Careers are idiosyncratic – and that's a good thing

Embracing individualism, even when it's outside of the norm, can pave the way for a competitive economic edge

I recently had an opportunity to hear Dr. Temple Grandin deliver the keynote address at the National Career Development Association's annual convention held this year in Boston. And am I glad I did. The animal science professor and autism rights activist definitely has something to say, not only to career professionals, but to all of us.

I only recently learned of Grandin from hearing an interview with her on National Public Radio. That piece made me stop and ask out loud, "Who is that?"

She clearly has a message and delivery style that is out of the mainstream. However, beyond her unique and unconventional look and enunciation, is a powerful exposition about individualism and the priority we should all place on honoring people's differences when assisting in career decision-making.

Grandin has become a renowned spokesperson for the humane treatment of animals and also for encouraging tolerance and civil behavior directed toward individuals impacted by autism — a reality she has lived with for 65 years. Her advice for the mainstream of society goes far beyond telling us to be respectful and kind to people who act, speak and think differently from the norm.

Dr. Grandin is putting us on notice that the talent diversity necessary to fuel an innovative workforce and culture requires us to encourage and cultivate the very idiosyncrasy so many of us shun and dismiss.

Dramatic shifts

It's no secret that STEM careers are all the rage. Many of the most lucrative and potentially available jobs for the future lie in industries seeking employees and contractors strong in science, technology, engineering and math. To those of us not immersed daily in these jobs, we tend to think of STEM work as heavily rules-based, formulaic and straightforward.

It's helpful to have been reminded that American ingenuity results when deep scientific knowledge and creative thinking merge. The development of the light bulb, the integrated circuit, the Internet and many other inventions came from just such thinkers. NASA is chock full of geeks and nerds. Think about it. Where we would be as a nation without them?

Although it may be human nature, there is a downside to building a society that places too strong a premium on conformity when it comes to career development. You don't have to be on the autism spectrum to sense the fear, insecurity and lack of self-confidence that can come from the pressure to think and behave like everyone else around you.

In so many ways, we give each other the message that to be different is bad, but to conform is good. Yet our national value proposition as a global workforce is defined by our inclination to be innovative, inventive and groundbreaking. This can't be done unless individualism is encouraged and enriched.

Careers flourish when individuals engage in purposeful work, leading to mastery. Careers are also undergoing dramatic shifts and transformations as the global economy and technology change the employment landscape. Allowing for and encouraging creative ways of combining, expanding and morphing careers helps to assure we Americans continue to have economic viability in a rapidly changing world.

Embracing individualism, even when it's outside of the norm, can pave the way for successful careers and a competitive economic edge.

Temple Grandin's call for acceptance and advocacy is positive and relevant for our time. Let's join in giving power to all of the people.

Bill Ryan, founder of Ryan Career Services LLC, Concord, is a regular blogger on NHBR Network. He can be reached at 603-724-2289 or

Categories: Business Advice