neat analysis of people and careers offers a clear way to seek practical solutions for someone’s career.

There are some limitations to the metaphor though. Firstly it assumes we all want to be in the profession that we are most suited to. But it doesn’t take much imagination to realise people often want other things from their jobs than just being good at them. What about the student who becomes a fundraiser for a charity not because they are particularly good at holding buckets in shopping centres but because they passionately care about the cause they are raising money for? What about the single Dad who changes his job to have more time to bring up his kids? It fails to grapple with what people want from work.

Secondly it assumes we are static as human beings with pre-set abilities. Matching encourages us to look for what we do best rather than asking what we want to be good at or could be good at. It mostly ignores goal setting and personal development. It doesn’t really try and grapple with the complex relationship between nature and nurture in our lives. Just because I can not sing (I’m bad, ask anyone) does that mean I shouldn’t aim to get better and that I don’t have the potential to be good at it? Will we always just have the rough set of abilities we have now?

Thirdly it assumes that round holes stay round. But we know that professions do change and require different things from people. Again development is ignored. The matching metaphor answers how we get into a career now, not how we will continue to manage our careers over time especially as the world of work changes. We live in a world where not only are jobs being done differently but jobs, occupations and sectors of work are being created and vanishing at a faster rate than any before (in my opinion).

Fourthly it does not describe how people may change opportunities. It assumes that the status quo will continue. It does not have room for people who challenge conventions in the work place or who look at better ways of doing things using different skills. It doesn’t encourage us to think creatively in how we apply for jobs and manage our careers. Its easy to think that this is not realistic in the real world. But isn’t this partly because we’re used to thinking of jobs as static and power structures as opposed to change? I don’t think things have to be like this and as a careers advisor I’m interested in helping people think differently and challenge structures at least in theory rather than automatically accepting them. It assumes subordination, I feel its worth at least asking if we want this. Someone has to change the world.


Writing this has really highlighted for me the benefits of using metaphors and creating different perspectives. For some people reading about matching may challenge them to reflect more on their skills and abilities and how suited they are for the role they have in mind for their future. But for other people matching may make them feel uncomfortable and they may found it constraining as a metaphor. Both of these experiences are really valid. Using a metaphor can be useful because it has strengths and weaknesses. Noticing what we find helpful or difficult about a way of thinking helps us see what we want to have in our own career theory.

As I thought I’m going to try and come up with a practical exercise related to each metaphor. Either to aid reflection or if you’re  a careers worker it may work in an interview or group work. Here’s the task; take your interview and write down on a separate piece of paper all of the skills and abilities you have listed on your CV on another piece of paper. Now imagine, just on the skills listed on that second bit of paper, what job roles you may be suited for. How does this compare to what you are doing at the moment in your career? Might any other career be a better fit? If you are put off by a role is it because of another factor outside of your skills? What does this approach miss that is important to you?

As ever please leave feedback, please interact, criticise etc.


3 thoughts on “Metaphors of Career 1: Matching

  1. Hi Tom-
    Nice post! I think you make valid points, but I wanted to point out there are certain elements of our personality that really don’t change, and looking at career possibilities that fit comfortably with those elements in mind might be a help. I use the MBTI assessment with my students and after I interpret it, we look at careers that other people with similar personality traits have gone into and found great satisfaction. While not perfect, the MBTI helps students I work with (University) to see aspects of their personality they may have not realized before, and how their career exploration can be enhanced.
    Interests can and probably will change through life. Values can change as well. But there are aspects of our personality that have been around since birth and will probably never change. After all, a Duck-billed Dinosaur can’t change into a T-Rex, can he?

    • Hi Shelia. Thanks for getting in contact. I most admit I’ve never been particularly convinced by type approaches to personality so maybe you can help me out?

      What is the thing that doesn’t change? What sort of an object or entity is it? Are you aware of much research that talks about this? I’ve always been of the opinion that all of who we are changes over time through our experiences and evolving sense of self. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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