Career Choice Overload

A number of years ago, a junior student I'll call Caroline came into my office for an advising meeting. She'd already declared a psych major - otherwise she wouldn't be stuck with me - but it soon became clear that she had a million interests besides her major. Which isn't bad. It's just...overwhelming. Direction sign at Soya-misaki

"I like psych, but I don't know if I'm gonna do psych. You know, in my life. Because there are so many other things," Caroline said. "Like I love rhetoric. And anthropology is amazing. And even economics fascinates me. And then there are those shows, those ones about crime scene people, they really get me. Maybe I'd like to do something like that. Or maybe be a marine biologist. That's always seemed fun, too."

Oh. My. God. Caroline may have been a poster child for a liberal arts education, but she was also a billboard for not having much hope of finding a path once her collegiate bubble burst. Not that I'm judging. I, my dear students, was just like Caroline. Perhaps still am.

How can we be reasonably expected to choose one career after a lifetime of being told "you can do anything you want"? It's tyrannical. It's ridiculous. It's...well, rude.

It's also necessary.

So let's get over kvetching about it and get on to a solution, shall we?

Adopt a New Mantra

"I'll have eleven jobs in my lifetime. I'll have eleven jobs in my lifetime."  Every time choice overload threatens to paralyze you, this is what to tell yourself. You are not choosing one job or career forever. You are simply choosing your NEXT move. You can go ahead and pursue a different interest in the future. Think of it as serial monogamy. Career style.

Get the Options Down in Black and White

Often I'll ask students experiencing career choice overload, "So have you done any work trying to figure out what you really want?" The common answer:  "Oh sure. I think about it all the time." Terrific. I think about going to Italy all the time and guess what, it hasn't gotten me there.

It's highly clarifying to get information out on a blank page. This is why experts say that to budget effectively you have to write out a budget. Um, yes, not rocket science here. Options feel like an overwhelming jumble in our heads. When we lay them all out in front of us, they look more manageable. Even if there's 50 of them.

Compile your list over the course of weeks. Every time a new idea pops into your head, add it to your list (best make the thing portable, then!). Write down specific careers, umbrella topical areas, anything that you think is related to what you might want to do. When you start recycling ideas that are already on the list, you're done.

Categorize Your Choices

Now take your handy-dandy list of interests and potential careers and put them into categories. Studies show that categories decrease choice overload. In psych-speak "categories make it easier to navigate the choice set and decrease the cognitive burden of making a choice," wrote researchers Scheibehenne and colleagues.

Many items on your list will relate to one another. For instance, say you wrote down the over-arching field of entymology. You also wrote down later on your list that you particularly like stink bugs. Ta da! This is really one choice, not two. (Lest you mock this option, specializing in stink bugs may very well get you on NPR).

Save The List. Permanently.

This is a tip I picked up from my fiction writing days:  it's much easier to cut material if you know you'll always have it saved somewhere. So before you go deleting any options, save the original list somewhere you can access it again in the future. Chances are you never will look at it again (the fiction passages that were so bad I cut them from my awful fiction wholes? not needed), but you'll feel reassured knowing it's not gone forever.

Pick a Heuristic, Any Heuristic

When's the last time someone implored you to do that? I tell you, we offer first time experiences at CA101. Good stuff here. Good stuff.

A heuristic is simply a rule of thumb we use to make decisions and solve problems. They simplify information so that we don't become paralyzed. It makes sense then that in their detailed analysis of 50 studies on choice overload, psychologists Scheibehenne and colleagues found that using heuristics helped people avoid choice overload.

Here are four heuristics they point to as useful options. Take your pick! Or mix and match!

  • Elimination-by-Aspects Strategy:  Quickly screen out any options or categories that don't seem attractive. The more you allow yourself to rely on your "gut" instead of logic here, the better.
  • Satisficing Heuristic:  "Choose the first option that exceeds [your] aspiration level." In other words, pick what's "good enough" - don't try to find "perfect." Some of us have personalities that do this better than others (we others are called maximizers), but even us perfection seekers can train ourselves to use the satisficing heuristic.
  • Consideration-Set Model:  Consider how much work you'd have to put into each option (e.g., do you have to go back to school?) and how much benefit (emotional, financial, liturgical) you'd receive from each. Which will give you the most bang for your buck?
  • Go With the Default:  Probably the simplest heuristic there is. Simply pick the option from the list that feels most obvious. For instance, you already have a degree in english. Pursuing a job as an editor probably makes more sense than retraining to becoming a physician's assistant.

Give Yourself Plenty of Time

This whole process takes time. So don't try to do it, say, two weeks before applications are due to a graduate program you're considering. Studies show that the more time pressured we feel, the more choice overload and subsequent regret we experience.

Summing Up

So there you have it:  the steps to overcoming choice overload. Sounds so simple, doesn't it? <sigh> Alright, not so much. But you have to do it. Otherwise we'll end up like poor Caroline, who bounced from one unsatisfying superficial job to the next, never willing to "settle" or to "rule out options" and hence never able to dig into anything. When she checked in with me five years after graduating, asking for another round of letters of reference to graduate schools in a wholly different field than she'd applied in the previous two years, she said, "I'm just so afraid I'll miss out on something. Like, if I do go with teaching, then what about my passion for finance. Do I just give that up?"

Well, yes, Caroline, you do. For now. Just for now. And then you go and find some great hobbies to indulge your many interests in the meantime.

Related Posts:

Awash in Choices

How to Create Your "Life Goal"

Time, Time Everywhere, and Not a Second to Use

Scheibehenne, B., Greifeneder, R., & Todd, P M. (2010). Can There Ever be Too Many Options? A Meta-Analytic Review of Choice Overload.. Journal of Consumer Research, 37, 409-425.

Pulled in too many conflicting directions? (Photo credit: shirokazan)