A few years ago, I visited my friend, Jon, in Austin, Texas. As a New Yorker, traveling outside my dense urban bubble yields moments of disbelief. What a vast sidewalk! The aisles in this store are huge! Despite what you say, this is not a bagel! On this occasion, Jon took me grocery shopping and tasked me with grabbing a bottle of barbecue sauce. I accepted my mission, thinking, “Sure, that will take two seconds.”
Jon found me goggle-eyed 20 minutes later, still belaboring my decision. There must’ve been at least 50 different kinds of sauce in the aisle! But did I want sweet or smoky? Liquidy or creamy? How much vinegar is too much? Lacking barbecue expertise to whittle down my choices, I couldn’t decide my next move.
Too Much Choice, Not Enough Action
Picking a barbecue sauce may not dramatically impact your life, but it does illustrate how choice paralysis prevents you from moving forward. In 2000, Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar tested the hypothesis that, while more choice may seem optimal, in practice people find more choice exhausting.
Iyengar and her colleagues assembled two booths of jam samples in a grocery store. On one day, the booth contained six jams while on a different day, the booth offered twenty-four jams. The team noted how many people stopped to taste the jams, how many jams they tried, and how many people purchased a jam.
While more people stopped at the large display, the people who saw the large display were one-tenth as likely to make a purchase as the people who saw the small display. It seems that viewing all those options without a clear sense of their own jam needs led people to waffle.
The Competing Factors That Keep You Immobilized
An overabundance of options is not always the only thing stopping us in our tracks; we may also experience choice paralysis due to our own competing interests. From a scientific or business perspective, competing interests are loosely defined as “anything that interferes with a person’s ability to be objective and impartial.” A personal relationship, a financial interest, or a professional alliance may sway a person’s decision to favor their own interests.
But in the case of your own career, competing interests manifest themselves as a tug of war between your various wants and needs. It’s tough to accept a “good enough” decision when the stakes feel high, so instead you may try to optimize for all interests–an almost impossible goal–instead of compromise between them.
In every career, inflection points arise where you have to make choices. Should you look for a new job or make changes to your existing situation? Do you want to stay in your field or make a pivot? These questions may seem simple on the surface, but dig a little deeper and you’ll uncover some more complicated subquestions. If I change fields, do I need to take a pay cut? Can I afford to? Is there a skills gap that I need to fill? What free time do I have to spend studying up on a new discipline? Is that how I really want to spend my time?
Personal growth, social interaction, or the practical logistics of life can have competing goals and interests–there might be a tug of war between wanting to grow in your role, having the social life you desire, and earning enough money to pay for that life. We don’t want to sacrifice any of these competing facets of our life and as a result we can become frozen, put in a headlock by our own desire for perfection.
I know that headlock because I’ve been there, too. I began my career in non-profit arts. After three years, I reached a plateau in my role but didn’t know what to do next. Much of my own professional development happened outside of that institution and came in the form of side projects that required me to learn about the tech world. This professional growth took up free time I could otherwise have devoted to personal, social, or physical growth and wellbeing. I know that headlock because I’ve been there, too. I began my career in non-profit arts. After three years, I reached a plateau in my role but didn’t know what
Aspects of my job also impacted other facets of my life. My role was singular within the organization, so there wasn’t a path towards a promotion and better pay. Part of my role required me to stay late some evenings, which made it difficult to keep a consistent training schedule. (I’m a runner in my free time.) Because I ran with a club, running also provided much of my social time during the week. By changing my role, I could level up my career and also improve these other aspects of my life.
Get Clear on How You Feel About Your Current Life
In order to find a way forward, you need to get clear about what’s important and make some compromises. Your career doesn’t exist in a vacuum; you have a life outside of it as well. So when you’re considering a major move, it’s wise to take a holistic look at your life to see what feels in balance and what’s out of sync.
A great first step is to check in on different facets of your life as they are right now. When I meet with a new client, our first goal is to generate a 10,000 foot view of their life at this moment. We begin by discussing their career and then move into other aspects like finances, home environment, and health. By establishing what’s working and what isn’t, we can identify the underlying problems and dial in our work to target them.
This journal’s structure mirrors my work with clients. These exercises will help you reflect on where you’ve been and where you are now so you can decide where to go in the future.
First, you’ll ruminate on your work, hobbies, and beliefs to reconnect with the activities and interests you love.
Next, you’ll analyze your professional skills to discover strengths and areas of growth. You’ll conduct the same exercise I walk clients through to assess different facets of your current life and identify areas for improvement.
Then you’ll articulate your for each facet and examine them to find patterns.
Finally, you’ll explore the impact you’d like to make through your work, brainstorm ways you can create this impact, and tie all your insights together in a vision statement for your future. This final step can only be completed when you’re clear on the problem you want to solve.
For A Fresh Perspective, Ask For Help
Exploring potential “whys” behind these behaviors can provide clues to the characteristics you want in your next role or company. If the assessment exercise felt easy but the “why” interrogation leaves you stumped, that’s not weird! As humans, we’re quick to offer advice to strangers but have great difficulty viewing our own blind spots. Enlisting a friend, coworker, or coach you trust can help uncover new perspectives and possibilities you hadn’t yet considered.
This process can feel a little like editing a paper: if you’ve been staring at it for hours, you might struggle to see a typo right in front of you. Asking a friend to proofread can flag those errors much faster. By completing this exercise, you’re engaging with a state of the design thinking process known as “defining the problem.” Clarifying the specifics of what needs to change will help you concentrate your time and energy on what’s important and yield a solution that’s a more optimal fit.
This post is an excerpt from Meg’s forthcoming book, Find Your Way Forward: A Step-By-Step Guide to Uncovering Career Insights and Charting Your Own Next Move. The book launches April 14th, 2020 on Amazon.