I’ve shared an idea several times recently, and people have been finding it useful, so I’m writing it up for the blog to make it easier to reference in the future.
Let’s imagine that you’re in a situation where you are looking for a job. You have some ideas of what you want, but you’re nervous about eliminating any options, so you say you’re open to anything. Now you start sorting through all of the companies out there, and it feels overwhelming; most of the jobs are missing at least one thing that you think is important, but you imagine that you could make them work. You do your best in applying to all of the jobs that might work because you never know – it never hurts to have more choices. In the end, though, you can only choose one job at this time, and you spent a lot of time trying to get jobs that weren’t quite right.
Now let’s imagine a different scenario, where you are dating and looking for a relationship. You have some ideas of what you want, but you’re nervous about eliminating any options, so you say you’re open to anyone. You go on a lot of first dates where the fit is not quite right but you think to yourself, “Well, maybe this could work”, so you keep going for another several dates. In the end, though, you find a life partner, and you realize that you wasted a lot of time on partners that never felt right.
To take another scenario, let’s say you’re looking for a new home. You have some idea of what you want…you get the idea.
In these cases, and in many other cases in life, we are afraid to be clear on what we really want. We worry that by being too picky, we’ll eliminate the job/partner/home that would have been really great, if only we hadn’t been so picky. We have all heard tales (or seen a romantic comedy) where somebody says “When I first met X, I didn’t think much of them, but now I’m madly in love with them.” And if we are too picky, we might settle on one choice, and then that potential employer or partner rejects us. That would be devastating. Better to have lots of choices and be the one rejecting.
The problem with that approach is that there is an opportunity cost to sorting through all those other options. We spend time and effort on checking out all of our options before deciding “Nope” and rejecting all but one. And yet, the one thing that is absolutely limited in life is time, so why waste time on options we know we don’t want?
One reason is that much of the time, we don’t actually know what we want. Checking out our options lets us figure out what matters and what doesn’t to us. Most of us start dating anybody who will go out with us; we might have a list of “requirements”, but over time as we meet people, we figure out what we actually need, and what is more of a preference. Or when looking for a new home, we’ll go to lots of open houses initially to gauge what’s out there; we see what is common to the places we like, and start to hone in on what resonates.
The critical question is what happens after you’ve figured out what you really need and want. If you put that out there in the world, it opens you up to criticism for being too picky or demanding. Worse, it reduces the number of options available, putting you in a situation where you might get rejected by the option you’ve set your heart on.
On the other hand, such vulnerability and openness about your needs can be an effective way of filtering through the overwhelming number of options out there. If you can be clear about what you actually need, you can eliminate vast swathes of possibilities instantly, and then focus your attention on really sifting through the options that remain, and figuring out how to make one of those options work.
The other benefit of vulnerability is that by showing who you truly are, it filters out the options that actually want somebody with a different set of qualities. If you pretend to be outgoing and social while dating, it makes it hard to transition later to your true introvert self with that person, whereas if you are honest about who you are from the start, you don’t waste either person’s time. If work-life balance is critical for you in a job, then why waste time interviewing with a company where the culture is to work late and have your job be your life? Both sides save time when they are clear and up-front about what qualities are important to them – this is what I mean by vulnerability as filtering.
I need to note here that this advice only applies in situations where you have the luxury of not being desperate. If you need a job so you can pay rent, then you don’t have the luxury of being picky, although I could argue in that case that your only critical need is salary, and it helps to be honest about that. Similarly, if you are getting kicked out of your apartment, and you need a new place to live, you can’t afford to be picky. This advice is meant for people who have many options and are looking for ways to cut through the clutter.
Another way to look at this is that there are two phases to any search like this: exploration and selection. In the exploration phase, we try lots of options to see what’s out there, and get a sense of what matters to us. In the selection phase, we narrow down to what we really need and stop wasting our time with options that don’t quite work. But many of us have been trained to keep all of our options open and stay in the exploration phase forever – we worry about missing out on unexplored opportunities. These are the people for whom I’m writing this post, because I want them to be more aware of the opportunity cost of keeping all of those options open. It requires a ruthless form of self-awareness to take what you’ve learned in the exploration phase as to what you really need, and apply that to saving time and effort by being clear to the world about those needs.
This difficulty with transitioning to the selection phase is especially apparent in many of my career coaching sessions – as people have advanced in their careers, they have been through several jobs and are now much clearer on what matters to them in a job; in other words, they have gone through the exploration phase. But they are still afraid to apply what they’ve learned in their next job search, for fear of missing out on a great possibility. Hence, I’ve been giving out this advice to several people – to take what they’ve learned from their exploration and apply it and stop wasting their time on options that aren’t quite right.
It’s scary to take a stand and say “this is who I am, and this is what I need”. We don’t want to be perceived as too demanding or too self-important. The self-talk often sounds like “Who am I to make these demands? I’m nobody special and don’t deserve special treatment.” And others may question or criticize you for stating your needs clearly, especially if your needs don’t entirely conform to societal standards (“Why would you walk away from a well-paying stable job?!”). Social forces and peer pressure are arrayed against us being vulnerable and open…and yet it may still be worth it, if it means wasting less of our valuable limited time in sifting through options that don’t fit.
The next time you are in this situation, and you hesitate in stating what you really want, I encourage you to think of being more vulnerable and open about your needs as a filter on the world. And when you’re in the exploration phase, checking out homes or jobs or even life partners, I encourage you to be more critical in trying to tease apart the common patterns that make one option sing to you when another doesn’t, so you can apply those patterns later to lower your opportunity cost in making decisions.