Using your instincts in career decision-making

“I’m thinking about applying for corporate jobs again and have been approached about a part-time Marketing Director job. I know it would be a good move and work with the family but for some reason I’m putting off making the phone call to the recruiter.” 

Marion had left the corporate marketing world 6 years before to spend more time with her two children who were approaching senior school age. She now felt keen to return to work and had been focusing on the logical plan of using her past experience and networks to get back into a leadership position. She’d had a few promising leads but noticed that she was dragging her feet and putting off following up on them. Why was she making this so difficult for herself?

As we talked, I noticed that Marion’s energy soared when she spoke about friends who had set up their own businesses and about her own ‘impractical’ entrepreneurial ideas. When she reverted to talking about the ‘realistic option’ of going back to mainstream corporate life her energy drained away like a pricked balloon. Her tone of voice and body language were telling a different story from her words. As we talked, she identified a strong reluctance to give up her freedom and autonomy and the focus of our conversations switched to the feasibility of entrepreneurship. Having turned down a second round interview for the Marketing Director role, she is now enthusiastically developing her own venture.

Rational vs Instinctive Decision-Making

Many of us tend to believe that our decisions should be directed by our rational brains and we distrust our emotional response. But we need to remember that our experience of working, be it positive or negative, is subjective. Whether we enjoy a job depends just as much on how we feel about it as how good it looks on paper. Our emotions are often linked to underlying values, like Marion’s pull towards freedom. And an instinctive reaction can pick up something intangible (like a company culture or a manager’s personality) that does or doesn’t feel right before you can explain the reason why.

And there’s another reason to listen to your intuition. It’s true that ‘gut feel’ can be misleading and lead to faulty conclusions*. On the other hand, psychology studies show that we do not always think best when we rely on reason alone. For more complex decisions (like career choice) our rational brains can hit information overload. If we put our attention elsewhere and allow our unconscious mind time to work through all the factors and come to a decision, we are more likely to make an ‘instinctive’ choice that we will be happier with over time, even if goes against a logical pros & cons evaluation**. 

Ways to incorporate the emotional & instinctive in your decision-making


1. Follow your energy. When you talk about each of your options, notice when your energy levels rise and when they drop. What are you most drawn to investigating? Ask your friends/family what they have noticed too. 
2. Try describing yourself out loud in each of the different options: “I’m running my own business”, “I’m a Marketing Director”. Which intuitively feels best? Which feels more like ‘you’?
3. When you find yourself over-deliberating about your options, take a break, engage in an activity that distracts your mind for a few hours and then write down your decision before consciously thinking any more about it.

And in general, when you’re considering your next move, value your emotional reactions just as much as your logical analyses.

Note: names and some details have been changed to maintain confidentiality

Further Reading
* For examples of biases see Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast & Slow
** One study by Dijksterhuis & van Olden asked participants to look at 5 posters and choose which one they liked best using 3 different techniques: 1) pros & cons 2) gut feel 3) look, solve anagrams, look again, decide. A month later the 3rd group were happiest with their choice. This Unconscious Thought Theory effect has been replicated in more complex decisions such as renting an apartment (See Richard Wiseman, 59 Seconds).

Posted by Julianne

How to creatively craft your next role

Are you struggling to work out what role you can return to?  You might think you have few choices or are attracted by many possibilities.  One way to look at this question is to think afresh about the kind of role you would like to create for yourself if you were free to do so.
 
Amanda*, formerly a Board director of a PR company, consulted me about her return to work after a 10 year career break during which she’d carried out some individual PR projects.  She was uncertain as to what to do next: although she enjoyed some aspects of her previous role, there were others that didn’t interest her at all anymore.  During our work together, Amanda identified the specific elements of her former role that still appealed (qualitative research and guiding guests around exhibitions and historic places) and set about researching how to pursue her career in each of these fields.
 
Rosie* had taken a six year break from a City law firm.  While she loved working in the law and felt strong loyalty to her former employer, she knew that the demands of returning to the partnership track were not right for her.  At the same time, Rosie knew that she had lots to offer her firm: she understood the pressures on trainee and newly qualified solicitors as well as the business needs of the organisation.  She believed that she could help her firm by providing specific support to the lawyers as they set about building their own practices … and the HR Director agreed with her!  The firm funded Rosie to gain a coaching qualification and she has continued to develop and evolve her internal career management role as the needs of the firm have changed.
Both of these are examples of women who have designed a role which stimulates them, builds on their skills and expertise as well as taking them in a new direction.  While Amanda is crafting a role from elements of her former career, Rosie has been able to create a role which was new both for her and for her employer.
If you’d like to try this approach, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Which elements of my previous roles did I most enjoy and excel at?
  • Can these elements exist as roles on their own or as key aspects of other roles? Did I notice any gaps at a previous employer which I would like to fill?
Posted by Katerina

Too few choices: advice on identifying post-break options

I’ve already talked about how we can get stuck when we see too many options. You may be experiencing the opposite problem – not being able
to think of any exciting and realistic options at all. Are you still searching for your (elusive) passion? Or are you not quite ready to let go of your old work identity and create a new one?

Maybe with time away from the workplace, you have realised that you drifted into your career but never really enjoyed it that much, and now you want to find a role you love. One client said to me recently “After working for many years without much fulfilment I’d like to follow my passion now … but I just don’t know what my passion is!” Career change advice to find your passion or your ‘dream job’ can be more harmful than helpful.  The reality is that we all have a number of possible paths we can take that could lead to satisfying and fulfilling work. Herminia Ibarra*, a professor at INSEAD who has studied many professionals and managers in career transition, suggests that the biggest mistake we can make is to delay taking a first step until we have settled on a destination.  She advises that the best way to move towards a satisfying new career is to learn by doing: try out a variety of things that appeal to you to any extent and say yes to opportunities that come your way to find out about new areas and create new networks (a project for an ex-colleague or a friend, volunteer work, a short course, …). See it as a journey of exploration, be open-minded, and you may well find a role that inspires you along the way.

Or maybe you did enjoy your pre-break career but it was in an area where you can’t see any interesting possibilities that could fit with your life today. You might
have been an investment banker or a brand marketing director and loved the excitement
of the job but can’t contemplate the 60+ hour weeks you’d need to sign up for
if you went back. However your work identity is so entwined with your old role that it’s hard to think of any interesting alternatives.

In this situation, a useful exercise is to create your ‘Ideal Work Day’. Think of all the activities you did in your previous
roles, regular and occasional. These might include meeting with
clients, developing new ideas, analysing data, recruiting, coaching, writing, researching, presenting, etc. Now choose the activities you most enjoyed and would include in your ideal day. This gives you
a starting point to think creatively about where you could find these aspects in another more
flexible role, either employed or self-employed. For example Marian recognised that she’d most enjoyed the relationship building
and presenting aspects of her consumer goods marketing roles which eventually led her into corporate fundraising. Acknowledge the sadness you may feel in letting go of your old professional identity and then focus on what aspects you can take forward into your new working life.
* Ibarra has written an excellent book for career changers “Working Identity”
Posted by Julianne

Too many choices: how to focus

When I was on a career break after stepping out of my first career in strategy/marketing, I realised after a while that being a full-time mother was not for me. I knew that I wanted to do something enjoyable and flexible and spent many hours dreaming and chatting with friends about what this might be. One month a friend and I got excited about importing baby equipment from Australia … then a few months later I was inspired to set up a family-focused travel agency … then it was a flexible childcare business … then studying psychology. I was never short of ideas but the interesting thing was that the more options I thought of, and the more I talked about them and researched them on the internet, the more problems I could see and the further I became from actually doing them. Eventually I was reluctant to share my next great idea with my friends as I had stopped believing myself that I was actually going to make any of them happen. Somehow having too many choices was stopping me pursuing any one option more seriously.
When I went on to study psychology, I found that my experience is so common that it has a label: the Paradox of Choice. Too much choice in everyday life can make us confused and paralysed. The psychologist Barry Schwartz in his book and TED talk on this topic explained “with so many options to choose from, people find it difficult to choose at all”. As no choice is perfect, we can always imagine that we will find a better alternative. And the effect can be stronger with more complex choices, such as career decisions. We are less likely to hit “choice overload” if we are clear on our preferences or have a simple way to compare between options.
What got me out of the choice paralysis was realising that first of all I needed to develop some decision criteria to work out what I wanted from my life so that I could weigh up my alternatives. While all options were appealing, with some positives and some negatives, I was unable to prioritise. When I became clearer on what was most important to me and where I could compromise, I was able to discount many of my ideas and to focus on the one that seemed the best fit. Then I needed to push myself to stop thinking/talking and start taking action. I dipped an exploratory toe in the water by enrolling on an introduction to psychology course and that was the first step on the road to retraining as a psychologist.
Some of the women returners I meet also see too many possibilities and may have been thinking and talking about all the things they could do for years without making any concrete progress. One of my clients brought a list of the 16 options she had been considering to the first meeting – unsurprisingly she felt very confused about where to go next! If you too are hitting choice overload, aim to narrow your focus to get down to a manageable number of choices to investigate:

  • Work out what is most important to you in your future job. Fine to start with 1) flexible 2) pays enough, but then go beyond that. What are you missing about work (is it using your brain, the achievement, the social aspect, …), what are you really interested in, what are you good at and love doing?  If you’re wondering where to start with this process, look at  Windmills online or Build your Own Rainbow.
  • Use this to work out what you want from work, decide what are ‘must-haves’ and where you can compromise. You can then choose a few possibilities that really appeal and seem like they could be a good fit for you. And don’t fall into the trap of looking for the perfect job as all jobs involve trade-offs (see my last post!).
  • Critically don’t spend more time thinking – practically reality test your short-list: talk to people in the area, maybe take a short course, go to a conference, work shadow, do an internship … test your ideas and learn along the way. (We’ll talk more about how to go about these steps in future posts).

Having choices and being open to possibilities is a great thing – don’t let it keep you stuck!

Posted by Julianne