Career Choices: Putting Yourself in the Right Environment

square peg 2A recent New York Times article “A Natural Fix for A.D.H.D” hit on an important point I think many people overlook in considering career choices. Namely, “what am I well suited to?”

In my experience, I see too many people who try to fit their square peg into a round hole career-wise. Professor Richard A. Friedman (clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College) points out is that in many cases the lack of fit is literally hard wired into us.

“Recent neuroscience research shows that people with A.D.H.D. are actually hard-wired for novelty-seeking — a trait that had, until relatively recently, a distinct evolutionary advantage. Compared with the rest of us, they have sluggish and underfed brain reward circuits, so much of everyday life feels routine and understimulating.”

I can relate as someone who’s probably one checked box on a form short of an A.D.H.D. diagnosis. Lack of stimulation has been a problem for me at many stages of my life & career and I can see it taking a toll on my oldest son who I apologize to on a regular basis for the genetic legacy I have passed along…

The article is about A.D.H.D., but I think makes a point about the broader impact impact of environment on your attitude, performance and ultimately happiness. In the case of those with A.D.H.D. many environments are literally toxic, requiring pharmacological intervention to manage the experience.

So how should we take this as adults and for some of us as parents? I would make a few generalizations.

Consider intrinsic nature of the task in major career decisions.

By this, I simply mean make sure you can answer the question “What will I actually do?” and that you are satisfied with the answer.

I have seen many people fall in love with the allure of “desirable” jobs that may not be a good fit for them at all. For me, I thought I wanted to be a History professor at a top university. My PhD program taught me that the job of History professor at schools I admired was actually writing history, not teaching or talking about it. Oops. So I went and got an MBA and found my way to teaching in a different way. Writing is an example that many cite as a dream. But it turns out it is solitary and really hard. Accounting pays well out of school and provides wonderful stability and careers for some. But not if you don’t like numbers, routine and process. You get the idea.

Consider environment in major career decisions. 

By environment I mean the culture of the organization; some summary of its people and practices. Working at a business school, there are many jobs that are considered plum assignments. Many or most of them at large companies. Each has a personality. Most people find an affinity for some and not others. It is painful if you ignore the little voice inside your head asking “are these my people?”

Sometimes it’s not you, it’s them. 

As someone who writes a great deal about personal growth, evolution and maturation as a professional, I am also convinced that “fit” is really important. There is only so much we can change our core personality and values. And in the end, we may not want to. Stated differently, maybe it is you. But that’s ok. Just be clear about who you are and your values. If you are fundamentally wired to seek novelty, then that’s who you are. It’s not a “condition” or a “disease”. That’s why there are a lot of A.D.H.D., dyslexic and other “different thinking” folks who are artists or entrepreneurs. Similarly, if you are very focused and introverted, there are a wide range of stimulating jobs. But sales probably isn’t one of them, even though it pays well.

For parents, think deeply about these things for your kids as well because the same rules apply. 

I could write pages about our struggles with a bright, energetic, scattered boy and his elementary school derailment. We had to change his environment for him to be in a healthier place that doesn’t seem like psychological torture to him. It was heartbreaking as a parent to see him so depressed and realize we were failing him by not recognizing his needs. A few years later, things are better but it’s the same basic principles I am advocating for adults. One size does not fit all and we are not all the same. Large scale processes, like elementary education, are designed to deliver a decent experience for the average or median child. If your kid isn’t that, it can be difficult for them.

So what’s the payout when you find the right fit. Read about one of Professor Friedman’s patients and you’ll get a sense of the transformations possible:

“Another patient of mine, a 28-year-old man, was having a lot of trouble at his desk job in an advertising firm. Having to sit at a desk for long hours and focus his attention on one task was nearly impossible. He would multitask, listening to music and texting, while “working” to prevent activities from becoming routine.

Eventually he quit his job and threw himself into a start-up company, which has him on the road in constantly changing environments. He is much happier and — little surprise — has lost his symptoms of A.D.H.D.”

So there is always hope and good things can happen. But you have to take initiative and be engaged in exploring and asking yourself “is it me or is it them?” If it’s “them” then you probably need to find a new situation that’s a better fit.

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