When it comes to finding a career, the huge soul search is hugely overrated. At some point — usually much earlier than people think — you should just start doing something. Anything.
While the soul search is routinely touted in the self-help section of bookstores, it is not the most practical approach. The first problem with the soul search is that it takes forever. Literally. Knowing oneself is not an end game; it is infinite. So there’s no point in waiting until you “know yourself” to pick a career. The other problem with the soul search is that it assumes a soul mate. But with career choice, “there is no one right answer,” says Jennifer Floren, CEO of Experience.com. “The concept that there is one right job for someone is ridiculous.”
Take the pressure off career decisions by reminding yourself that there are many types of work each person could do and be happy. “People have multiple selves,” writes Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD in France. Different jobs will address different parts of ourselves at different periods in our lives. “In any of us there’s a part that’s very pragmatic and there’s a part that’s very creative, and there are times in life when we give more time and space and energy to one side than the other. But if it’s in you, eventually it kind of bubbles up, and it wants some airtime.” No one job can satisfy our whole personality, so stop aiming for that.
People coming out of college today will change jobs every eighteen months. That’s a lot of jobs, so choosing one is not that big a deal. If you don’t like it, it’ll be over soon. “It’s a waste of energy to focus on the negative consequences of a job search because there’s no such thing as a wrong choice,” says Floren. “Every step of a job search is a good step because you’re going to grow and you’re going to learn more about yourself and the world around you.”
Another argument for action over analysis is that sticking with the first job you pick is not as beneficial as moving around a bit. So making a choice you don’t like could be good for you. “The trend today is to get a broad perspective from working in different industries. This is a way to build a more layered network that will work for your future,” says Catherine Kaputa, a branding consultant.
When it comes to career schemes, we simply do not have accurate imaginations about what life will be like for us in different situations, said Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University, when I interviewed him. Our most accurate information about what will make us happy comes from snooping in on other peoples’ lives to see if they are happy. And the best way to watch other people is to be in a variety of offices. Gilbert calls the informal process of judging other peoples’ happiness “surrogation,” and he says, “surrogation is the best way to predict if we’ll be happy. Observe how happy people are in different situations.”
So what DO you need to know before you make a decision? Figure out what was bad about the jobs you’ve already had so that you don't duplicate the problem. Then just start testing the waters — put a toe in the current to see how it feels. Then take a leap, and if you don’t like where you land, reframe your landing pad as just a stepping-stone. And start putting your foot in the water again.
Gilbert says, “We should have more trust in our own resilience and less confidence in our predictions about how we’ll feel. We should be a bit more humble and a bit more brave.”