Sunday, 31 January 2010

The Five Great Myths of Career Decision Making

In December we published our most successful newsletter yet, about the most common myths we hear about career decision making.

You can sign up for the next newsletter by dropping us a line here. We publish quarterly, and focus on career decision making; how to do it and how to cope with the problems it brings. Plus, as always we aim to include the very latest, most scientifically sound career related research.

Because we want to spread our ideas as far as possible, we're re-publishing last month's edition on this blog. We hope you enjoy the articles and find them useful.

Myth 1: "Staying in my crap job is the ‘real’ world"
Myth 2: "I should be happy"
Myth 3: "Following my values will make life easier"
Myth 4: "There is a perfect career for you"
Myth 5: "I need to feel more confident to do what’s important"

Myth 1: “Staying in my crap job is the ‘real’ world”

When I became a management consultant there was part of me that felt I’d made it. I’d walk into these shiny offices with my laptop and just for a moment, I felt like I was going somewhere.

That is, if I didn’t think too hard about what I was doing. When I did, I just told myself it was only five days til the weekend and 3 months to my next holiday.
But my choice appeared to be:

• Carry on, be well off but unhappy; or
• Leave my job and be worried about looking like a failure.

I was desperate to be a success, so like a rabbit frozen in headlights I remained in this strange limbo for about five years. And I can tell you, limbo is less fun than it sometimes looks.

I remember one day my boss asked me to head up some particularly meaningless new project and because I couldn’t say no outright, I decided to tell him about my doubts about my career. His reply stays with me to this day:

“I’d love to do something more interesting too, but I live in the real world.”


We hear the ‘real world’ argument a lot. No doubt it makes the speaker feel better, but in fact it’s got nothing to do with the real world. It’s an argument designed to keep you out of the real world, safely trapped inside a story in your own head.
Ironically, career dilemmas like mine are defined by a reluctance to identify what a person actually wants in the real world. After all, there’s comfort in not knowing or trying, because then we can’t fail.

Looking back, I see that I wanted to be a great person, but I wasn’t prepared to exhibit any of the character traits of a great person. I wanted success, but I saw it as someone else’s job to spot my potential, or for the world to give me opportunities.

This is about as far from being ‘real world’ as possible. And it left me a passive recipient of whatever other people thought I’d be good at.

Unless you fancy a spot of limbo, the real question (which I was avoiding), is pretty simple: what is it that you actually want?

Myth 2: “I should be happy”

Everyone wants happiness. In fact these days, if we’re not happy, we tend to think there’s something wrong with us. Thinking we should be happy is not just a myth but a trap. By pursuing happiness as an objective, we’re actually setting ourselves up to be unhappy.

Imagine 1000s of years ago one of your ancestors on the savannah plains sees something in the distance. Is it a bear or a blueberry bush?

The optimist may have seen a blueberry bush and had a great time munching blueberries. But equally, the optimist was more likely to be attacked by a bear...and not pass on their genes.

Our ancestors were (by definition) survivors. They are the ones who anticipated the worst.

It’s part of the human condition to experience many different emotions. Most of these emotions ‘see the bear’. Our minds evolved to warn us of dangers and give us worst case scenarios.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that if we try to chase happiness too much all that happens is we feel anxious when we don’t find it. The irony is this makes us feel even worse. We become anxious about anxiety.

Paradoxically, it’s only by letting go of the struggle for happiness that we can ever begin to truly find it.

Myth 3: "Following my values will make life easier"

The modern consensus is that values are good, and if we follow our values we’ll be happier, and life will get better, right?

Here’s what no one tells you:

Following your deepest values means confronting your darkest fears.

Following our values involves owning up to what we really want in life and what is of secondary importance. Living our values also means risking the possibility of failing at something that we care about most.

Because we care so much about our values, by definition we are scared by them; they represent our highest hopes, and our darkest fears.

The trick is, to understand that these are two sides of the same coin. If we want the value, we must be willing to have the fear.

The real question is: if following your values was about carrying your deepest fears and anxieties with you, would you still be willing to follow them?

Myth 4: There is a perfect career for you

I went to the Identity Project at the Wellcome Collection recently, which featured Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, who founded the first genetics laboratory. Galton was famous for inventing the fingerprint, but his research papers also included the gloriously titled Arithmetic by smell, 3 Generations of lunatic cats and Cutting a cake on scientific principles.

Bloom sees a lot of people who wonder which career would be best for them. Many expect one of those online career tests that ‘match’ them to their perfect career.
But in my experience, people feel more like Galton. They are complex and multi-faceted. They can’t fit into a box and often feel like there may be lots of ‘best’ careers. (Mind you, what would I know? The computer told me I should have been a Dental Hygienist).

When someone wants to find their perfect career, very often what they are really asking for is a guarantee of success. So let’s bite the bullet here:

There is no ‘perfect’ career. Even generic advice like ‘do what you love’ is not right for everyone. The things we value in life often conflict – for example career success often conflicts with family life. So careers will always involve some risk, some compromise.

The alternative approach
Given this, why on earth would anyone see a career psychologist? Quite simply, because you still have a choice to make.

So if you don’t make a conscious choice, you’ll make an unconscious one. Unless we prioritise the things that really matter, the things that don’t matter tend to take priority.

We tell our clients we can help ‘de-risk’ their career choice, but we cannot make it perfect. The best we can do is clarify and prioritise what they actually want from life. We do this by focusing objectively on someone’s strengths, skills, personality, interests and values and by helping people to imagine what it might be like to design a life around these. Doing this, it is possible to create a life that really fits who you are. You may still feel torn between options, but it’s a conscious choice.

The alternative is to drift through your life, anxious about the future, resenting the present.

Myth 5: ‘I need to feel more confident to do what’s important’

We often think that we need to feel confident to succeed. So we make a deal; once we feel confident then we’ll change....


Confidence is derived only from knowing you can do something. The only way you know you can do something is to try it out - practice. Real confidence only ever follows action.

Confidence is a feeling derived from external cues. As such, your mind knows better than to allow you to feel confident just by thinking positive thoughts. All our efforts to ‘think positively’ are futile; your mind only bestows real confidence from getting out there and doing something.

The reality is that we don’t need confidence to succeed – this is simply an excuse. Instead, we should focus on taking action in the direction of our values.

What can you do tomorrow to start doing what’s most important to you? What would you be doing at work? This is something you have control over. Your mind, and its obsession with confidence, is not.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Thanking The Beatles

A wonderful article today talks about writing thank you letters to the Beatles. This is a fantasy I have long since shared, without ever quite understanding why.

When I was growing up, I would listen to my Mum's Beatles records incessantly. I had With the Beatles first I think, and then the 'blue' album and then the 'red'. At some point came Please Please Me and Rubber Soul. I still remember the day The White Album came back from the library. I was stunned. I listened over and over and over again, up in my room, staring out over my neighbours' moonlit rooves and then beyond to Liverpool, where it all began.

Today, almost any Beatles song can make me cry. My love for them feels irrational; exponential to their actual musical value.

David Gray is quoted as saying that music fills a hole you never knew was there. In short, I guess the Beatles filled a hole I never knew was there. They are a sanctuary from arguments and anxiety. They are my unflinching allies when faced with rejection. With them, I can be lonely without being alone.

So for the hole they filled all those years ago, and still fill now; thank you.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Cognitive fusion and career change

I made a presentation at the brilliant School of Life last weekend. Very enjoyable it was too, with robust exchanges about the nature of careers, decision making and identifying purpose. One point of debate was about the role of cognitive fusion in career decision making. This is a new idea in the realm of careers, so I thought a post about this was probably overdue.

Then I procrastinated a while...

Cognitive fusion is defined as the ‘excessive attachment to the literal content of human thought that makes healthy psychological flexibility difficult or impossible’ (Strosahl et al, 2004).

To be blunt, I struggle to explain this idea quickly and powerfully to other people. So what do I do? I avoid doing it. I even avoid practicing it, because it makes me feel uncomfortable and a bit useless.

This gives a clue about what cognitive defusion is, and why its evil twin, experiential avoidance, is so harmful to career changers.

Then, my attention was caught by Oliver Burkeman's article in last week's Guardian. In it, Burkeman quotes Alfred Korzybski, who founded the philosophy of General Semantics and who describes language as a kind of double edged sword:

To think about and function in the world we rely on systems of abstract concepts, most obviously language. But those concepts don't reflect the world in a straightforward way; instead, they contain hidden traps that distort reality, causing confusion and angst.

Does this matter to career changers? I am arguing that it does. For example, take a common phrase such as 'I'm hopeless at giving presentations'.

Instead of seeing this for what it is - a subjective opinion - we tend to fuse with the idea. This triggers real-life thoughts and emotions, which in turn lead to avoidance of situations which invoke these feelings (experiential avoidance).

What's needed - and what I try to do with clients - is to create a little space between fused language and reality. For example, "I am a failure" becomes "I feel like a failure" or "I am having the thought that I am a failure".

This may sound insignificant, but it is a difference which allows people the space in which to extend their behavioural repertoire, and from there to choose behaviour more freely in line with their values.

Anais Nin once said "We see things not as they are, but as we are." Cognitive defusion is the first step to seeing thoughts for what they are, not as what they say they are.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Should I consider wild and wacky careers?

I'm working with a client who asked me whether she should be considering 'wild and wacky' careers as she goes through the process of thinking about what to do next in her life.

If I could answer only 'yes' or 'no' to this, I would say 'yes'. The reason being is that our brains have a default mode that is to a) think conservatively and b) to think in set patterns. I explore these ideas further here. So usually, we kill ideas before they can develop. But is this default mode always the right one?

The trouble with our default mode is that whenever clients think about their greatest achievements, and their proudest moments, they invariably conquered some seemingly insurmountable problem, or defied some deeply felt fear. The moments that make life most worth living are often the moments where we faced down one of our greatest fears, and surprised ourselves.

Our minds' safety first obsession is ideal for keeping us alive, but frankly, is much less good at making us feel fulfilled.

So unless we make a conscious decision to think differently about our lives, we tend to make an unconscious decision to think the way we always think. This generally means doing what we always do.

I am not suggesting actually doing some wild and wacky job necessarily, but I am suggesting that for once in our lives we think openly and creatively about what we would ideally like to do with our remaining time on earth. What would we do if there were no limits? What would we try if we had more than 1 life?

If these ideas are subsequently then discounted, fine. But they should be discounted using a set of criteria, consciously and freely derived, about what is most important to us.

Creativity relies on quantity, not quality. So I recommend identifying every option you can think of and considering each. Only by thinking in this way, uncritically and creatively, can we combat our natural tendency to think what we always think.

For more on this idea, I recommend Dan Gilbert's wonderful TED talk.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Exploring Willingness - What Passengers Are On Your Bus?

This is a great metaphor to use with clients who are exploring ways in which they can follow their values more effectively at work.

Imagine that you are now driving a bus in the direction of one of your values....
Let’s take a value like ‘freedom’. As you drive, passengers climb aboard, representing your experiences, memories, thoughts and feelings. Some of the passengers are nice, but others are nasty and disruptive and keep telling you that you’re going the wrong way, you’re a terrible driver, you’re driving too fast etc.

In my case, following the value of freedom involves facing up to some pretty nasty demons. For example, there's a demon that says that I am being stupid, no one can ever be happy at work. There's another that says I will be a failure, and that I will never earn enough money to do the things I want, and therefore I will never really be free.

The temptation is to argue with them – I’m not a terrible driver! – or to try wrestling them off the bus. Trouble is, this stops you from driving. Or you could try negotiating with them, try a different route, and go off on a detour. But how many times has this actually worked?

We have news for you; your mind’s battle with itself is an unwinnable war.

But there is an alternative. You can choose to accept the presence of the passengers – even though you don’t like all of them - and be willing to have them so long as you are making progress towards your values. After all, if you think about it, are your fears really more important than your values?

This is often a major shift in thinking. But think of the times when you’ve said that you’ll just wait to feel motivated and more confident before you change your life. Have you ever actually been in this perfect position? Or are the fears you have the same ones they’ve had for years and years, and yet still you put your life on hold?

How much longer will you wait? Ultimately the question you must ask yourself is who’s in charge of your bus? Is it your passengers or is it you?