The Mysterious Career Choice Problem

How i chose my careerChoosing a career that your future self will enjoy is complex, it’s like 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. Not many of us 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. A full decade after college can go by before we fully realize the consequences of the guess work that we set in motion way back in high school.

Highly educated thirty-somethings are feeling the after effects acutely, many have major regrets and seriously doubt the accuracy of their career choices. This is especially poignant, they did all the right things and forged their way through hard work, nose to the gritty grindstone to reach the goals their teenage self aspired to.

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 unfulfilled. These are not job satisfaction surveys of old that focused on pay and benefits, rather, engagement polls delve into whether you’re reaching your potential and doing something you consider important or meaningful. Seventy percent are essentially in career limbo, unsure of their direction, and trying to fix their problem by job hopping into the next frying pan. If we were to hold this as a standard or benchmark for how well prepared we are for making important life choices after college, the career “divorce rate” for graduates would effectively be 70%.

If you are experiencing this situation, it’s not your fault. The education-to-workplace system or “career choice architecture” is nudging bad career choices and top colleges are owning up, admitting their complicit role in the admissions frenzy, which is a big distraction that is pulling your attention away from what counts in the long run—figuring out what you’re naturally good at. It’s going to take a handful of courageous student leaders and college administrators who are willing to question norms and face up to the unwitting youthful attraction to tribal status and prestige badges that college degrees represent. The wake up call has to come from the ground up.

i fell into the wrong career, shoot!To be fair, there hasn’t been much demand from high school and college students to make well-thought out career decisions. But we can’t wait for the kids to make the first move, they don’t know what they don’t know. Many college professors and counselors know that young people are flying blind into the future, winging it the best they can; this is a complex systems problem with lots of stakeholders who aren’t talking to each other. We have an unnamed “career choice problem” that is stumping nearly everyone, but because it takes a decade or more for us to feel the consequences of our choices, we’re unable to connect the dots to name the root cause of the problem. Interestingly, mid-career professionals recall having subtle clues whispering in our ear that they we’re about to marry a blind date, but they didn’t have the wherewithal to interpret the signals that something was amiss.  

Career decisions are in the same camp of life choices as getting married, buying a house and retirement planning, mistakes are not easily reversed. We don’t really have the mental circuity to think far ahead with accuracy, says Daniel Kahneman, Nobel winner for his invention of the behavioral economics field. He classifies 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 there we’re asking teenagers to tackle it on their own. As Kahneman puts it, when it comes to making decisions about the future 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. The traditional advice from parents and teachers; “Go to the best college, work hard and everything will work out later,” is essentially hoodwinking students into kicking the can down the road. The mainstream, tribal rules of thumb for a happy life are defaults or “automatic” mental shortcuts that where handed down from prior generations who lived in a simpler world; that world is long gone. 

Everyone experiences this problem in a different way, for example, if you are independent-minded with a bent toward becoming highly expert or specialized, you will feel this dilemma more acutely. I’ve worked with many lawyers and doctors who are proud of  their accomplishments, but like having a beautiful peacock tail, it’s all show; their “story” of happiness doesn’t get them out of bed excited to go to work every morning. Thousands of super-educated professionals from around the world (many who have doubled down in the wrong field by pursuing graduate degrees) have told me, “I’m smart, I thought I could do anything I wanted. Why am I so unhappy with my career?” It’s difficult to adapt and make a course correction without knowing how you got yourself stuck in the first place. Contrary to the notion that people will make many career changes throughout life, most make small moves within their initial choice. It takes a Herculean effort to redirect a mistaken career path, with extensive training as a lawyer it’s not so easy to turn yourself into an architect or surgeon.

This problem sneaks up on people at different stages of life, I’ve had CEOs tell me that it’s such an odd feeling to land in the future that they thought they wanted only to find that it’s not at all who they 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 actually experienced your choice in reality. A vice president of a fortune 100 company said it this way, “I bought the wrong farm.”

There is 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 and Career Design Expert | Coauthor, Now What? A career design guide for young people of all ages

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