Some good advice

I’m always keen to speak to people about their career paths – to find out how they got to where they are now from school, why they chose that particular path and whether they’re happy with the work they’re doing. I also try to pick up little bits of advice on careers and life in general. Everyone has a different story and no-one’s life has been perfect. And you know what, a lot of people still don’t really know what they want to do even later on in life. This is comforting and worrying at the same time!

Some good advice I’ve received:

1. Live in the present

It’s an obvious one but it’s something that’s a lot easier said than done. Enjoy where you are right now. I’m finding this particularly difficult at the moment due to a lack of stability in my life. I’m working as an unpaid intern part time and doing some paid part time work while continuing to look for a full time ‘proper graduate job’ (whatever that is these days). I feel like I can only really settle and live fully in the present when I have a permanent job, but I just don’t know how long that’s going to take. I feel like I’m always looking ahead – what’s next and what’s after that – and I definitely need to focus more on the present.

2. Question your uncertainty

I was speaking to someone the other week about how uncertain I feel about what I want to do. He asked me a pretty unremarkable question which really made me think: What makes you unsure? I’d never asked myself this before and it’s a good question. Do I feel I wouldn’t enjoy some of my career ideas? Do I feel I wouldn’t be good enough at them? Or am I just questioning myself because I’m worried that there are better options out there?

3.  Make time for your hobbies

When discussing careers with someone else, first he asked me if I want to earn a lot of money – I told him no, that’s not important to me. Then he asked me how hard I wanted to work – I said I’m willing to work pretty hard but obviously I want a good work-life balance. Finally he asked me what I enjoyed – I had to think more about this and couldn’t come up with any one specific answer. His advice? Whatever you do, make sure you have time to do what you really enjoy. He added that even if your job includes something you enjoy, this may become less enjoyable when you’re doing it for a job.

4. Get some perspective

Numerous people I’ve spoken to have said this, or something along the same lines: travel – broaden your horizons. It’s something I want to do, and I guess I put it off because there are so many options of where to go and what to do.

5. Go with the flow

Now I find this advice more difficult to take on board. I like to have control over things and find it hard to take a particular route just because an opportunity happens to come up at a convenient time (prime example described in my last post!). However I’ve spoken to many people who have told me that their careers worked out simply through taking hold of the first opportunity that came up and making the most out of it.

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My choices

So why start a blog about decision making? Yes, I’ve always been awful at making decisions, but when did this become a big issue? It became a big issue when, after graduating and completing an unpaid internship, I turned down a paid internship that could well have led to a full time paid job with a great organisation, lovely people, in just the right location, simply because it didn’t feel right. Stupid? Probably. Maximising? Almost definitely. Over-analysing? Certainly not. Following my gut or falling into every psychological trap there is going? A bit of both I’d say.

The only way I can claim my sanity after turning down a great opportunity during a recession (or just after, not quite sure what’s happening with the economy at the moment but there definitely still aren’t many jobs around) is by giving one reason. The actual work itself just wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in (not that I’m even sure what direction I do want to go in), even if it was working in the right sector. I’ll be honest, I still can’t work out whether my choice was brave or stupid. One moment I think I’m a complete idiot, the next I think this particular opportunity just wasn’t right for me. Will I ever know? Was there even a right decision at all?

It’s so easy to be swayed by others’ opinions, and to get caught up in the emotion of making a pretty big decision in a limited amount of time (I had two days and was tired and stressed out about making the choice). I guess the thing I’m struggling to work out is: Did I go with a true gut feeling that it just wasn’t right for me? I knew I was taking a risk but at the time I thought I was up for that. Or did I simply fall into psychological traps and try to maximise? I’ve never been keen on the idea of being stuck in an office from 9 to 5 everyday and I hadn’t enjoyed previous similar work, but sometimes you’ve just got to compromise. I’m also rubbish at commitment – I always want to try new things and explore the options. Did I just take the coward’s way out, the easy option, to keep looking? Or was I innocently holding on to other dreams and ideals?

Happily explore the options

I’ve decided to take a little break from reviewing books on decision making. The three I’ve already looked at were the main ones I wanted to read. The first was recommended to me by my uncle after I made a big decision (which I’ll explain in a few posts time), and the second and third had good reviews on Amazon and covered contrasting ideas. I recently came across a blog called Undecided, and found that the authors had written a book, so I now plan to read this and review it in my next post.

I’ve also recently come across some interesting blog posts on the phenomenon that is ‘the quarter life crisis’. (See posts by mundaneadventurer, writergirldiary and davidlindskoog, and there are many many more out there!). I for one definitely think it exists, and it’s an interesting concept. Young people have so much more choice now than they would have had in the past, and this makes it increasingly difficult to make career and life choices that they are content with.

We’re always being told to ‘aim high’ and ‘follow the dream’, but can this lead to discontentment? How do you work out what your dream is?! And how do you balance idealism with realism? I’m an idealist and an optimist at heart, and I believe you’ve got to be to achieve anything great, after all, Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right – Henry Ford. But aren’t happiness and contentment great goals too? I think the key to this is in the quote There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way – Thich Nhat Hanh. Finding a way to be content and go with the flow while still exploring your options and holding on to your dreams has to be the best solution. Though I also know that I need to remember that there is no perfect option.

I always think that if I knew where it was I was aiming for, what the ultimate goal was that I wanted to reach, then getting there would be no problem. It’s feeling so unsure about what I want to do that’s the issue.

Logic versus intuition

I can be quite a logical person; I enjoy maths and science and solving problems. Yet when it comes to personal, rather than academic, matters and decisions, I have to feel that I’m making the right decision, so after much analysing and deliberating I will nearly always go with my instinct. Despite this I often regret choices I’ve made, even if they felt right at the time. Does this mean that in future I should analyse all the options and make the logical choice (maximise)? Or should I carry on following my gut and learn to be satisfied with my decision (satisfice)? After all, you can never know what would have happened had you followed a different path, and the grass is always greener.

The thing with following logic is that you then have solid reasons to convince both others and yourself that you made the right choice. Whereas going against something because it feels wrong could just be falling into one of the psychological traps I mentioned in my last post. It’s a tough one, especially for someone like me who has a tendency to go with feelings rather than thinking.

3. Following your gut

(Gut feelings: The intelligence of the unconscious, by Gerd Gigerenzer)

This was a really interesting read, especially if you’re interested in psychology. In essence it talks about how our instincts, rather than being based on whim, could be based on unconscious intelligence and following rules of thumb appropriate to particular situations.

There are numerous examples of when using a simplified decision making process can actually be just as effective as using a more complex process. The author also argues that sometimes one good reason is enough to base a decision on.

A useful method is listing your objectives (so important to clearly state these, as I learnt from the last book) in order of importance, and then selecting the first option that matches. Say, for simplicity, you want to buy a pet. Your objectives are, in order of importance, for it to be furry, low maintenance and cheap. If your options are either a cat or a snake (as that’s all the pet shop has) then only one of your options satisfies your most important outcome so you take the cat. However, if your options were cat, snake and dog, two of your options fulfil your most important objective so you look at the next on the list. A cat is more low maintenance than a dog, so again you make your choice, only analysing as far down your list as you need to, without trying to maximise and cover all of your objectives.

Another interesting point is how people tend to stick to the default option. A key example is organ donation. If organ donation is the default option in a country then very few people will opt out, however if opted out is the default, then far fewer people will opt in. I guess this shows that people don’t like to make decisions!

Step 3 for effective decision making: It doesn’t have to be complicated – you can focus on your objectives and compare alternatives without maximising. Sometimes just going with your gut or one reason is actually a good choice too – ignorance can be better than information overload.

Satisfaction or analysis?

Following on from my last post, I’ve been thinking about the idea of satisfactory. I guess I’ve always thought of satisfactory as a bad thing. Whenever you rate something the options are poor, satisfactory (meaning ok, not very good really), good and very good. Yet in terms of life and happiness and contentment, satisfaction is pretty great.

I’ve just finished a second decision-making book, and in some ways it seems to contradict the ideas relating to maximisation and satisficing.

2. (Over?) Analysing

(Smart choices: A practical guide to making better life decisions, by John Hammond, Ralph Keeney and Howard Raiffa)

Some good ideas in this book: Framing your decision problem well, looking for creative alternative options, and clarifying your objectives. However a huge amount of detail on qualifying and quantifying and trade-offs and risks and consequences which all seem to point towards maximisation rather than satisficing.

I definitely haven’t actively considered my objectives when making past decisions, and this really is so important. If you don’t know what you want to get from a choice, then you have little chance of making the right one. Another thing I’m definitely guilty of is falling into psychological traps, about which this book gives a great overview.

Some key psychological traps to consider when making a decision are:

1. Over-relying on first thoughts, i.e. getting an idea into your head which then anchors your thinking.

2. Sticking with the current situation because it’s easier to do that than make a decision – ask yourself whether you would actively choose your current situation if you weren’t in it and were comparing it to other options.

3. Protecting earlier choices – something I’m sure lots of people, including myself, are guilty of. It’s really important to see each decision separately without linking it to the past. Decisions only affect the future and you can’t change past mistakes, only accept them and move on. If you’re in a hole, stop digging.

4. Seeing what you want to see – trying only to confirm your own thoughts isn’t helpful, you need to be challenged by contradictions and alternative views. Get someone to play devil’s advocate and see things from a different perspective.

5. Posing the wrong question – framing questions differently affects your thoughts and choices.

(The book goes into more detail about these and more, but the above 5 definitely stood out to me)

Step 2 for becoming an excellent decision maker: Beware psychological traps. Also define objectives and alternatives.

How to make a decision

I am notoriously bad at making decisions. One of my teachers at primary school used to tell me to ‘go and be MAD’ meaning go and Make A Decision. I chose my GCSE subjects, most were obvious choices, but I struggled between choosing history and textiles. I can’t actually remember which I wrote down on the form, all I know is that I got history, begged to be able to join the textiles class, started textiles, then changed back. A moment of confusion? It’s only choosing one little subject at school. Well the exact same thing happened when choosing my A-Levels. Physics or English? Chose physics, swapped to English, swapped back. Clearly didn’t learn from that mistake (though I’ve realised it usually takes me three times to work out where I’m going wrong – I very nearly tried to change university course).

And it’s not just education-wise. I always leave labels in clothes and take an average of maybe 3-6 months before wearing anything new I’ve bought. Just in case it was a bad choice and I decide to take it back.

I always like to try out all the options. Just to make sure I’ve made the best decision. As I’ll explain later, that makes me a maximiser – and that’s not a good thing.

So, in my quest to become an excellent and content decision-maker (and that is my aim) I’m reading some books on the subject, and I thought I would summarise my findings in an attempt to help any other maximisers (see below) out there who struggle like I do.

1. Maximisers and satisficers

(The paradox of choice: why more is less, by American psychologist Barry Schwartz)

Maximisers always look for the best. They want to see and try out all possible options before committing to any one choice. The problem with this strategy? Nothing is ever perfect, and as perfect doesn’t exist striving for it will just make you discontent. This is me at the moment, however what I want to be is a satisficer.

Satisficers look at the available options and choose the best from a limited selection to best fit their goals and needs. They are happy with good enough, however they do have standards and being a satisficer by no means equals settling for something that doesn’t meet those standards. The way I see it after reading the book, this is the only way to be content. You choose to be satisfied with less than perfect, and as perfect doesn’t exist anyway then good enough (or great enough, remember satisficers do have standards) is really the best you can aim for.

What I learnt from this book? The grass isn’t always greener. We have so many options – too many options – that make it difficult to focus simply on what does the job and is satisfactory. And this applies to everything, from food to clothes to technology to cars, houses, careers etc. etc.

Step 1 for becoming an excellent decision maker: Accept that perfect doesn’t exist and there are some pretty great options that will lead to far more happiness than an endless search for perfection.