The Mysterious Career Choice Problem

How i chose my careerChoosing a career that your future self will enjoy is very complex, it’s literally a riddle wrapped inside an enigma.

So the story goes, our younger self is expected to pick a career by taking a big leap into the distant unknown. As career choices go, we’re all like virgin skiers diving off the top of Mt. Everest, learning to ski on the way down. It’s nearly impossible to land on our feet.

Most of us deal with this complex decision by taking shortcuts, such as making a safe bet on a familiar field, deferring until later, or following vague hunches about what seems interesting to us. And then we cross our fingers and hope that our happiness forecast pans out. It usually takes 10 years to fully realize the consequences of our guess work.

Thirty-somethings are feeling the after effects more than decade later, most have major regrets and seriously doubt the accuracy of their career choices. This is especially poignant for college grads who forged their way through hard work, nose to the gritty grindstone to reach the goals their teenage self wanted.

One measure capturing the results on how well people’s careers are panning out are Gallup’s worldwide surveys on employee engagement, where millions are reporting that they are “disengaged” and pretty damn unhappy. These are not job satisfaction surveys of old that focused on pay and benefits, rather, engagement delves into whether you’re reaching your innate potential and doing something you consider meaningful. Seventy percent are essentially in career hell, and trying to fix their problem by job hopping into the next frying pan. In this light, the career “divorce rate” is effectively 70%.

If you are experiencing this situation, it’s not your fault. The education-to-workplace choice architecture is nudging bad career choices and top colleges are owning up, admitting that the admissions frenzy is a big distraction that is pulling your attention away from what counts—figuring out what you’re naturally good at. They bank on your unwitting youthful obsession with sex appeal, tribal status and prestige badges, and this all seems to feel right because everyone is doing it.  

i fell into the wrong career, shoot!On top of that, there isn’t any help at the high school and college level with making genuine, well-thought out career decisions. Young people are flying blind into the future, winging it the best they can. This is a yet unnamed “career choice problem” that is stumping nearly everyone, but because it takes so long for us to feel the pain of our choices, we’re not paying attention to those doubting, quiet little clues whispering in our ear that we’re about to marry a blind date. 

Career decisions are a lot like retirement planning, we don’t really have the mental circuity to think that far ahead. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel winner for his invention of the behavioral economics field would classify career choices as a highly complex decision; a long-term forecast under massive uncertainty. Making a career choice is so overwhelming that it verges on ridiculous and laughable there we’re asking teenagers to tackle it with absolutely no help. As he put it, we’re like monkeys throwing darts.    

In my 25 years at researching the roots of this problem, I find that most people face this conundrum by not making a choice, rather, they default by turning to local, familiar stories and status cues that signal “successful” careers. We’ve all heard this bit of advice from parents and teachers; “Go to the best college, work hard and everything will work out later.” These rules of thumb are common mental shortcuts only worked halfway for prior generations, but they didn’t expect as much from their career. That world is long gone. 

The default success formulas are no longer panning out over the long run and are getting a people into big trouble down the road. And, if you are independent-minded with a bent toward becoming highly expert or specialized, you will feel this dilemma more acutely. You may have a beautiful peacock tail, and you may be proud of it, but it won’t make you happy for long. Thousands of super-educated professionals from around the world (many who have doubled down in the wrong field by pursuing graduate degrees) have told us, “I’m smart, I thought I could do anything I wanted. Why am I so unhappy with my career?” It takes a Herculean effort to redirect a mistaken career path after extensive training.

It’s certainly an odd feeling to land in the future that you thought you wanted only to find that it’s not at all who you are. In a nut shell, that is the heart of the career choice problem—making a wrong choice doesn’t dawn on you until after you’ve bought the wrong farm. However, there is very good news at the end of this rainbow. You can learn to outsmart this problem once you know it’s actually “a problem.” With a new perspective and the right tools, you can even enjoy the process of designing and choosing your career and life.


By Anthony A. Spadafore, Natural Talents Expert and Career Design Specialist | Coauthor, Now What? A career design guide for young people of all ages

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