Choice – The Other “C” Word. How to Overcome Career Paralysis

Photo: Letizia Bordon on Unsplash

“Analysis paralysis occurs when you overthink and underwork.”

- Orrin Woodward, American leader, entrepreneur and bestselling author.

Compared to previous generations, we are privileged with the amount of career choice that exists today. One would expect this to be a good thing. So why is it so many struggle with career choice to the point of avoiding it, delaying it, or not making any choice at all? Choice is a privilege, yet in its shadow, grief, stress, frustration, defeat, and at times, utter disappointment and hopelessness sometimes follow. In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz suggests that choice is not all it’s cracked up to be. Barry suggests that we often end up feeling less satisfied with more choices than we would with fewer. One reason for this phenomenon is explained by the ease with which we romanticize the attributes of the other choices, which in turn induces regret and subtracts from the decision we made, even if the decision we made is a good one. To sum up, with more options available, it’s easier to experience regret.

Schwarz posits that given all the choices available, we also experience an escalation of expectations, suggesting that our expectations often rise when there are more options to select from.  Consequently, many find themselves experiencing career paralysis. I can recall a mid-career client who lamented the fact that his father and siblings had gone back to school at his age. He was an extremely intellectual and analytical client who had spent the better part of two years thinking about what the best option for him would be.  In surmising the situation, he exclaimed, “I should be the one going back to university, I’m the thinker of the family and universities are for thinkers,” to which I responded, “and it sounds as though they are the doers in the family.”  He not only spent a disproportionate amount of time thinking about what he could do and was also happily throwing himself a pity party to celebrate his inaction.

You may be experiencing career paralysis if any of the following situations ring true for you:

You spend as much time as possible gathering information; you may even genuinely enjoy gathering it.

It’s important to make an informed decision and gathering information can be a great way to do this. However, you will never have “all” of the information. In fact, the longer you spend gathering information, the more likely some of the information you gather is no longer relevant or becomes outdated and inaccurate.

Given that we live in an age of information, it’s never been easier to access information, but not all information is correct, nor is it always useful. As an example, many educational programs proudly boast high employment rates among recent graduates, but many of these statistics are difficult to interpret since they often include students employed in industries outside their educational qualifications (that’s right, accounting graduates employed in the fast-food industry count!).  It’s also unclear if these statistics are simply a reflection of the students who responded.

It’s up to you to decide when to stop gathering information and start moving in a direction to avoid the inevitable information hamster wheel. Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time available and the same holds true for career decision making. If you give yourself six months to gather information and make a decision, it will probably take you six months to do so.  Set a drop date to make a decision and start taking small steps towards your future.

After spending countless hours amassing information, you spend an equal amount of time combing through it and thinking about it.

It’s great to reflect on information and experiences, but don’t adopt an insular approach to decision making. Enlisting the help of others is paramount for filtering through information and determining what is relevant and of good quality. One such way to do this is by conducting information interviews, which involves talking to people in careers or industries you are interested in; not for the purpose of asking for a job, but for the purpose of understanding if it’s a career or industry you want to explore further.  If you don’t know how to conduct an information interview or what to ask, Google it and/or stay tuned for upcoming posts!

When I recommend information interviews, many people freeze and think of some reason why they can’t conduct one (e.g., I’m introverted, I suck at networking, I work full time and don’t know when I could talk to them, I don’t know what to say, no one will probably get back to me - all of which are excuses). The main issue is how you are viewing the task. Are you viewing it as an inconvenience and a potential opportunity for rejection? Are you viewing it is an opportunity to drown outside your comfort zone in untested waters? That’s a sure-fire way to catastrophize your way out of talking to a stranger.  If you were lost in a foreign country, would you stop and ask for directions?  Have you stopped and asked for directions and someone was unable to help you? Did that stop you from asking another person? I bet that the person who eventually gave you directions more than likely felt good about helping you out. Or perhaps you yourself have provided directions to a lost but appreciative traveler. Information interviews are like asking for directions. If you are fortunate enough to find someone who enjoys their career, most often they will happily talk about themselves and their work. Entice them with an offer of a coffee or lunch and a well-crafted email that indicates you are looking for information versus a job; your chances of getting an information interview are already looking better! And be sure to reach out to the people who are directly in the job not just those hiring for the positions.

You get excited, nervous, or overwhelmed with the amount of information you collect.

Take some time to understand what type of information you really need. Quality of information is more important than quantity. I often see university bound students tell me that their career decision making was informed by a trip to the admissions and registrar’s office; it was there that they learned what programs were offered and which ones they could apply to. Are you kidding me? In most cases, their job is to promote and sell you on a program and reach into your pocket and take your hard earned (or your parents’ hard earned) money.

While it’s important to pursue economically viable options, if you are unengaged in what you do, you will have a hard time getting up to go to work or school. And courses don’t always reflect the occupation and vice versa. I’ve seen many people loathe their classes only to thrive in their careers, and others thrive in their classes and end up disliking their work. If you are like the countless others who have picked a program to later find out that it wasn’t for you, you could easily second guess your intelligence and erode your confidence; you will need both these things to pick yourself up and try again. Focus on what you need to know versus what you want to know. As mentioned above, conducting information interviews is an important strategy to help you make an informed decision. Who better to tell you about a career than the person doing it, rather than the school admissions advisor?  

You really want to make sure you make the right decision, but you are feeling overwhelmed.

Most decisions are rarely final, but I understand it may not feel that way. Most career decisions are comprised of smaller decisions (e.g., what program to take, what school to go to, what courses and electives to take, how long to finish the program, what jobs to apply for, etc.). However, we sometimes espouse rigid metaphors to life, such as, “When one door closes, another opens.” Sure, this could be the case, but stop and think for a minute: What is the function of the door? Once it’s closed, is it incapable of being reopened? You may not want to go through the door again, but that is much different than being unable to open it again.  Barring some fire escapes and the few folks that have been banned from bars because of excessive drunkenness, have you ever seen or experienced a door like this? When we adapt a perspective or belief, it can subsequently impact the decisions we make or don’t make; or as Seneca put it, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Also, learn to recognize that excessive or delayed information gathering may be a symptom of something larger that rhymes with beer – fear. For example, the fear of picking the wrong career, the fear of making a mistake, the fear of looking stupid, the fear of wasting time and money. Careers and education require an investment of both time and money, both of which are highly valuable resources. However, if you are approaching career decision making with such a dichotomous lens (right versus wrong; success versus mistake) you are essentially approaching career as a needle in a haystack challenge instead of recognizing that there may be other haystacks and/or multiple needles in the same haystack.

The reality is that most people have multi-career potential (they can pursue and be good at more than one career and enjoy it too). Career change and transition is common, although acceptance of the latter less so. If you are not giving yourself permission to explore and adapt based on your own development or forces outside you (e.g., economy) then you are really creating a “pick and stick” mentality when it comes to your career. I’d hate to be an egg in your basket! 

Instead, approach your career decision making using an iterative (design thinking) approach. With this approach you adopt an ongoing process of gathering information, making a decision, testing it, analyzing it, then refining your plan, testing other options, and then starting the process again. Not only is this process likely to lead to action, but it can lead to better outcomes since you are integrating updated information along the way. You didn’t think you were a static being living in a static world, did you? It’s difficult to know what your life will look like in five or 10 years from now. Most of the time, we make decisions based on the person we know today. If we change and our circumstances change, it stands to reason so might our career decisions.

In his article, titled, Stop Worrying About Making the Right Decision, Ed Batista suggests that people focus too much on the actual decision point. According to Ed, “We overemphasize the moment of choice and lose sight of everything that follows. Merely selecting the ‘best’ option doesn’t guarantee that things will turn out well in the long run, just as making a sub-optimal choice doesn’t doom us to failure or unhappiness.”

No matter how hard you try, you just can’t seem to make any progress.

This is likely untrue and depends in part on how you define “progress.” What you really mean to say is that you failed to make time to notice and recognize the progress you did make. Calling the school to get information equals progress. Talking to the hot babe at the bar about what school and program she is taking equals progress. Signing the application your mother filled out for you equals progress. I’m reaching for examples here, but you get the point.  We often take a number of small steps yet fail to stop and recognize them since we are solely focused on the last step in a series of foundational ones (e.g., graduate, get job, get promotion, etc.). Just as important as keeping your eye on the goal, is to notice how far you have come and the action(s) you took. If you feel as though you are having a difficult time taking action, enlist the support of a friend as an accountability partner, or the services of a career professional. Regardless of who you enlist to help you, you must learn to see your progress otherwise you run the risk of feeling permanent career paralysis.

Do you have a story or a tip for overcoming career paralysis? What strategies do you find useful or not useful? Leave a comment below for the career with a view crew!

Batista, E. Retrieved from: Stop Worrying About Making the Right Decision (hbr.org)

Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why more is less. Harper Collins, New York.