Best Career Advice I Ever Heard
- Posted: Apr 30, 2022 - Credits to: Piotr Lipiński | 80 views
It’s half a year ago. I am mentally going through the most difficult time in my life. I am on a sixth phone call in a row with the Education Desk of the University of Amsterdam, desperately changing back and fourth my degree choice for the new academic year. It was on August 31st, right in the last day of the time to decide (although normally, everyone would choose months before that time).
Sir, you have to decide. Other people are waiting in the queue about important formal issues. This time you have to tell me what you are doing and I will put in the system the information that you cannot change your choice anymore, even if you call once more — said the person from the Education Desk.
I was deciding between two options — a Master’s degree in Neuroeconomics, and a 6-months long minor in Data Science. Both somewhat interesting to me, but at the same time, utterly unconvincing. That’s because I had another option in mind, which seemed both the most exciting and the most scary choice, which was to take a gap year. I was so afraid of it, because I thought I would lose the valuable time for developing my career, and did not know how to engage myself in interesting projects during that gap year time. At the end I decided to start the Master’s degree, during which I ultimately became so depressed and desperate to take a break, that when an opportunity for dropping out presented itself, I took it.
So, currently I am 3 months in my gap year experience (on Madeira, in Portugal), and I am absolutely loving it. But at the same time, I have achieved a certain clarity of perspective about career choices and where I went wrong, and where I can potentially make better choices in the future.
Therefore, I want to share some of the insights that I have gathered, especially those that come from scientists, and which at the same time proved meaningful and useful to me.
- Rather than trying to choose ‘the best option’, we should choose the option that we simply like the most and would be proud of later on. This comes from Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, during the No Stupid Questions podcast.
“[About her conversation with the professor named Kay Merseth] “Angela, it sounds to me like you really want to make the right decision, the best decision.” And I nodded. And she said, “But life’s not like that. Life is a story. And your job is not to tell the ‘right’ story or even the best story. It’s just to tell a story that you can be proud of.” (…) I think I was a little bit paralyzed by “What’s the absolutely correct or best decision?” And we can’t know. I mean, life is just mostly uncertainty. All we can do is act in a way where we can use the intuition we have. There are many, many paths in life, and who knows how this is going to turn out? But am I doing something that — at the end of the story, will I look back and say, “I’m proud of that”?”
Even if an option seems great on paper, if our intuition does not tell us it is the right choice, we will likely not be happy following that option. Sure, it is always worth it to make a ‘pros and cons’ list, but our intuition is something we should never ignore.
2. Sometimes change is good for its own sake. If one has been thinking for some time already about switching to a different career, it is usually a good decision to switch. And funnily enough, there is empirical evidence to back up this claim! The University of Chicago Economist, Steven Levitt has conducted a field experiment on this. Subjects who were having difficulty with making an important life decision (such as a career change) flipped a coin to help to determine their decision. In other words, if the coin landed on ‘heads’, one should make the change, and if it landed on ‘tails’, they should remain in the status quo. Statistically, the subjects complied with the coin toss result. Crucially, 6 months later, those who the coin told to make the change, were happier than those who the coin told to remain in the status quo.
The main conclusion of that research is that people might be too cautious when making these important life decisions. It is quite understandable since the switch of a career is very uncertain while keeping on doing what we are already doing is more predictable. But I think that it is a very dangerous bias, and have a theory about why it can be hurtful to remain in the status quo in spite of the willingness to switch. Our success in the current career might be largely hampered by the constant evaluation of whether or not this is the right career that we are doing. Our negative emotions that come with this evaluation are not helping either. If one is constantly occupied with questioning whether it is worthwhile to keep on developing in the direction one is already heading, no wonder that this development will not work very well. A change, on the other hand, might be very refreshing.
3. We tend to think that we would change in the future less than we actually will. A study by the psychologist Daniel Gilbert and other researchers from Harvard University empirically supports this. They compared how much people think they will change in the next 10 years, with how much people who are 10 years older think they have changed in the past 10 years. “Young people, middle-aged people, and older people all believed they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future”.
So, the problem is that we look for career choices that satisfy our current preferences, while largely ignoring the fluidity of those preferences in the future. The implication of this finding is two-fold:
- We can potentially overcome this by concentrating on the societal impact of the potential careers rather than our current preferences. This is an idea popularized by Benjamin Todd in his famous TED Talk.
- Because the change we will experience is often skewed towards the characteristics of others in the environment in which we will work, we should consider those characteristics as a proxy of who we will become. Below is the fragment of the People I (Mostly) Admire podcast, where another professor from the University of Chicago, Sendhil Mullainathan, builds on this point:
“So, what you should ask yourself is, “I am going to become like the people at company A or like the people at company B. That’s who I’m actually going to become. Which of these kinds of people do I want to be as a person?” And so, that puts a whole different perspective on it because now you no longer think of yourself, you’re actually choosing versions of you and you really have to accept that.”
Wrapping up, whether you are deciding on how to move forward with your current career, or thinking about switching to something completely new, I hope these pieces of advice will help you not to get stuck in your head. Rather than thinking of all the possible outcomes of the future, I believe it is worthy to consider which version of yourself you would be the most proud of, and following that direction without being overly concerned about the dangers of change.