Many of the coaching sessions I do center around a single question: is it time to switch careers? What I’ve found is that in most cases, the answer is no, it is not time to switch careers.
Here’s why: We are absolutely terrible at predicting what we will like to do in our careers, and we overestimate how much we’ll like a new career.
We learn best from trial and error. However we are naturally risk averse and we hate to fail, so we’re constantly trying to make intelligent decisions in an attempt to avoid the errors in trial and error.
You have to be okay with failing or you get completely stuck. But the more we can understand what sways our thinking, the better we can compensate for that when making decisions about what to try and when to be okay with failure.
Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert coined the term affective forecasting to encompass the research that shows people are surprisingly poor judges of their future emotional states. For example, I’m smitten with Livia Marin’s melty porcelain cups. In predicting how much that cup in the picture is worth to me, I focus on the excitement of buying the cup and do not consider that there is little excitement in day-to-day living with the cup. (This is why wanting expensive things makes us happier than buying them.)
Here are the three big mind games (scientists say “cognitive bias”) that get in the way of clear decision-making about careers (and all other decisions as well: who to marry, whether or not to have kids, and so forth):
Anchoring describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions. Once an anchor is set, we make other judgments by adjusting relative to that anchor. For example, the initial price offered for a used car sets the standard for the rest of the negotiation, so that prices lower than the initial price seem more reasonable, even if they are still higher than what the car is really worth.
2. Empathy gap
The crux of this idea is that human understanding is “state dependent”. For example, when you are angry, it is difficult to remember what it is like to feel happy, and vice versa; when one is blindly in love with someone, it is difficult to understand what it is like for one not to be, (or to imagine the possibility of not being blindly in love in the future).
This is a frequent problem with startup founders. You should always negotiate a way to buy each other out if you start hating your c0-founder. But at the beginning of a startup you are so enamored that you cannot imagine what you will want to do yourself or your partners when your electricity is cut off.
People give more weight to the data they have about a given outcome and they either ignore or inaccurately create data to fill in for what’s missing in order to make predictions about how they’ll feel. For example if all you know about being a startup founder is you don’t have a boss and you sell a company for millions of dollars, then you probably feel like you’ll be happy as a founder.
I really like the details in this job description from a reddit thread. While it seems like getting paid to maintain a Twitter feed would be a fun job, there are so many terrible parts to that job that you can’t really see until you’re in the thick of it. And in this short job vignette the writer describes all the minefields of trying to guess at what job you’d like to do.
It’s fun for a while. It feels creative, it feels important. Your friends think it’s cool. They follow your brand. And then a month passes and you’ve written 1000 tweets about hamburgers, even though the public will only see 100.
And then the next content calendar is due. You don’t know what more you can say about hamburgers. You barely know what hamburgers are anymore. Yes, there is beef. Yes, there is a bun. But what does it have to do with St. Patrick’s Day? Do leprechauns eat hamburgers? Is that offensive?
You present the entire month’s worth of tweets to your client over the phone. You’re supposed to read all of them as if hamburgers are exciting, but you can’t because that’s ridiculous. The client kills half your calendar. You have to write more, today, because they need to approve them and then run them by legal and then your art director needs time to create images.
But you don’t have time today. Because you don’t just write tweets for one brand. That would be inefficient. No, you write for four brands. And today you were planning to write tweets about insurance. You’re presenting those tomorrow.
So then it’s 11:30pm and you’re writing about hamburgers. Your girlfriend climbs onto your lap but you push her off. “No,” you say. “The hamburgers.”
You present the content again, even less enthused than before, and draw dicks all over the paper as you read them out loud over the phone. Client buys all the terrible ones. You realize there is nothing creative or important about both the work and yourself as a human being. Your friends stop following your brand and answering your calls. Your girlfriend no longer mentions what you do when she introduces you to people. You get in trouble because yes, talking about leprechauns on St. Patrick’s Day is kind of offensive.
It’s 11:30pm and you’re drafting apologies from hamburgers. You should’ve gone with the “patty” pun.
And to top it all off, you’re out of whiskey.
But the pay is decent, yeah.