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Lesson 3: (Lech lecha): “Leave your father’s house”: Family influence on career decisions


Course: Genesis Part 1.
Lesson #3 of 4

Series: The Bible at Work: Career Coaching in the Torah

Teacher: Dr. Benny Benjamin

4 Views | Published: December 19, 2022

The older I grow, the more I see the influence of my family on my life. I didn’t always see it…” Katherine Dunham.

“Now the Lord said to Abram: ‘Leave your country, and your family, and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1–2).

As the first headhunter, God had spotted Noah earlier and chosen him as the one through whom civilization would reboot after the flood. He has now identified Abram (later, Abraham) as the individual meant for spiritual leadership, tasked with establishing a religion of ethical monotheism. However, the biblical text does not describe the qualities God spotted in Abram to warrant His initial attention. Abram’s actions later in his career will reflect many of his virtues. In this first command to Abram, however, God seems to entice him with a life of blessing and eternal fame. The catch? Abram must leave his country, family, and his father’s house. And where will this relocation take him? Not so clear: “To the land that I will show you.” [1] So, at age 75, “Abram went, as the Lord had spoken to him,[2] no questions asked. Rabbinic legends have conjectured that Abram must have exhibited behaviors that challenged the pervasive idol worship of the times, such as destroying the idols kept in his father’s courtyard.

Our interest here is why Abram needed to be uprooted from his geographical and familial surroundings. Couldn’t Abram live his newly adopted spiritual lifestyle in his family’s homestead? 

In guiding Abram to the Promised Land, God may have surmised that to sustain such a transformational change, Abram needed to disengage from all those close to him who would try to persuade him to return to the familiar Abram and not follow all these newfangled foreign ideas that threatened their belief system. Thus, Abram was to pursue his new spiritual career in a place where he could grow unencumbered by these well-meaning family efforts. 

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“If I were you, with your grades, I would go into medicine (or hi-tech, or engineering, or psychology).” We’ve all heard declarations like these, spouted by well-meaning family and friends, often more reflective of their aspirations than ours. Not surprisingly, many of these statements, whether off-hand or deliberate, have been internalized and comprise part of our career decision-making considerations: If you choose ______, will you be disappointing or even insulting someone dear and close to you? 

When I asked my career counseling clients about their families’ work history and pertinent messages they have internalized, I would prepare to hear: “But what has my family got to do with my career choice (or career decision)?” We don’t have to subscribe to Freudian thought to acknowledge that many of our decisions––including career choices––derive not only from high school or college grades, hobbies, fashion, and books we read but also from how we were raised and the values we internalized. 

Our parents, grandparents, neighbors, and friends’ parents all had some input into our current and future career decisions, some formal but mostly informal, some deliberate and some not. More often than not, their messages were communicated through casual statements and behavior rather than through long serious talks. It’s best not to ignore (subtle or not so subtle) familial influences when deliberating over your career options, even asking yourself, “Who would be especially pleased to hear of my career choice.” The answer may surprise you. 

The family career genogram [3,4] has been applied as a tool to facilitate tapping into these messages and using them to help make better career decisions. Genograms, graphic representations of family trees, have been used in family system counseling but have also proven helpful for teasing out family messages that may have influenced our career paths. The career genogram can be best administered in career counseling or coaching, but exploring one’s extended family independently can be valuable. 

Once a family tree has been outlined, the individual fills in any occupational data associated with the charted relatives. These include education, credentials, nature of their job(s), physical surroundings, income, what the individual said about their job, and what relatives said about others. The next stage involves seeking patterns in the family vocational tradition. Then, focusing on the relatives with whom the individual identifies, other questions can be raised and even researched.

Questions arising upon analyzing a family career genogram can include the following: 

  • What patterns have you noticed? Lifetime jobs or switching sources of livelihood? What specific occupations or job features seem to repeat themselves in your family?
  • What work values were stressed in your family (e.g., income, helping others, stability, self-expression, hard work, persistence, education)?
  • Were there some family jobs that were more admired than others?
  • How interested and involved has your family been in your career decision? Is it more important to them for you to be happy in whatever you choose, or did/do they offer concrete suggestions?
  • What family reactions do you recall when you began sharing your tentative career ideas? When you shared subsequent career ambitions? 
  • How does your ethnicity impact your career deliberations?
  • How important was acquiring education in your family? Who was the first in the family to pursue higher education?
  • What challenges or barriers did some family members encounter in establishing their livelihood?
  • What stories or myths have been repeatedly shared about family members’ careers?
  • How critical was competition, or “keeping up with the Joneses,” in your family?

Most importantly, what patterns stand out for you, and what other insights emerge from this exercise? To which family profiles are you attracted, and from which are you repelled? 

What impact do you see this having on career decisions you need to make?

Points to Ponder:

  • Deriving insights from a family career genogram may not change your next career decision. However, becoming more aware of “what makes you tick” and what subtle messages you carry will give you more tools to make that decision. Are you backing into a decision because of family pressure? Are you embracing an option because you are looking forward to being the next link in a family tradition or the one who breaks a family tradition (perhaps even to spite those you are disinclined to please)? On the other hand, you may be surprised to find that your pull to entrepreneurial work was inspired by Grandma Emily, who beat all odds to establish a thriving business.
  • You may have tried to re-brand yourself, such as by looking to move from clerical work to a managerial position. Your colleagues have come to admire and applaud your clerical skills, invariably turning to you for your proven diligence and multi-tasking skills. They may find it difficult to reframe you in a more prestigious sector. Thus, in some cases, re-branding may require leaving your organization and creating a new career identity in a new one. 
  • Try this: Several initiatives could help you cultivate your new version of yourself. This direction may include enrolling in online or in-person management or HR courses, reading online management blogs to acquire the management lexicon, offering to represent your team (or department) in outside meetings, and begin nurturing your network contacts in management, seeking their advice on how to fulfill your career aspirations.

[1] Gen. 12:1.
[2] Gen. 12:4.
[3] Di Fabio, A. (2010). Life designing in 21st century: Using a new, strengthened career genogram. Journal of Psychology in Africa, 20, 381–384.
[4] Storlie, C. A., Hilton, T. M. L., McKinney, R., & Unger, D. (2019). Family career genograms: Beginning life design with exploratory students. The family journal: Counseling and therapy for couples and families, 27(1), 84–91.

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