These days, I’m back in school after 4 years in the professional world. Which makes me think back to the last time I was in school. At that time, I was set on what to do with my life. It wasn’t until after school ended and I was thrust into the professional world that I really started questioning my decisions. Without school to keep me on a track, I had to ask myself how I wanted to spend the rest of my time on this planet, and I realized that my answer (though vague) didn’t totally match up with the choices that I’d been making. I made some changes and started regularly assessing how I was spending my time to ensure that reality matched up with what I valued most. A few books (including this and this) also helped.
I now hear similar concerns from others. Recently some classmates gathered to watch this Ted Talk on The Paradox of Choice. Afterwards, we discussed how common it was to develop a feeling of paralysis around the career choices that we were making. Between finance and consulting and startups and social enterprises and industry (this was a business school crowd), it seemed almost inconceivable to whittle the infinite options down to one career. In the talk, Barry Schwartz introduces the idea of a fishbowl – that by limiting choices, one ends up feeling better about the ultimate decision. Many people these days feel like the fishbowl has been removed from their career choices, and that while this can feel liberating and exciting, it often leads to people feeling dissatisfied with the eventual outcome of that choice.
I’ve come to believe, though, that we have a fishbowl around us from the moment that we are born that includes our interests, innate skills and limitations. I wasn’t born to be a public speaker, and no matter how hard I try, I will never be more than average at this. But I love creating things – art, random projects, connections, and this is something that I can develop much further. For a long time, I thought that these limitations were signs that I was “less than” those around me. However, as I’ve grown older, I’ve started recognizing this fact as a gift, a way of turning an infinite number of career choices into an extremely finite number of options where I can excel.
Which is why this blog post from Sasha Dichter seems so timely – he discusses how long it has taken him to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up, and how he started to understand it by recognizing patterns in his career and the role he likes to play within his organization.
When I was young, I had a pretty good sense of what I liked and didn’t like doing, as did most of my peers. In elementary school, we had to choose electives for the very first time, and people didn’t have much difficulty deciding whether their identity aligned more with sports, art, acting, or music. For most of us, it wasn’t really a choice – we just knew where we fit. Yet somewhere along the way we start to forget that these same fundamental qualities that make it so easy to choose electives in elementary school also make it pretty easy to figure out where we’ll optimize our talents and happiness in a career.
The industry (consulting, finance, whatever, whatever) doesn’t really matter – we’re all still the people that we were at the age of 10 with the same gifts and faults. And once you remember this, it becomes a whole lot easier to make choices and get on with the business of becoming the badass that you were always meant to be.