The transition from college to adulthood might be the hardest one we make in our whole lives. After we spend twenty years learning how to get good grades, we go into a workforce where those skills are largely irrelevant.
In fact, the skill that is most important in adulthood is self-knowledge—knowing what you like, what you need, and how you make decisions based on that information. Self-knowledge is hard, though. Even for someone who’s been in the work world for decades.
To make matters worse, Dan Ariely, behavioral economist at MIT and the author of the book Predictably Irrational, finds that we are pretty bad at making decisions based on what we want, and we are easily influenced by extraneous issues. So here are some mental potholes to look out for when you’re steering your own path.
1. Taking action is more important than taking correct action.
I’ve written before about how the soul search is not a good thing for a job hunt. This is because when we are job hunting and we perceive that everything is available, it’s nearly impossible to make a decision. So we don’t. We tell ourselves we’re figuring things out, but really, when presented with tons of choices, our preference is to do nothing:
Ariely describes a study someone did about buying jam in a chic-chic grocery store. Researchers gave free samples of twenty-four jams one day, but only six samples the next day. More people took samples with twenty-four jams to choose from than when given samples of only six. But when researchers gave people a coupons for buying jam in the store, 3% of the people bought jam on a day there were twenty-four jam samples, but 30% of people bought jams on a day there were six samples. “It’s just sugar and fruit,” says Ariely, “but twenty-four jams is just too much to choose from.”
In a job search, if you tell yourself you have a gazillion choices, you do yourself a disservice. Instead, force yourself to just take a job, any job. Because after a week or so on the job, you learn to naturally limit what you would consider next—you see things you don’t like about your current job and you say I’ll never do this again. So the best way to zero-in on what you want to do is to force yourself to do something—to do anything.
And if you are reticent to take this advice, pretend you’re at the jam counter, and you should arbitrarily knock 18 jars on the floor.
2. The worst time to go to graduate school is when you don’t know what you want to do.
One of the biggest problems with grad school is that people graduate into the work world, which is an open, undefined road. It’s scary to see that you will probably go through your twenties having no idea what you’re doing and trying a lot of stuff.
The worst time to go to graduate school is when you are facing this problem of feeling lost, because the confused feeling of going through emerging adulthood makes you very likely to instead take what used to be a default course for life after college: Law school, business school, getting a PhD.
Ariely found that if you are confused but you have a default choice, you’ll take it. He makes this point by showing the rate of organ donation among people in various countries. At first blush, the chart makes no sense. Less than 10% in Germany and nearly 100% in Austria, for example. Or about 20% in Denmark and nearly 100% in Sweden. These are culturally similar countries with drastically different donation rates.
It turns out that it depends on the form that people got about organ donation. In countries where you have to opt out of donation, there is nearly 100% donation rate. In countries where you have to opt in, there is typically less than 10% donation rate.
The tendency to choose the default option is not because people don’t care about organ donation. In fact, they care so much—because it deals with their own death and also with ethics—that they don’t want to think about it. Ariely says that if there is a difficult decision and a default option, people go with the default.
So back to grad school. When your parents were graduating, grad school might have been a safe choice, but today, it’s actually a really risky path. This makes it even more dangerous that people have a proclivity to choose grad school because we naturally look for a default in the face of confusion. To make a good decision about graduate school, do it when you are feeling safe, focused, and certain about what is right for you in life.
3. Take pride in making bad career moves.
The truth is that even when we think we have a good understanding of our preferences, we totally overestimate our ability to control our lives in relation to our preferences.
So now it makes sense that most of us have made terrible career decisions. It also makes sense that people who have not made some terrible decisions are not living, not trying to find what’s best. The only way to have a perfect, straight and narrow path is to not open yourself up to your own irrational decision-making process. And if you are not making decisions for yourself, then what are you doing in this life?
So today, let’s celebrate all the times we went down the wrong path. That’s our nature. That’s how we know we’re really guiding our own careers.