5 things the World Cup can teach us about careers work

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I can still remember June 30th 1998 with a scary degree of clarity. I don’t remember 1990, I was a bit late to football, 1994 was a no-show and so 1998 was my first proper World Cup. Euro 1996 and introduced me to the thrill of international football and Gareth Southgate to the world of penalty shootouts. We had got out the group, discovering that Owen was a vastly more exciting option to the aging Teddy Sheringham and then came Argentina… Owen’s goal, Beckham’s kick and the inevitable shoot out loss. I can still remember being in the room I watched the game, where I sat, who said what during the shootout, how it all felt, reading the papers in the morning and so on.

My question is why has an event that on one level was fairly incidental in my upbringing lodged such an impression? And what can we learn from this about engaging people in careers work. I had my first careers interview at school at around the same point and I can remember nothing about it except a vague memory of who it was with and where we had the conversation. Effective careers work starts with engaging people so it seems interesting as one of the most engaging spectacle of our current age starts we ask what we can learn from it about engaging people. I have 5 points.

1) The power of stories

Ever wondered why sport is so popular? Why is it that most people in the UK can name more footballers than politicians or FTSE 100 CEOs. Or for that matter that more people probably know what FIFA is than the FTSE? Why is it that newspapers pretty much every day of the year give more column inches to sport than to global warming or child poverty? How come sports dominates at the expense of more worthy and important topics?

Well to quote Annette Simmons “whoever tells the best story wins.” Sport in general and the World Cup in particular is a masterpiece in storytelling, it has a sense of past, what has come before it, it is perfectly constructed play with each act building to a dramatic conclusion, it has a clear sense of genre while still being unpredictable, it has a cast of veterans, rising stars, last-chance-salooners, heroes and villains. We want story and we believe the World Cup will deliver.

The problem with careers work is it still believes people should know more members of the cabinet than they do footballers. We focus on “ought” more than “want”. We have not clocked in to a “whoever tells the best story wins” mentality. People want drama, we give them a dentistry, by which I mean we give people fear and routine, not a good story. Don’t forget to update your CV regularly, if you don’t come back regularly to the careers service your teeth will fall out etc.

I’m laying it on a bit thick and I appreciate their are things that people need to know, we are not in the entertainment industry. Though increasingly I feel that stories can help people understand what is going on while engaging them with what is going on. We need to help people build narratives out of their lives which they find meaningful and engaging not hitting them with fear and duty.

2) The need for communities

Closely linked to the basic idea of the story is one of it’s key components, an audience. Have you ever been to a film or a play by yourself, by which I mean with no-one else in the audience? Which is better, watching films by yourself or with other people you respect (and trust to want to talk about it at the right point)? One of the great achievements of sport is to create a sense of community out of audiences. Somehow sport is even more participatory in our psyche than a film or play, hence the use of “we” to describe the performance of a group of men most of us have never met. Ever walked out of a play and talked about what a good job “we” did of playing hamlet?

This idea of coming together with others to case about something is a vital part of being human and something that clearly engages. Think of your friendships,aren’t they with people that you have something in common with. My question to this is how much is career something that the students we work with have “in common”. I find a lot of time trying to engage individuals in a set of services, I spend virtually no time trying to engage students in each other, pulling them together to form communities of peer support…. have done some helpful work on this recently. As well as any other benefits around group learning and support is the key idea we can learn from the World Cup. People are engaged in what they have in common with others.

3) The power of user generated opinions

For about the last fortnight inevitably at some point during the day the conversation wanders on to the topic of the World Cup. This is something that everyone has an opinion on. People like giving their own opinion and sharing the opinions of others (often disguised as their own). This clearly links to our previous point about people having something in common but expands it to look at user generated opinions.

Everyone feels like they are experts about the World Cup. It’s been interesting seeing people respond to the office sweepstake draw. Even people who I wouldn’t say normally are particularly engaged with football start chiming in with their view on teams “Brazil are bound to do well at home”, “Germany always perform well at the big tournaments” “I’d be happy with any of the big teams except England” etc. etc.

The point is people are engaged in what they talk about and what they think they can talk about. My fear is student’s talk about careers like they talk about the dentists “have you been recently” “oh I really should go” “what was it like? did it hurt?” and so on. The space to build, have and share opinions seems to be a vital element of engagement.

4) The search for significance

The World Cup by it’s very name announces it’s significance, it is about deciding who is the best football playing nation in the world at the moment. If you read a lot of the coverage in the build up to the World Cup there is an ongoing discussion about to what extent Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo can be described as great without winning a World Cup. The media intends to engage us with how significant and exciting the World Cup is.

There is a way of describing something as necessary or important without talking about it as significant. Take the dentist again, it’s important to go to the dentist but most people don’t describe it as being significant. Significance is to do with the value and importance something represents, it as a positive idea looking at the value of something. I feel we often spend more time talking about the fear of unemployment or low level graduate work and less about the positive significance of becoming a person who makes an impact on the world or is able to make a difference to their destiny and the world around them.

I feel somewhere careers work lost its romantic vision in the face of a dull mechanical rationalism that sucks the excitement out of career development. We could do with putting it back.

5) The need to identify

Finally the World Cup teaches us about the need to identify. People are drawn to the World Cup because nationalism still carries a strong sense of personal identity, football fans talk about will “we” do well. Equally people I know who do not like the World Cup often reference something to do with not identifying with it. This is often to do with not liking the nationalism, slightly xenophobic, macho posturing or just not wanting to be defined by something that is popular and they think others engage with uncritically.

Is careers work something that people can identify with? I feel often we are hosting concerns on people that they don’t associate with and talking in a way that students do not associate with. We need to be looking at whether our careers services and how we describe careers development is something that students can positively associate with, that feeds their identity. You can’t please everyone all the time but when you do please someone it is often because they identify with you.


So what are your thoughts? Would you any anything? What do you not agree with? Who do you think is going to win the World Cup? Please comment and share.

4 thoughts on “5 things the World Cup can teach us about careers work

  1. Really good post Tom, I enjoyed reading that, agree with all five. I’d like to add two more!
    1) In careers and football chaos rules. Especially the butterfly effect. They say every goal is a result of three mistakes, so something incidental down one end of the pitch leads to a goal at the other. The same for our careers, the wrong first impression, wrong question, wrong tie and we fail to land the job we want.
    2) The best don’t always win. The world cup is full of upsets much like our careers. Sometimes despite our best efforts we fail at what we set out to achieve.

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