Throughout most of history, people basically just did what their parents did. “What should I do with my life?” wasn’t a question young people struggled with. These days, most of us have a huge range of possible careers before us. “What should I do with my life?” is one of the biggest and most challenging decisions we face in our lives.
This is a sign of progress—and having more choice is empowering. But you don’t need to be an expert in human psychology to realize that too much choice can be problematic. Too much choice without proper guidance can lead to analysis paralysis—if you’ve ever spent 10 minutes standing helplessly in the same supermarket aisle trying to figure out which variety of peanut butter is truly the best then you’ll know what I mean. Too many options can also mean we end up less satisfied with our decisions, because even once we’ve made our choice, we might agonize over whether really we should have bought crunchy, not smooth (the answer is always yes, by the way).
When you think about how important career choice really is, it’s surprising more research hasn’t been done to help people make better decisions. With around 80,000 hours of your life dedicated to your career, having a satisfying one is a crucial component of living a good life. Aside from perhaps your choice of spouse and whether or not to have children, what decision could be more important? The careers people choose are also vital to a healthy economy; better allocation of talent means that people are in jobs they can excel at and reap potentially huge rewards.
The career guidance most people receive isn’t anywhere near sufficient. We hear plenty of platitudes: things like “follow your passion” and “go with your gut,” but these aren’t very actionable and may even be completely wrong.
At the organization 80,000 Hours, my colleagues and I have been developing a comprehensive, evidence-based career guide to help people navigate the difficult terrain of career choice. Based on hundreds of interviews with people all over the world struggling with “what to do with their lives,” and surveying the psychology literature on making decisions under uncertainty, we developed a thorough, step-by-step process for making tough career choices.
A step-by-step process for making better career decisions:
Part of why career choice is so daunting is that it’s framed as this single huge decision, which will determine the course of the rest of your life: “What’s the right career for me?” This creates a lot of pressure, and it’s also not that useful. The world is constantly changing, and we’re not particularly good at predicting what things will be like far into the future. The industry you’re thinking about now may not even exist in 20 years.
Instead, try just asking yourself, “What’s the next decision I need to make?” That might be deciding what internship to take, what job to do for the next couple of years, or whether you should be looking to move from your current career. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about where you want to be in the long term at all—having a broad vision for the future can be really helpful—but don’t agonize about figuring it all out right now. This first step is all about simplifying and clarifying a single decision you can make. Talking about career “choice” in the singular creates an unnecessary amount of pressure. Instead, think of your career as a series of smaller decisions, at each stage building on and learning from earlier experiences.
Many people make career decisions by “going with their gut”: choosing the career that intuitively feels right to them. But should we trust our intuitions about what the right career is? Research finds that intuitive judgements are most reliable in environments where there’s a lot of regularity, and clear feedback on how our decisions turn out. Career choice isn’t such a domain.
There’s a large body of literature (pdf) suggesting that when interview candidates are chosen based on general impressions, it’s about as effective as tossing a coin. Structured interviews, asking questions designed to test for specific traits, and scoring each candidate on those traits, seem to work much better (pdf). Choosing candidates for a job and choosing a career have much in common: there are a lot of different factors to consider, a huge number of unknowns, and it can be a long time before we get any feedback on whether our decision was a good one or not. This suggests we should be skeptical of our “gut feelings” about careers, and consider supplementing them with a more systematic process.
For many decisions, we’re not even sure what are the most important factors to consider. Thinking about the criteria that are important to you and writing them down is the first step toward better career decisions. Research suggests a number of factors that are particularly important for satisfying work include: the wider significance of your work, variety, and feedback.
Research in both psychology and organizational decision-making suggests that a tendency to think too narrowly is a barrier to effective decision-making. This tendency is supported both by direct research on decision-making and by the existence of more general biases. The availability heuristic, for example, causes us to focus more on options that are readily available, and anchoring means we tend to overweight the first piece of information we receive.
This is potentially a huge problem for career choice; if you don’t consider that many options, the chances are pretty high that you’re overlooking something you could be well-suited to.
In Broaden the Decision Frame to Make Effective Decisions, professor Richard Larrick of Duke University suggests a number of useful techniques for generating a wide range of options, including:
- Using checklists and frameworks: Breaking down complex tasks into smaller areas can help you to ensure you’re covering a wide range of possible options. You might go through each of the criteria you identified as being important, for example, and try to brainstorm as many careers as possible that do well on each criterion.
- Using groups: Pooling together the independent perspectives of different people can be a great way to get a diverse range of options.
- Consider the opposite: Asking yourself, “Why might my current ideas about this be wrong?” can be an extremely effective technique for generating ideas you hadn’t thought of before.
Research suggests that using a simple formula can improve decisions in a number of different domains: from predicting parole outcomes to the chances of success for a new business. Instead of trying to make judgements based on intuitive impressions, we might do better using a more systematic process: identifying the most important factors and then looking at how each option scores across those factors. In a meta-analysis of over 100 studies, around half show that formulas make significantly better predictions than experts, particularly in domains where there’s a lot of uncertainty and poor feedback on decisions. Since career choice is similar in these respects—lots of uncertainty and poor and delayed feedback—this suggests a more formulaic approach to choosing might be worth trying.
The next step we suggest is to go roughly score each of your options on the most important criteria according to your priorities. This needn’t be precise at this stage, but it can help you get a clearer sense of the advantages and disadvantages of different options.
This can sometimes give surprising results. When I graduated from college I tried doing this with two options I was considering: a PhD in philosophy, or a career in finance. Beforehand, I was sure that a PhD in philosophy was the better option. But when I tried scoring both careers on the factors research suggests are most important for job satisfaction, working in finance came out on top. I realized that I’d been focusing too much on what seemed interesting to me, and neglecting various day-to-day aspects of the job: like the amount of feedback you get, and the satisfaction you get from actually completing tasks. I ended up choosing neither—but it helped me decide definitively against doing a philosophy PhD. Our brains simply don’t have the capacity to hold lots of different factors in mind at once, so this kind of simple process can help you make sure you’re not missing anything important.
In economics, the term value of information refers to how much a new piece of information will help improve your decision. Acquiring useful information is key to making good decisions, especially when the stakes are high. With career decisions, there tends to be lots of relevant information you can gain quite easily, but it can be difficult to know what is going to be most useful. Are you better off reading more job descriptions online to find out what a job would involve day-to-day, or should you spend your time talking to other people to find out how much they enjoy their jobs? There’s evidence that people often continue to seek information beyond the point where it can help their decision, while avoiding information that might actually be useful.
A quick way to get a better sense of where information is most valuable is to think about what your biggest uncertainties are. When you were scoring your various options, which criteria did you find most difficult to evaluate? Which jobs did you find you knew least about? What are the most important pieces of information, which, if you learned them, could change what you do? You might realize, for example, that you really have no idea if you’d enjoy research or not, or that you don’t have a clue how hard it is to get into.
Many of the things we’re most uncertain about are things that are difficult to evaluate intuitively, without real-world experience. How interesting is working in advertising? How much good will I do if I work for this charity? Will I be able to hack the long hours in finance? It’s easy to spend lots of time speculating, but the best way to get more information on these questions is just to go and get real-world feedback: talk to people, try a role, test things out.
For example, if you’re uncertain about what kinds of jobs you could get, it could well be worth just applying to lots of them and seeing what sort of response you get. If you don’t know whether you’ll enjoy a certain job, it might be worth shadowing someone who’s in the industry (or talking to them) to find out about their experience.
When you’ve finished investigating, take your top two to five options, and score them from one to 10 based on each of your factors from step 2. Writing out your priorities and assessing your options ensures you’ve thought through each aspect of the decision. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should automatically go with the career with the highest score, though. This isn’t a mathematical process, but an informed judgement: there’s evidence that the best process when making a complex decision is to consider all the facts, then let your unconscious mind process them and make the final decision.
This might sound like it contradicts the earlier recommendation not to trust your intuitive judgements, and instead to use a formula. But the point of using a formula isn’t that your intuitions are useless—simply that it’s unwise to trust them blindly, without making sure you’re not missing important considerations. If you’ve spent a lot of time thinking through the various pros and cons of the different options, and you still have a strong gut judgement pushing you in a certain direction, then it’s much more likely that judgement is well-informed.
While systematic processes—evaluating all your options on specific criteria—can be incredibly helpful for identifying the most important considerations, the biggest risk is that they lead to analysis paralysis. At a certain point, it’s important to just make a decision and do something. If you’re lucky, one of your options will clearly be better than the others. If not, and you can’t reduce your uncertainty any further, it’s likely that the options vying for top spot are all pretty good.