Paradox of Career Choice

I’ve mentioned the Paradox of Choice before, both the New Yorker article and the book I haven’t read. The basic idea is that although it seems like more options would be better, too many options actually creates a situation where we are overwhelmed by choice and can’t make a decision at all. The canonical study by Barry Schwartz showed that “shoppers who were offered free samples of six different jams were more likely to buy one than shoppers who were offered free samples of twenty-four”. Shoppers with more choices became so obsessed with picking the right one that they picked none at all.

I was talking to Wes last week and realized that my generation is facing this problem with our careers. Thanks to the efforts of our parents, we have more options available to us than ever before. For centuries, children worked in the same profession as their parents, in the same town, because they had no other options. It was too expensive to travel, and it was impossible to develop the skills you needed for a different trade.

In today’s world of knowledge workers, if you have a college education (and admittedly the access to such an education is still restricted), you have a plethora of options available to you. You’re not restricted culturally – there’s no expectation that you will do what your parents did. You’re not restricted economically – research has shown that $40,000 a year is the point past which salary becomes a way of keeping score rather than satisfying basic needs, and most college-educated workers will be making at least that. You’re not restricted geographically any more – it’s absurdly easy to pick up and move across the country for a new experience. Most of us are members of the Creative Class now.

So we can do anything. Now what? How do we choose?

Careers defined people for so long that it is considered to be an essential part of one’s identity. The first question we ask of somebody we don’t know is “What do you do?” Our profession defines us to others and to ourselves. And once we start getting into questions of identity, things become much more sticky. Identity is not something that we mess around with lightly – it’s _who_we_are_ (as an aside, I mentioned that yesterday as a possible reason why people don’t like discussing religion and politics) (as another aside, I always hate this question and avoid answering it, because my job doesn’t do a good job of defining me – when I say I work at a software startup, I get placed in an identity bin where I don’t feel I fit. This is part of the rebranding of myself as an unrepentant generalist so that I have an answer that fits me better).

Another constraint is the very idea of a career. We’ve been brought up in a society of norms that one has to choose a career – you only get to do one thing, and that defines you. This comes from the days of the company man, where you got hired out of college into an entry-level position, and then worked your way up through the company before eventually retiring 35 years later. That was the norm in our parents’ generation. But it creates the expectation that the job you take is leading someplace, that even if it’s not the job, it’s giving you what you need to get the next one.

Because of these expectations and these ties to identity, choosing a job feels overwhelming. So the plethora of options becomes a true Paradox of Choice, where it feels like the opportunity cost of choosing anything is too high. My friend Emil made the comparison to a restaurant: if you don’t like what you chose this time, you order something different next time – there’s no history that constrains your future choices. Choosing a job isn’t like that – it defines our identity, it makes it harder to get other jobs in the future because employers want to see a career path.

I think that as cultural norms shift, we’re going to see a lot more openness to treating jobs more like ordering from a menu – “I tried this, but it didn’t really work for me – I’ll try that next time.” More people are trying alternative career paths, either doing their own startup or job-hopping through several jobs to figure out what they want. That is making it more acceptable to realize that a job is just a job, not an identity, so there won’t be anything wrong with quitting a job after six months because it’s not working for you. We’ll be able to retcon our lives to frame our job history in a way that helps us get the next job.

When confronted with a Paradox of Choice, the worst response is to dither and not make a choice at all. So we need to just pick something and try it. And if the cultural norms shift as I expect, then it will make that choice easier, because the perceived downsides of making the wrong choice will be reduced because it won’t be choosing an identity any more – just a job.

P.S. Classes were finished a week ago. It took me basically that whole week for me to make up the exhaustion debt from the end of term to the point where my brain was functioning enough for me to start thinking and wanting to blog. I think I’m back now, at least when I’m not running around playing ultimate or joining groups like the Bad Egg Collective.

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