Are My Choices Really My Own?

Like hundreds of other children around the world, I grew up being told I could ‘do anything I put my mind to’. I am seriously fortunate to be part of a generation that is empowered to make their own choices about their path in life and pursue their ambitions.

I distinctly remember wanting to do my best in school, jump through all its hoops to the best of my ability, so that I could come out at the end in a position to choose any job that I wanted. Freedom of choice was my goal.

Which begs the question: why are more than a third of us dissatisfied with the job we end up doing?

As I progressed through my twenties, I started to realise that something was amiss. Was the place I’d found myself in really the pinnacle of all that I was capable of? I’d had the world at my feet; anything and everything the world could offer was within my grasp (apparently). But I didn’t feel like I was treading a path that was really mine. Despite the world of options open to me, I hadn’t found myself making choices that were leading me to happiness and fulfilment.

The paradox of choice.

Today, the idea of the ‘paradox of choice’ is so well known that it’s become something of a truism. Too many choices leads to paralysis and disappointment. With endless alternatives, the grass can be endlessly greener.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of career decision making. The effects, not only of a myriad of choices, but of the mechanisms we use to make those choices. Most importantly – how can we navigate our career choices so as to find work that is more authentic to us?

First things first…

How do we make decisions?

Not a small question! But, having met people every day at Escape who are thinking about career change, there seems to be two themes that crop up time and again.

We try to rationalise.

Given a tough choice, I know what I have a tendency to do. I write (if only mentally) a list of pros and cons in neat bullet points, which I can measure against each other to come to an ‘objective’ view of which is the right option.

Some decisions are hard – so of course we turn to the things that make the decision process feel easier. We don’t want to be misguided by emotion, or dangerously swayed by some irresponsible or unwise notion that might lead us down the wrong track. We rely on objective measures of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘pro’ and ‘con’. The simplest, and most easily definable, of these tend to come at the top of this list. Namely, in the case of our careers: salary, status, opportunities for promotion, etc.

This is an example of how we try to systematise our choices. We identify the manageable variables by which to judge our decisions, and these become our decision making criteria.

The problem here lies in the conflict between this ‘objective’ approach, and how our brains really work. We are emotional beings, blessed with gut instincts, opinions and moral values.

“When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion.” –Dale Carnegie

Sometimes those irresponsible and unwise notions, the ones with the power to sway us, can be where the good stuff is. But when it comes to our careers, we feel all the more pressured act responsibly, to listen to the sensible voice of reason.

We listen to others.

Hand-in-hand with this pull towards ‘objective’ decision making criteria go the voices of society – our family, our peers, and the wider culture we live in. In the face of uncertainty, the opinions of others become our crutch. When we are struggling with a tough decision, it is our instinct to ask for the opinions of other people. But more powerful than this is the implicit influence that the norms of the group – or society at large – can hold over our perceptions of what is ‘good’, ‘sensible’, and ‘advantageous’. Even what we define ‘success’ to look like.

It has been shown repeatedly in some of the seminal psychological experiments of the 20th century that as humans, we naturally tend towards the opinion of the group, and the instruction of authority figures. Uncomfortable as it is to hear, we are not naturally wired towards autonomy and independent thought – it takes conscious effort to reject the norms of the group.

Renowned psychologist Solomon Asch, on completing a series of experiments and reviewing those of his peers, concluded:

“That we have found the tendency to conformity in our society so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct.” (Source: here)

We have no reason to think this is any less true when it comes to our careers. This article by blogger and management consultant John Berry makes the point that, when it comes to their careers, “just when young people might operate as autonomous decision makers, society, it seems, has other plans.”

Conformity is a powerful force, and the influence of others on individual decisions is hard to escape. The weight of expectation can feel very real – whether you’re a recent university graduate, or a mortgage-wielding forty-something.

What’s more – how many times have you experienced the all too familiar voice of friends, parents, and co-workers reference rational, ‘objective’ criteria – salary, seniority, status? These criteria are the most socially acceptable, and they are also the easiest to articulate (to each other and to ourselves). We therefore experience a double whammy of external influences, that reinforce each other in their message to restrict ourselves to the options that are deemed ‘sensible’ and ‘practical’.

No wonder so many of us tow the line, and end up in jobs that don’t fulfil us or give us purpose: we didn’t really choose them.

Breaking free of the norm.

The good news is that there is an alternative way to approach decision making – and that it’s firmly within our grasp. The trick is to disrupt our default – our default being to trample our instincts through rationalising, and to absorb the majority view. It’s all well and good to say ‘think differently and be your own person’. It sounds easy. But our brains and our society aren’t wired that way.

So, here are some tried and tested philosophies for changing how we think about the choices we make – ways that we see people who come through Escape navigate their world of choices and find their meaningful path.

1. You can throw out the balance sheet and write your own reasons.

Sometimes the options we’re considering can’t be weighed up objectively against each other. The pros and cons list doesn’t always work – it doesn’t help us balance, say, ‘whopping salary’ against ‘want to work with animals’ or ‘hate living in the city’.

In this TED talk, Ruth Chang explains that the drivers of our choices should come from inside us, rather than from the world at large – and that we should allow ourselves to think far more holistically about what are choices mean for who we are. She points out that “each of us has the power to create reasons” – and these reasons can be our very own. “We can put our very selves behind an option”, to say “here’s who I am”. “When we create reasons for ourselves, to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are”.

If we don’t do this, according to Chang, we become ‘drifters’. “I drifted into being a lawyer”, she says (now a philosopher). “I didn’t put my agency behind lawyering, I wasn’t for lawyering. Drifters allow the world to write the story of their lives.”

“Drifters allow the world to write the story of their lives.”

So – rather than our pros/cons balance sheet, and those familiar measures we instinctively turn to, there’s a different compass altogether that we can use: namely, the person you want to be, who you want to identify with. Asking which ‘version’ of ourselves embodies the identity that we want to have can guide us towards life decisions that are holistic and sustainable – in which we are “the authors of our own lives”.

2. You can curate your options.

Part of the paradox of choice is that too many options are overwhelming, and we stick with the status quo because we’re paralysed by the millions of choices that are open to us. It’s easy to become blind to the ones that are meaningful to us – they’re hidden amongst all the other viable possibilities that could define our path.

I was once sitting in a cafe in Peru, talking to a man in a funny hat. He said a lot of things, but one really stuck with me. He said: “If you want good things to come to you, and you want to live a life that’s true to yourself, you must do whatever you need to do to surround yourself with people you admire, who do the things you love to do”.

Surrounding yourself with likeminded people – people who love the food you love, the music you’re into, the dance you’re passionate about, goddammit the stamp collecting you’ve always obsessed over – brings to the foreground of your experience the kinds of options, paths and opportunities that are most likely to be aligned with your truest self.

It’s almost too simple to be believed – that hanging out with cool people that ‘get’ you will bring you a clearer sense of what you could be doing, and how you could get there. The world starts to unfold in new and interesting ways when the people around you are aligned to your authentic values and passions.

3. Opportunities are yours to create.

Reading job boards is a favourite pastime of the career-ambivalent. I know, I used to do it – with an underlying desperation that the next job profile I read would be the all-singing, all-dancing ‘answer’. But really, what are the chances that the perfect role will be sitting, waiting for you, written by someone you’ve never met, calling out to you to apply for it?

It’s by no means impossible that the ideal job is out there. After all, part of our job here is to help you find ridiculously exciting opportunities around the globe. But a far more sure-fire way to find it is to create it. There’s an awful lot to be said for contacting people in industries, companies or roles that you’re passionate about, and exploring the possible job opportunities that aren’t even being advertised.

4. You don’t need to choose ‘the one’.

So much of the paralysis that comes from too many options is down to the fear of choosing ‘the wrong one’. “Oh god, there are so many options, one of them is bound to be the right one – I’d better make sure I choose that one”. The result is that we choose none of them – “not choosing any, and staying where I am, is better than being wrong”, we think.

But what if being wrong is OK? There’s a certain freedom that comes from seeing each decision as a stepping stone, rather than a destination. If you decide to set up camp on one of the stepping stones, great. But if you hop over to the next one, you’ll be informed and empowered by your experience of the last – which can only fuel you in continuing the journey you will have started, towards a career that’s true to you.

Doing these things – writing your own reasons, engaging with likeminded communities, creating your own opportunities, and accepting that any decision is better than none – might not be as easy as writing all those lists of ‘pros’ and ‘cons’. They certainly take more than five minutes, and can involve challenging pretty well-established norms both in your own mind and the minds of others. But when the result is a career that’s both meaningful and authentic, I would argue that the man in a funny hat had a point – the extra investment is worth it.

Want to practice narrowing your options and creating opportunities? Maybe The Escape Tribe is for you. Meet likeminded allies, challenge yourself, and find new ways to think about career choices that are true to who you are.

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