Career Choice Dismantled

Inspired by providing career coaching these past few weeks for the latest batch of MBAs at INSEAD, I’d like to dedicate this post to the challenges of career choice. In our modern society, we have great freedom to choose our path, which can create great stress for people who want to make the ‘right’ choices. The problem is there are no ‘right’ choices. There are too many variables at stake – too much we don’t know and too much we can’t know.

That being said, although we can’t plan, we can still manage our careers. There are decisions to be made – and if we want to be satisfied with our professional lives, then the decisions must be made as much by our hearts as our heads. That requires a good deal of self-awareness, as well as awareness of the possibilities around us. We can’t rely on other people’s advice because it comes from the lens of what they value. To make a choice that allows you to thrive, you need to understand what you value.

What drives your career choices?

Each person has his/her own constellation of wants and needs when it comes to a career. Some pieces of the puzzle we know consciously, while others are more intuitive. So, when I ask people about the factors that influence their career choices, of course I hear many different things. The broad range of criteria, however, seem to converge around three themes:

Some talk about the money, the perks or prestige; the lifestyle or family considerations, or the network they will gain from the job. I call these ‘external’ drivers for a career. Although they are the most often cited reasons for choosing between options, our success and fulfilment are usually not driven by these factors that come from outside of us.

Some talk about the nature of the work responsibilities they enjoy having or would like to have. For example, they were trained as engineers but no longer want to be in engineering; they want to learn about financial management or marketing consumer products. They want to be managing people or defining strategy. I put these in the ‘expertise’ bucket – the skills and knowledge they have or want to build.

Some talk about the goal of being satisfied and happy, being in a job that honours their values and where they can do things that interest them at work. I call these the ‘enthusiasm’ drivers. Feeling positive and in ‘flow’ in our professional life becomes more and more important over our careers especially for those who focused on jumping through the hoops set by the outside world and realise that something is still missing.

How can you choose a career in which you thrive?

Here is what I have observed over the years, it’s not sustainable to focus on only one or two of the dimensions. Think about the person who is good at his well-paid job but is miserable every day (satisfying expertise and external but not enthusiasm); or the keen entrepreneur who makes a technically brilliant product but can’t drum up demand (satisfying enthusiasm and expertise but not external); or the person who gets the promotion into an exciting new area that is way out of his depth (satisfying enthusiasm and external but not expertise).

‘Thriving’ happens when you honour all three dimensions:

  • Enthusiasm – honour your values at work and do things that interest you
  • Expertise – develop the skills and knowledge that allow you to be really good at what you do
  • External – have enough opportunities and rewards both professionally and personally

It is indeed hard to get all three – and that is probably why many people are not thriving in their professional lives. The framework is not intended to be a yardstick by which all job postings are measured, rather a way to notice our blind spots and remind us to bring to consciousness a more complete understanding of what brings us balance.

Can you find your Triple-E Spot?

Think about where you stand on each of these dimensions today. Have you only been building on one or two of the dimensions? What changes can you make that will bring you closer to the centre? By identifying the factors that are most important to you across all of the dimensions, it can allow you to make sense of where things aren’t working and where you need to refine and make adjustments.

You can begin by some introspection about what you value in different possibilities for yourself. Check your assumptions to strip away the things you think you ‘should’ value, and stick with the things that really do make you thrive. Make small forays to try out the missing dimensions in your life and see what you can learn about yourself and your possibilities. Finding your ‘triple E’ spot can be elusive and impermanent, but it is the process of searching that can put you on the right path.

I’ll be exploring these career transition topics in the next few posts. I’d love to hear about how these dimensions have played a role in your career decisions.

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