November 29, 2010

How to Make Career Decisions

Job seekers and career changers often experience a type of paralysis when it comes to decision-making.

Sometimes, even when the choices seem very clear, people torture themselves with what-if scenarios: What if I follow this course and it doesn’t work out? What if a better option comes up after I’ve chosen? What if the market changes and I have to get retrained all over again?

I’ve had a lot of time to think about what happens to normally competent decision-makers when they get ensnared in career processes. It’s not that they can’t make choices, but rather, that many of their usual processes are not helpful. Car buyers have Consumer Reports, with its side-by-side comparisons of key features; career "buyers" get an onslaught of advice and books with contradictory messages.

It doesn’t help that career choices seem so darned important. Really, you’d think people were trying to decide between the red wire and the blue one on a bomb strapped to a loved one’s back. Somehow we get it in our heads that not only is there only one correct answer, but that everything depends on choosing correctly. If we blow a career decision, it’s game over. Boom.

If you are in the midst of a thorny career decision, the following analogy may or may not help. But I’ll share it anyway, as it has served me many times in my own life. I call it my Black-Shoes-at-the-Mall-analogy. Suppose you need black shoes and you know the price, size and approximate style you want. You go to the mall and immediately find shoes that meet your criteria. Do you buy them and go home (I do), buy them and plan to return them if you find something better, or continue shopping while noting the style and price for later comparison?

It may seem simplistic to compare shoe buying with vocational issues, but here’s what I think: Some people enjoy looking for the shoes more than they do buying them. If you enjoy the process of hunting for work or researching careers, then factor that into your plans by allowing yourself a certain amount of time to explore before making a choice. But if you do not enjoy this process, then establish your criteria and allow yourself to take the first thing that meets it. Why prolong the situation, when the shoes you found first are a good fit?

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