In this recurring Careering feature, career professionals share their real-life solutions to common problems in the field

John Thompson

Distance is a well-known source of friction in the economic transactions between rural and urban areas, and the extent of this distance goes some way to defining what we mean by rural (Reimer & Bollman, 2010). This obviously applies to transactions involving the transport of goods but can also apply to employment transactions. When people live far from their jobs, they have to deal with the friction of commuting every day. But distance is not the only challenge when it comes to employment, especially in a small town. The issue of fit can also be a source of friction.

Consider the case of Allan Avis Architects. Located in Goderich, ON (pop. 7,000), the firm has been in business since 1993. Four years ago, Allan Avis and his partner, Jason Morgan, decided that the firm needed to hire another licensed architect. In a more urban context, this could have been a fairly easy transaction to complete. The practice was thriving, had a great reputation and had done some very innovative design work. However, achieving their goal has taken them all of those four years. The explanation lies in the challenges of both fit and friction.

‘Fit’ is about more than the workplace

“Fit” is a metaphor with a long history in career development (Inkson, Dries, & Arnold, 2015). This metaphor describes the aim of matching characteristics of the person with corresponding characteristics of the working environment. This definition works well for our purposes here, as long as we are prepared to define the “working environment” more broadly that just the workplace. For Allan Avis Architects, a candidate needed to be able to make a smooth entry into both the workplace environment and the social environment of a small town. In their experience, it is the second of these requirements that was the greatest source of friction.

Living in a small town like Goderich can be difficult for people who are accustomed to the social anonymity of larger cities. Within weeks of arriving, a newcomer will find that people know who they are. They will also be confronted by the need to keep in mind the overlapping circles of social connection. Any person they meet in any context may be socially, commercially or familially related to any other person they meet. This creates a requirement to take no one for granted and to always be conscious of making a good impression.

Past Careering Case Studies

This sort of social pressure is not for everyone, particularly newcomers who are accustomed to more distance and anonymity in their dealings with others. If they don’t like this experience, they will find it hard to fit in with the culture of the town and their workplace.

People who grow up in small towns are more accustomed to operating in this social environment. Not everyone likes it though, and many move away. However, there are people who grow up in small towns, leave for education and training, and then find themselves wanting to return to small-town life to establish their careers. These folks have been called returners (Carr & Kefalas, 2009).

This sort of social pressure is not for everyone, particularly newcomers who are accustomed to more distance and anonymity in their dealings with others. If they don’t like this experience, they will find it hard to fit in with the culture of the town and their workplace.

Job posting with a twist

All these factors created a significant hiring challenge for Avis and Morgan. First, they needed to find a trained architect with good design skills and a creative, self-motivated approach to problem-solving. Second, they needed that person to be comfortable with the social norms of a small town and thus able to integrate with minimal discomfort (or social friction). The person they hoped to hire, Avis said, was someone “at peace with themselves,” who was ready to settle into the practice of architecture in this small-town environment. What they didn’t want was someone who saw their career as an effort to get across a “never-ending series of goal lines.”

The method Avis and Morgan settled on to find such a person was to advertise the position and invite applications – but with a twist. Rather than invite qualified applicants to submit evidence of architectural competence such as a portfolio of work, they first asked them to write a letter stating why they were attracted to living in a small town. This was an interesting approach. By directing their appeal to returners, they limited their pool of potential applicants. This limitation certainly made things more challenging for them. After hiring one person who left after six months because they were not able to obtain their professional qualifications, Avis and Morgan paused their search. But after a year, their need for talent started pressing again, and they began a new search using the same approach. It took some time, but once again they were able to attract and hire a fully certified architect for the firm who has fit in very well with their environment.


Much has been written over the past 40 years about the importance of culture in building successful enterprises. Peters & Waterman (1982) and Collins & Porras (1994) both stressed the importance of culture in the successful companies they studied. A strong culture has the effect of limiting one’s options. This sounds like the wrong path to success, but experience suggests otherwise. Something similar may be at work in the case of Allan Avis Architects. By choosing to base their practice in Goderich, with its distance from “city markets” (Jacobs, 1961) and its small-town social environment, they limited their options when it came to attracting and hiring creative talent. But another word for limiting one’s options is focus, and one thing we are learning these days is that ability to focus on one’s work and eliminate distractions (Newport, 2016) is a key determinant of success in any creative enterprise.

John Thompson is a career counsellor living in Goderich, ON. He holds a PhD in Human Development and Applied Psychology. Immediately prior to starting his encore career in career development, he was a freelance rural economic development researcher. He can be reached at Lifespan Employment Coaching and Counselling (


Carr, P. and Kefalas, M. (2009). Hollowing out the middle: The rural brain drain and what it means for America. New York: Beacon Press.

Collins, J. & Porras, J. (1994). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.

Inkson, K, Dries, N., and Arnold, J. (2015). Understanding careers. Second Edition. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

Jacobs, J. (1985). Cities and the wealth of nations: Principles of economic life. New York, NY: Vintage.

Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. New York: Grand Central Publishing.

Peters, T. & Waterman, R. (1982). In search of excellence: Lessons from America’s best run companies. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Reimer, B. and Bollman, R.D. (2010). Understanding rural Canada: Implications for rural development policy and rural planning policy. In D. Douglas (Ed.) Rural planning and development in Canada, Toronto, ON: Nelson Education Ltd., pp. 10-52.