I see a lot of people get hung up trying to get career decision making “just right”. This is usually an obstacle to success, particularly early in your career. As the saying goes, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Here are a few thoughts on why and how to get unstuck.
Reality #1 – Not choosing is choosing: Make no mistake, deferring choices is often passive decision making. A friend of mine refers to as “the fallacy of infinite possibilities”. In it, we wait and wait for just the right thing but in the end are left without much because while we waited…life happened. Opportunities pass by. Windows close. I see many people let “good” opportunities pass by waiting for “perfect” ones. Maybe I’m not enough of a dreamer, but in my experience you often don’t even know enough early in your career to know what perfect looks like. Which leads to…
Reality #2 – Action trumps inaction: You learn and develop by doing. Committing to a reasonable path and doing a good job gets you farther faster than waiting for something “perfect” (that may not be in reality). You develop skills and experience faster while also figuring out what you like and don’t like. For me, my history PhD program was hugely valuable as I learned I didn’t really want to be a history professor. “Conceptual Phil” loved the idea, “actual Phil” didn’t really like spending a lot of time alone in the library. The experience allowed me to move on to my MBA with a clear sense of purpose. The best learning and biggest accelerator of my consulting career was an unsexy and messy project no one else wanted. My work got me visibility and exciting opportunites later. Sometimes action leads to dead ends, but it does so faster than inaction and as it turns out…
Reality #3 – Most decisions are temporary anyway: What seems like a huge decision now will often seem less earth shattering in retrospect. And doing something for a year may feel like forever at the time but will seem fleeting over the span of your career.
Besides the fact that time marches on, who says you can’t change your mind? A student of mine “needed to find out” about consulting. The income and challenge were compelling. After a year, he decided he didn’t like it as much as he’d hope and that the lifestyle wasn’t appealing. So he got another job and he loves it.
Reality #4 – You need to build your experience: As noted above, the less experience you have in an area the more opportunistic you’ll need to be in jumping on anything that seems reasonable in building towards roles you might want more.
Reality #5 – You often can’t “have it all” at the same time…: at least not early in your career. Over time you can earn the right to more autonomy and flexibility. But you usually have to “put in your time” in early roles to build experience, credibility and value. So know your priorities and maximize long term career value. I often joke about a number of my jobs that they are “better to have done than to be doing.” I enjoyed them and learned a great deal but am no longer excited about the lifestyle and specific demands (like 5 day a week travel). But I wouldn’t have had later roles without the earlier experience.
Reality #6 – People can tell when you’re not committed: As they say, you can’t be “half-pregnant.” Once you’ve made a choice, own it for awhile. You can change, but don’t go in ambivalent. Everyone can tell.
Reality #7 – Committing can open up unanticipated opportunities: As a friend likes to point out about his (very successful) career; “stuff leads to stuff.” You can’t always see around corners. Making a commitment and doing well will open doors to new or stretch roles you might not have even know existed.
Contrarian Reality #1: That’s great Phil, but aren’t some decisions really big? My points above are not saying “don’t gather data” or “don’t think deeply about what you want.” Anyone who’s read my thoughts over the years knows I strongly encourage analysis and introspection as well as action. My point here is really about when you’ve done these things, then commit.
Some decisions will clearly take more time to think through as the implications are bigger and risks larger if things don’t go right. For example, the difference between two good opportunities in the same city is not that large. If you need to undo it, you won’t need to move, you can probably make the change (relatively) easily etc. Moving to another country to take a position is a much bigger decision. Undoing it would be harder and potentially expensive. I’d think harder and longer about it. My point isn’t about whether to do it or not. Rather, it’s to choose and having chosen commit in earnest for a period of time. Having done that you’ll learn and grow more quickly.
Contrarian Reality #2: Seeking “happiness” is a trap: Happiness is an outcome of doing meaningful and good work. Dan Pink explores this in depth in his book Drive. Seek out things you find interesting and rewarding. Worrying about whether an opportunity will make you perfectly happy can become a fool’s errand early in your career.
So please do think, reflect and explore. Please be ambitious and reach.
But don’t forget in the end to make a choice and dive in whole-heartedly.