Openness to Experience: Three Stories

In my last blog, I wrote about the concept of openness to experience: what the term means, how it originated, and how it can be thought of as a useful career skill. After giving it some more thought, I realize I may have taken readers’ acceptance of my premise—of the value of openness to experience—somewhat for granted.

After all, sometimes it’s easy to assume people have the same base of working knowledge as our own—a lesson I’ve learned many times, going back to my undergraduate psychology classes.

Contemporary career development research tells us that openness to experience, adaptability, flexibility, and an ability to react constructively to unplanned events are beneficial factors in career development. This is a message I consistently find myself trying to deliver to young job seekers.

While empirical support is encouraging, and very much necessary, it isn’t always the most relatable way of conveying information. We might expect university students to be more interested in research findings than the average person, and at the same time it might be fair to expect students to cast a more critical eye towards this kind of information as well. In any case, there are more immediately appealing ways of illustrating the importance of being open to change and new experiences. One of those ways is through storytelling (something I’ve written a lot about). Here are three moments in my life when being open to new experiences paid off:

The Changing Majors Story

When I first started my undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta, I thought of myself as a science student. I coasted through high school physics and chemistry, and figured it would be best to study these subjects at the university level. Without much of an idea of where I was headed—maybe I thought I’d be some kind of engineer or meteorologist or something—I immediately signed up for classes I later discovered I had little to no interest in or passion for. I also signed up for some electives: sociology, anthropology and psychology, all of which I had no idea what to expect from. Although I’d never given it consideration, psychology became a “major” interest (see what I did there?) and, with nothing else to go on, I allowed myself to be influenced to the “degree” of switching into a BA program in psychology.

The Volunteering Story

In my second year of university, I decided to devote several hours a week to volunteering. I was curious about the possibility of becoming a teacher, so I got involved with a program that matched volunteers with elementary school classrooms in a sort of “teacher’s aide” capacity. The experience was actually a lot of fun, and I ended up spending about twice the required hours in two different classrooms. But while the experience was rewarding, I discovered I didn’t really want to be a teacher. Fast-forward to my third year, now at UBC in Vancouver, when I decided to try volunteering again at a peer support centre on campus. Many new experiences were had: I got to staff a crisis line, and provide immediate peer support and referrals to students in crisis. I loved it, so I ended up volunteering there for the rest of my time at UBC. As a result, I worked up the self-confidence to apply to grad school in counseling psychology.

The Practicum Story

Grad school turned out to be another great opportunity to experience many new things. Of course, some of this was entirely expected—I knew I’d be conducting research, and I knew I’d be doing a very long clinical practicum. However, in my first year of grad school I had a rather unexpected new experience as well. One requirement of my degree was to complete a project-based, community service oriented practicum. Of course, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had a vague idea that I wanted to work with post-secondary students, so that’s what I told the practicum coordinator. Without any hesitation, she asked if I’d heard of SFU Career Services; she had contacts there, and felt it would be a good match. Without knowing what to expect, I said “sure” and—as it’s where I currently work—you might say the rest is history.

Can you think of times in your life when you allowed new, unplanned experiences to work to your advantage? You might be more open to experience than you think!

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