Recently New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about “The Choice Explosion,” or the increasing number of choices we have regarding every aspect of our lives. The research he cites confirms the tendency of Americans to prefer a high level of independent, personal choice. And in many ways, we’re no different when it comes to our careers.
Brooks’s focus is on how to get better at making all these decisions. Citing the terrific Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work (Crown Business, 2013) by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, his article describes a number of good techniques for making more thoughtful decisions.
The problem is, we can have so many choices that we become nearly paralyzed by what psychology professor Barry Schwartz identified as “choice overload” in his landmark work, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (Harper, 2005). We become overwhelmed by the sheer probability of making the wrong choice because we’re working so hard to make the perfect choice.
I see this frequently among my MLIS students in the Alternative LIS Careers course I teach at the University of Denver. The good news is that I’m presenting them with literally dozens (okay, potentially hundreds) of ways they can deploy their LIS skills to build their ideal careers.
The bad news is that I’m presenting them with literally dozens (if not hundreds) of ways they could deploy their LIS skills to build their ideal careers. Often with minimal work history to draw upon, they’re frozen in place by the sheer number of potential career paths.
Your First Job Is Just Your First Job
The way to get around this panic is to reframe how you approach your career choices, of which you’re likely to have very, very many in the coming years.
Your first job, and your second and third, are simply building blocks in the complex edifice you’ll be building over your career lifecycle.
If you let it (and design it to do so), each job you take will enable you to grow a bit more in skills, connections, professional visibility, and, equally important, self-knowledge.
Most likely, no single job or position or title will define your career, but will instead contribute to it. What and how it contributes will be up to you – how you shape your responsibilities, how you build relationships with colleagues, what you commit to learning.
The More Experiments You Make, the Better
Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson stated that “all of life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.” So it is with your career. Don’t worry so much about making the perfect career choices; focus instead of what you can learn from whatever choices you do make.
None of them is ever likely to be perfect (I’ve probably had more than my share of “ohmigosh, what was I thinking” moments throughout my job history), but what counts is what you do with those jobs. Even my worst-choice jobs have provided valuable take-away benefits: at the least, new friends and connections, new knowledge and/or skills, and great stories to swap over margaritas.
Each job has also given me an opportunity to learn a bit more about who I am, and what brings out the best/worst in my work performance. The more I learn from each choice to take a new job or project or client, the better those choices become over the long term.
Just Start: Make Your Best-Guess Choice
Yep, I’d definitely recommend that your read Decisive with highlighter in hand, it truly will help you develop more confidence in your decision-making skills.
But at the same time, try to get comfortable with the fact that sometimes it will simply come down to your best guess. Your best guess about how successful a company will be, or how wise a manager your boss will be, or how much opportunity a position will hold for you.
Since so many of the variables affecting those outcomes are out of your control, give yourself some breathing room and stop putting so much pressure on yourself to make the perfect career choices.
Careers are about building bridges into new opportunities. With a little creativity and perhaps a couple of helping hands from your network, know that you can almost always build bridges from wherever that first or second or third job is to where you want to go next.