The myth that makes career decisions so paralyzing

“Michelle, I need your help.”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“I need to decide what to do with my career.”

“Ok, what is it about your career you’re deciding on?”

“The rest of it!”

From college seniors about to graduate, to MBAs with 12 years of working experience, countless people have come to me completely stressed out about career decisions.  When I dig deeper into what keeps them in a state of paralysis, unable to move forward, it’s often because they’ve fallen victim to the biggest career myth of all time: that figuring out what you want to do with your career is a single, one-and-done decision.

But deciding what you want to do next in your career is not an irrevocable, “Final Answer!” type of decision.  Careers (and life, for that matter), are the sum of a number of smaller decisions that happen over time.

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Maybe you do realize that there are many subsequent decisions that may arise after the one right in front of you.  But instead of recognizing that there are multiple ways to arrive at those future decision points, you may think that all future decisions cascade into mutually exclusive paths stemming from this one huge decision that will affect what you do and what choices are available for the rest of your life!  (The drama-riffic nature of that myth is tempting to succumb to, isn’t it?)

So how can you whittle down this big monster decision of “What do I want to do with the rest of my career” into something you can actually tackle?

The key is to define your decision problem statement with a more manageable scope.

Step #1: Recognize the series of smaller decisions within your big decision.  Within “What do I want to do with the rest of my career?” is the smaller decision of “What do I want to do next in my career?”  Break it down even more, and it may become “What do I want to do in the next 6 months of my career?”  Keep drilling down, and you can reach a much simpler decision: “Do I want to keep doing what I’m doing now, or do something different?”

Step #2: Choose a focus – short-term or long-term.  Given that what you’re going to do with the rest of your career will be made up of a number of decisions in sequence, decide whether you want to focus your decision on the short-term or long term.  If your current job is giving you a lot of grief, you may opt to focus on what to do in the short-term, and then face the long-term decision later.  (e.g. “What opportunities can I pursue immediately to improve my working environment and get away from this horrible boss?”)

Step #3: Tackle the more narrowly-scoped decision first, and consider the other decisions only after you’ve concluded what path you would take in first decision.  If you chose to backwards-plan to the present, frame your decision around long-term direction, then treat your short-term action as a separate decision problem.  The key here is to avoid trying to optimize all decisions at once.

Tackling big career decisions is like trying to untie a complicated, messy knot.  If you try to pull on all parts of it at the same time, you’ll get nowhere.  But if you just pick one part to focus on at a time, eventually you’ll get there.