Questions are the answer in career decision making

question marks

Over my nearly 20-year career, I’ve faced more than a few career transitions, and each one has inspired me to think deeply about what kind of career I want, and ask, “what I should do next?”

Over time, I’ve found myself more and more in the (arguably) enviable position of having a few options to pursue due to my growing experience and skill set – not necessarily a lot of offers, mind you, but a few options to consider vs. just one (to be clear). I say “arguably” because although having a large number of choices would seem, at first, to be a first world problem, there are downsides to having too many choices when making career decisions.

The “paradox of choice” is defined by Barry Schwartz, author of the identically-named book, as “the fact that in western developed societies a large amount of choice is commonly associated with welfare and freedom but too much choice causes the feeling of less happiness, less satisfaction and can even lead to paralysis,” (emphasis mine). One example of the negative impact the paradox of choice can have on people is detailed in a widely-read research study in which consumers were found to be 10 times more likely to buy a jar of jam on display when the number of choices was reduced from 24 to 6. It’s theorized that when prospective consumers were faced with too much choice (24 different types), their brains just shut down from overload, i.e. became paralyzed, and rather than get stressed about how to make a decision given so many options, the brain just opts to make no decision at all and bypass the purchase, relieving the stress. However, when the choice of jams was reduced to a number that the brain was capable of analyzing (six in this case), effectively eliminating the stress of too much choice, a decision was easier to make and therefore made more often, resulting in increased sales.

In some of my career transitions, I’ve felt this psychological paralysis first hand and it’s led me to question how I can make decisions in a career context of too much choice – how do I know which direction (of several) is best given my priorities at the time? I’ve read many books on, and talked with many people (both professionals and lay people) about, choosing a career yet I haven’t found any comprehensive frameworks or processes that can consistently help me make career decisions in an environment characterized by 1. extensive choice, and 2. my own changing priorities over time (for example, my priorities changed as a result of having kids).

I have learned, though, that the answers can be found inside us – they’re just psychologically blocked or hidden for whatever reason. It’s the act of uncovering the answers or unlocking the doors that hide them that’s key (pun intended). For me, the best way to uncover those answers is by asking myself the right question(s) that happened to resonate with me at the time of need – and those questions changed as my life changed (what helped me five years ago has been different that what’s helped me more recently).

Unfortunately, though, I haven’t been able to find any one resource that contains a big list of different questions that I could try out to see what resonates with me at the time to help me uncover some answers. Fortunately for you, though, I’ve decided to aggregate all the questions I’ve come across over my years of thought, reading, and discussion in this blog (amongst other topics) so you have a one-stop-shop of career decision-related questions to use in uncovering your own answers.

So stay tuned – more questions to come, and hopefully one or more of them will help you uncover the answers you’re looking, offering the insight you need to make the right career decisions for you.