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The Secret to a Happy Career?

Just Start Somewhere

In today’s working world, there are new industries emerging every day: Many current popular job titles (social media manager, iOS developer, UX designer) didn’t even exist 10 years ago. While the reality of an evolving workforce can be exciting, it’s also difficult to anticipate what jobs will even exist five, ten, or 20 years down the road. With current industries constantly shifting, how can you possibly decide where to start?

The answer may lie in understanding the psychological behaviors that make embracing and sifting through this wide variety of career choices so difficult—and learning how to overcome them. In doing so, you can shift your mindset, acknowledging that modern success is rarely determined by one perfect job choice at the start of your career, but by a variety of good choices along the way.

Jenny Dorsey

Chef and Entrepreneur

“The glitz and glamor of the fashion industry motivated me initially. I wanted to be the 'it' girl, go to these cool parties, and buy beautiful clothes. I wanted this perfect Facebook life. I didn't stop to think about what it really meant for my lifestyle and day-to-day living. I was internally miserable, but I felt trapped.

As I've been able to untangle more of what I do and don’t want, I've learned the most important thing to me in a job is being able to help people. Consulting definitely allows me to positively impact people's lives. But now I want to do more, so I'm working on starting a new company that will serve as a co-working space, test kitchen, and incubator for those in the food and beverage industry."

It’s Easy to Feel Overwhelmed

Not only have emerging technologies created new jobs, they’ve also increased exposure to job options. While it seems like this would make it easier to pick a career, myriad virtual job boards, apps, and social media platforms can actually make it more difficult to decide (a similar phenomenon has been observed in online dating). Sure, options are inherently a good thing, but too many options can lead us to second-guess ourselves or delay making a choice at all.

“Many people become paralyzed and are unable to make a decision because there are too many career options to choose from,” Caitlin Faas, a psychology professor at Mount St. Mary’s who also works as a career coach, says.

This tendency—known as “choice overload”—can impact different people to different degrees. Some of us find it easier to simply make “good enough” decisions that meet a few core qualities (what psychologists call “Satisficers”), while others feel compelled to do as much research as possible to determine the “perfect” option (what psychologists call “Maximizers”).

One way to diminish the impact of choice overload is to shift your approach—while finding the “perfect” first job sounds appealing, approaching the multitude of options you encounter with a Maximizer mindset can actually make your decision less satisfying.

Chris Mahan

Co-founder and CEO, Jobvocate

"After I was in IT for a few years, my company went through the first of several transitions. It seemed like each time they wanted to cut costs, IT was first on list. It was then I started to think about getting out of that field. I focused on new career paths that could utilize at least some of my previous skills, and that’s how I landed on data analytics.

Today I realize that the only constant is change. When it comes to your career, change is good. Switching career paths opened up so many new opportunities for me. It even inspired me to start my own software company which draws on my new skills and the skills I learned early in my career.”

Take a Note from the Satisficers

In a study on happiness and choice, Barry Schwartz, psychology professor at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice, found that even though Satisficers made decisions more quickly and with less information, they tended to be happier with the end result than Maximizers. In our recent career survey of 1,000 people, Earnest found something similar: People with the highest happiness ratings (76%) at work had a job search that lasted less than two weeks.

Of course, you can’t change your mode of decision-making entirely overnight, but you can take small steps to realize that “good enough” doesn’t mean you’re settling or missing something.

As Kristen Hamilton, CEO of job-training platform Koru, advises , “Just get to 51% certain you want to pursue a path.” 

After all, it’s hard to truly know what you want—from culture to company size to industry—until you start working full-time. Look at all your options, and make a decision based on what you know right now.

Focus on the Future, Not the Past

What if you take the plunge into a new job, but soon realize you don’t like it? While it’s important to understand why you don’t like a job before jumping ship, it’s also important to know when to leave. Oftentimes, we keep doing something simply because of the time we’ve already invested—whether that’s time put into a specific degree, company, or industry—a bias called “sunk cost fallacy.”

Many recent graduates, Hamilton says, are overly focused on finding work that aligns perfectly with their degree. She recommends taking a look through job titles—you’ll see that very few correlate closely to a major or concentration: “What you learn in school is rarely what you do in work. You don’t really become a philosopher if you studied philosophy.”

Faas says one way to overcome this fallacy is to lay out the benefits of trying out a new career path, rather than focusing on the consequences of starting over. “Don’t let the feeling of [lost time] make the decision for you—make your career decisions based on true gains,” she says.

If you do change jobs after a few years, you’re far from alone: According to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median tenure for workers 25 to 34 is only 2.8 years. What’s more, a variety of skills and outside perspective may actually help you break into a new industry—CareerBuilder found that 53% of employers think job hoppers “have a wide range of expertise.”

Faas likes to think of careers as puzzle pieces that fit together into one larger picture.

“At the time, you don’t know what the picture is going to look like,” she says. “You never know how that one conversation, relationship with a colleague, or particular job may help you until later when you have hindsight.”

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