Learning to “Drop Your Tools” in Uncertain Times: A Call for Career Educators

By Michael J. Stebleton

You must unlearn what you have learned” – Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

In times of urgency or transformation, career educators must examine the tools in their toolbox and “unlearn” previous frameworks, theories, and strategies that no longer serve clients. In 1949, in the Mann Gulch fire, 13 firefighters died at the bottom of a ravine in Montana. Due to a shift in winds, the foreman instructed the smokejumpers to unload their heavy packs, including their tools, so that they could run faster. Most of the fire fighters did not drop their tools, and they perished in the fire. Had they unloaded the equipment, they would have likely survived (Weick, 1993, 1996).

Karl Wallenda, daredevil high-wire artist, fell to his death while clinging to his balance pole. Releasing the pole would have allowed him to grab a support wire and survive (Kuh, 1998). So, how do these two stories relate to career development? In this column, I argue that career educators can learn from the Mann Gulch and Wallenda tragedies, and subsequently alter our own practices. Specifically, we can slowly relinquish old strategies and tools—and develop new approaches to serve our students and clients.

Shifting Context of Future Work

The constantly shifting world of work demands that we explore innovative strategies and tools to support our clients as they prepare for the uncertainty of seismic changes in the workplace. Educational consultant Heather McGowan argues that we should be preparing students to lose their jobs, and lose their jobs regularly (Morgan, 2017). In a report by New Work Mindset, students entering the workforce today can expect to have as many as 17 different jobs in at least five different industries. Job change and job loss will serve as the new normal (Harman, 2019). Rapidly increasing technological advances require us to turn our attention to “learning agility” and the ability to learn and re-learn constantly (Levine, 2018).

Career development educators play important roles in supporting clients for these dramatic changes, and this shift requires us to re-examine our own vocational tools, even when experienced practitioners may exhibit reluctance to change. Weick (1996) refers to this as overlearned behavior. As higher education scholar George Kuh (1998) explained: “Dropping one’s tools is an analogue for being adaptable and flexible, for unlearning what we know that is no longer relevant or useful, for giving up what we believe and do when beliefs and preferred activities conflict with what present circumstances require” (p. 17). In other words, just as our clients need to prepare for change, so do career development professionals.

Three Ways to Innovate your Approach

To prepare for adaptation in the world of work, I suggest three significant shifts paired with some recommended resources. This list is not exhaustive; it serves as a starting point to pick up new tools and expand on some old practices.

1. Expanding from local to international: Historically, we have relied on primarily Western, White perspectives in terms of career theory and assessment. International and non-Western perspectives merit further inclusion in scholarly literature and practice. A Comprehensive Guide to Career Assessment (7th ed.), a new resource published by NCDA, offers a revamped title and approach (Stolz & Barclay, 2019). The online resource includes diverse perspectives on assessments from around the world. Purchase this new product in the NCDA Career Resource Store. A second new resource, “Contemporary Theories of Career Development: International Perspectives” by editors Arthur and McMahon (2019), includes several newer contemporary theoretical perspectives, including culture-infused perspectives, psychology of working theory, chaos theory, and a cultural preparedness framework, among others.

2. Moving from specialists to generalists: In the past, key career messages encouraged students to pick a major or career focus, and doggedly stick to it; this message merits challenge. Given the trends of future work, evidence suggests that some employees will become more agile, and more successful, by becoming generalists rather than specialists. David Epstein (2019), in his new book Range, set “out to explore how to capture and cultivate the power of breadth, diverse experiences, and interdisciplinary exploration” (p. 289). I highly recommend this book, particularly because it challenges the message of hyper-specialization at an early age. That said, there will continue to be professions that require specialization (e.g., pharmacists need to know specifically about drug interactions).

3. Incorporating Quantitative and Qualitative Interventions: The narrative approach to career development continues to grow, yet traditional test and tell approaches remain popular. One way to expand beyond traditional approaches is to move from scores to stories (Savickas, 2012; Stebleton, 2010). I recommend OneLife Tools (Franklin & Feller, 2017) because it aims to integrate narrative models with practical applications. Within the curriculum, individuals experience a narrative-based gamified tool called Who You Are Matters!, a peer-to-peer storytelling activity that builds the key career readiness competencies articulated by NACE. Additionally, users can efficiently reflect on jobs, volunteering and educational experiences using a narrative assessment web application called Online Storyteller, which also allows integrating results from traditional assessments. The curriculum allows for group interaction, meaningful self-directed career management technology, and blended delivery. Moreover, the philosophy aligns with the HEROIC mindset approach (Hope, self-Efficacy, Resilience, Optimism, Intentional exploration, and Clarity and Curiosity) which Feller (2019) advocates for navigating a lifetime of career transitions.

In conclusion, the future of work will inevitably consist of ongoing tumultuous change that will influence our clients and us. Although career educators rarely face situations as tragic as forest fires or high-wire acts, the analogy should be clear: older theories, models, and tools may need to be dropped to make room for new and innovative strategies that will meet the shifting needs and concerns of our clients. Gradually letting go of tools that may be holding us back may involve uncomfortable shifts in identity and skills. Yet, the efforts made to embrace these newer approaches ideally will better serve our clients, and us as career educators.




Arthur, N., & McMahon, M. (Eds.). (2019). Contemporary theories of career development: International perspectives. New York, NY: Routledge.

Epstein, D. (2019). Range: Why generalists triumph in a specialized world. New York, NY: Riverhead.

Feller, R. (2019, June). Work trend boot camp: Evaluate how trends will impact you and your clients. Presentation at NCDA Career Conference, Houston, TX.

Franklin, M., & Feller, R. (2017). Using the One Life tools framework: From clarification to intentional exploration with an East Asian female. In L. Busacca & M. Rehfuss (Eds.), Postmodern career counseling: A handbook of culture, context and cases (pp. 273-284). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Harman, J. (2019). The future is learning with Heather McGowan. Retrieved from: https://www.leadinglearning.com/episode-130-future-of-learning-and-work-heather-mcgowan/

Kuh, G. D. (1998). Lessons from the mountains. About Campus, 3(2), 16-21.

Levine, A. (2018). The “just in time” learner and the coming revolution in higher education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 50(3–4), 27–29. doi:10.1080/00091383.2018.1507376

Morgan, J. (2017, Dec. 4). The future of work podcast [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from: https://thefutureorganization.com/preparing-students-lose-jobs-future-learning- evolution-work/

Savickas, M. L. (2012). Life design: A paradigm for career intervention in the 21st century. Journal of Counseling & Development, 90(1), 13-19. oi: 10.1111/j.1556-6676.2012.00002.x

Stebleton, M. J. (2010). Narrative-based career counseling perspectives in times of change: An analysis of strengths and limitations. Journal of Employment Counseling, 47(2), 64-78. doi: 10.1002/j.2161-1920.2010.tb00091.x

Stolz, K., & Barclay, S. (Eds.). (2019). A comprehensive guide to career assessment (7th ed.). Broken Arrow, OK: National Career Development Association.

Weick, K. E. (1993). The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38(4), 628-652. doi: 10.2307/2393339

Weick, K. E. (1996). Drop your tools: An allegory for organizational studies. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41(2), 301-313. doi: 10.2307/2393722



Michael StebletonDr. Michael J. Stebleton is associate professor and coordinator of Higher Education in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.  His research and teaching interests focus on college student development and career development with an emphasis on the undergraduate experience.  Recent projects focus on the impact of career planning courses and college student success.  His work has appeared in numerous venues including:  Journal of College Student Development, Journal of College and Character, Journal of Career Development, and the Career Development Quarterly. Stebleton is a recipient of the 2017 NCDA Merit Award. The author would like to thank colleague Lisa Kaler for her thoughtful feedback on this article.  He can be reached at steb0004@umn.edu

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Sheri Mahaney   on Thursday 10/10/2019 at 10:32 AM

Wonderful article challenging us all to be willing to embrace and move with change...for ourselves and our clients!

Joan Gomez   on Wednesday 10/23/2019 at 05:22 PM

This article an eye opener for both prospective employers and employees considering the trends that keeps changing. After losing my job to the next I am even willing to go back to school if that’s what it takes to return for the workforce.

Nancy J. Miller   on Tuesday 08/10/2021 at 08:14 PM

I read your article as part of one of Brian Hutchison’s Advanced Career Facilitation for the 21st Century (ACF21) certification courses. I agree that it is time for a change. The western white male model of career theories left out much of the population. A student or client can feel even more disenfranchised rather than supported with the current model. Now that it is 2021, we all know things are changing. It's impossible to ignore. Fortunately, we are seeing more creative and storytelling theories and models, but there is much work yet to be done.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.