Why We Choose the Wrong Career: Part 3

career daydreams

Most of my adult clients admit in restrospect, I didn’t know anything, but I thought I knew everything. This is the money line; even with very limited, low quality information, your brain’s “System 1″ (primitive emotional brain) will make giant leaps to conclusions that make you feel at ease and confident about your career “choice,” and it’s doing it without you being aware of it. Without detailed information to guide our decisions, we take mental shortcuts—fast, automatic, fairly primal assessments that are based on what seems safe and familiar. But we aren’t aware, at all, that we’re taking mental shortcuts.

When presented with so much uncertainty, our mind is brilliant at winging a quick assessment—it makes up a story—by picking up a just few key bits of readily available data: Social prestige, check. Earns six figures, check. I’m smart like lawyers, check. My uncle is lawyer, he drives a nice car, check. Hot, sexy people on “Law and Order” wearing nice clothes, check. When we face big decisions with lots of uncertainty, we all look for “social proof” to help us make up our minds. We follow the herd that we think is cool.

As Kahneman explains, the reason such decisions are so hard to make is because our brains aren’t equipped to make accurate long-term forecasts, especially in situations where we have very limited life experience. But the pressure is on come senior year, so teens compensate by taking quick cues from “successful” adults, but what they don’t know is that they are making up a good story that sounds and feels good, but it typically has no connection to reality. Even those that do take the time to some research and analysis are getting it wrong, mainly because we are wired to look for information that suppresses doubts and endorses with the positive story we construe. Bad news might pop our bubble, it’s scary to “not know” where we’re going.  

These sort of autopilot intuitions are typically driven by primal, survival instincts. Familiar, prestigious careers seem to add up because they makes us feel safe. And once a “coherent” story begins to crystallize in our minds, it’s hard to let it go. Once our hearts get set on something, our blinders will ignore contradictory evidence; it doesn’t feel good to be unsure, so, we keep on heading down the wrong road.

After college graduation a decade rolls by before we get enough real world feedback on how well our career choice is panning out. This is like buying $100,000 worth of wine you’ve never tasted, and then waiting ten years to open the first bottle.

By the time our brain’s emotional system learns from our mistakes, we’ve already gone pretty far down the wrong road. Young professionals suddenly realize that almost everything they had achieved is not who they really are at the core. It takes a herculean effort to change careers once you’ve got momentum and significant sunk costs in a specialized education. When my clients buckle down to make a solid choice, they discover that an accurate career forecast requires at least a year of thorough hands-on research, starting with a complete rethinking of who they are, what they’re best at and what career success means to them personally.

Deep down, part of us is vaguely may be aware that we may be chasing a fools’ folly, but we optimistically plow ahead. If you’re in this boat, but not convinced that making a career change is wise, think twice. Our minds were also designed to find ways to rationalize our choices and recast our discontents into a pseudo sense of good fortune (see Dan Gilbert’s TED Talk on the Science of Happiness). Most people spend their whole life in an ill-suited career, faking it, and pretending that “this is good as it gets.” 

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