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The Gift by Cathy Cashio
Summer 2006      


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Out of the Chaos


Outsourcing, downsizing, mega-mergers, changing technology, globalization, economic downturns, cultural upheaval, demographic shifts, geopolitical crises, information explosion, natural disasters, terrorism ... and that's only the short list.

More than 30 years ago, Bob Dylan wrote this line in his song “Forever Young”:

“May you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift.”

Today, those winds feel more like a hurricane. They can wallop productive lives and, in the workplace, wreak havoc on even a seemingly stable career.

In the 21st century, it’s little wonder that a single, lifetime career has, for many, become a thing of the past. The new reality, predicted by futurists like Alvin Toffler decades ago, is three to five careers in a lifetime.

The winds of change blow unexpectedly, though, and the need for a career change can arrive without a strong foundation in place.


Helen Harkness has more than 375 oak trees growing on her property in Garland, including the mature oaks she planted 35 years ago. "Seeing growth in people and plants gives me meaning and purpose," she says.


Career-change guru Helen Harkness (’78 Ph.D.) says she is often amazed by “how little many people realize about change and uncertainty in our world.”

Over nearly 30 years, more than 10,000 clients have sought her expertise in times of crisis and ended up better for it.

Career chaos

Harkness calls the current job climate “career chaos,” and she’s made a career of helping people deal with it successfully.

Appropriately, she titled her most recent book Capitalizing on Career Chaos. Now considered one of the nation’s foremost authorities on career change, this widely quoted, energetic UNT alum has proved her theories by helping individuals rethink their own careers and prosper with renewed levels of creativity and personal satisfaction.

A petite woman with a quick wit and nimble mind, Harkness is an authority on career change in part because she’s no stranger to the experience. She believes that crisis, while sometimes devastating, can lead to dramatic personal and professional growth.

It did for her.

The dark night

  Harkness's Four-Step Model for Career Change

1. Self-assessment — Who am I? What can I do?

2. Career exploration — Where can I do it? What’s out there?

3. Future direction — How do I see myself?
What do I really want?

4. Strategic action plan — How do I get there? What are my options?

Her own story of profound change is one of painful upheaval that included a literal trial by fire.

One late-December night in 1969, with a divorce pending, three children to raise and no viable career direction of her own, she watched her just-built dream home burn to the ground.

She says it was her personal dark night of the soul.

“That fire seemed to be the catalyst in my chaotic life,” she writes in her latest book. After the fire, her friends and neighbors came to her aid. Inspired, she resolved to “get my life back together and position myself to eventually pass the same help on to others.”

Since the ’70s, she has done just that. She abandoned a career as an English teacher and embarked on a Ph.D. in higher education, conducting extensive research with a sharp, contemporary focus.

By looking at the realities of the working world and casting an intuitive eye to the future, she developed theories and processes for successful career change. Her firm, Career Design Associates Inc., based in Garland, has pioneered career management programs since 1978.

Purpose and passion

Harkness says that career change often occurs when the pain of present circumstances exceeds the fear of change. She even invented a short-hand equation for the phenomenon: CC = P > F. And she has found that painful career circumstances can be the catalyst for positive self-examination that leads to more fulfilling work regardless of age.

“You can still find a purpose that you can pursue until you die,” she insists.

Harkness’ clients say she is more than a career coach. Many call her a friend, and she even has been referred to as the “fairy godmother of career reincarnations.”

Her driving purpose is helping people find their true passions and cultivate them.

Early on, her clients must consider a key concept that Harkness refers to as “glass balls” — the precious parts of life that cannot be dropped without irreparable damage. These might include a need for creativity, for independence or for meaning in work.

“You absolutely have to identify these,” she advises. “They are as individual as your fingerprint.

“A lot of people copy other people’s glass balls, but you have to identify your own.”

Forever young

Youthful in outlook as well as in person, Harkness says retirement is not on her horizon, although she counsels people who reach retirement and find it unfulfilling. In her book Don’t Stop the Career Clock, she advocates rejecting the myths of aging.

Beyond traditional retirement age herself, she views chronological age as irrelevant. Like the title of Dylan’s song, she strives to stay forever young.

These days she keeps up a whirlwind of activity, speaking to groups, teaching classes, conducting workshops, counseling, and producing videos and books. A busy schedule is just part of her life, she says, but she still makes time for private pleasures.

Her hundreds of oak trees, which grace the grounds of her rebuilt home and business, stand as symbols of her career. She has lovingly cared for them since the 1970s.

“I like to grow things,” she admits with a wistful glance toward the spreading oaks.

And so she has. Remarkably.


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