Should I stay or should I go? Why it’s difficult for us to make career decisions

The unpleasant feeling in the pit of your stomach starts to form the evening before. You have to go back to work tomorrow. Back to where burn-out, bore-out or the next restructuring are just around the corner. Where you spent the last few weeks feeling as important as speck of dust on the far side of the moon. Or where, quite the contrary, you’ve been offered THE job of your dreams … but in a different department or country. What now? Love it? Change it? Leave it?

“What should my next career step be?” is one of the main triggers that leads clients into business coaching. Because rather than joyfully laying the groundwork for the future, we fret and worry. But why? And what can help to avoid getting stuck at a professional fork in the road, paralyzed by what-ifs?

The Amber Room, the Ark of the Covenant and the “optimal” decision

Having a wealth of (professional) options is both a blessing and a curse. Theoretically, everything could always be a bit better if I make the right decision. That’s exhausting. A decision is optimal, in the perennial opinion of mathematicians and economists, when one has considered every alternative—including the probability of every possible consequence. 

ChatGPT offers the same answer when asked about how to make a good decision. The artificial intelligence advises us to gather information, anticipate the consequences of a decision, seek advice, create a list of pros and cons or a decision tree, etc. But anyone who has tried to “calculate” the best professional decision is liable to be reminded of the famous Amber Room. Sure, there’s an optimal solution out there. But finding it is a devil of a problem.

A few years ago, I was flirting for months with the notion of a professional change. But did it make sense? Out of the salaried life as a PR expert? Into independence as a coach? Then I went on parental leave and major restructuring in the company forced me to make a decision.

And the winner is: no decision at all

Stay? Go? And if so, where to? Many times, we decide not to change anything—even if we are unhappy with the status quo. Modern decision-making researchers such as Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman demonstrated why*:

  • “Losses loom larger than gains”: when making decisions about changes, we weight the losses about twice as heavily as the expected, but ultimately uncertain, gains. Would I be able to work more flexibly if I were self-employed? And would that completely outweigh the lost security of being employed? Partially?
  • Having too many alternatives is overwhelming: in a field experiment, researchers had customers taste six types of jam. Later, 30 of 100 people bought a jar. If customers had a selection of 24 jams, however, only 3 (!) actually bought a jar.
  • “Sunk costs”: previously invested costs can also keep us from making decisions. This was also true for me. For although I was no longer satisfied, I wondered if it made sense to “throw away” my internal network and all the overtime hours that I had worked hard to accumulate and that might potentially still pay off.

What can help to gain clarity and focus?

There’s no all-purpose recipe for career decisions. But four steps can help:

Which parameters are the most important?

Colleagues who are friends. An empathetic boss or a highly competent one. Creative freedom, short commute, new fields of activity, professional development, a higher salary, attractive benefits—ideally, we want them all. But for most people, the greatest satisfaction in a job comes when they experience themselves as self-effective and in harmony with their values. In coaching, reflecting on your values often brings clarity and the necessary confidence to make a decision. After all, the perfect role for a doctor whose core values are curiosity, empathy and flexibility may look different from the ideal career for a doctor for whom recognition, belonging and performance are paramount.

Set goals and take action

Decisions get easier when you know what you want to achieve. But sometimes we don’t really know what we want. Plus: “You can’t find passion in your brain”, as American entrepreneur Marie Forleo so aptly puts it. Oftentimes we are so “in our own heads” about our decisions that we are essentially paralyzed.

I was helped out of this predicament during my parental leave by working out a rough game plan with my coach that autumn: “Iin March I will start to reorient myself professionally and from late summer I will start implementing it.”

Sounds vague? For me, it was exactly what I needed. In the first phase (“by March”), I stopped trying to imagine my next professional step amid sleep deprivation and two small children (and used my resolution to ward off irksome questions from the people around me). Only thereafter did I start to gather information, talk to other self-employed people and coaches, and did look into training options. The decision to embark into self-employment didn’t occur one day after weighing all the options, but gradually took shape with each new piece of information I received.

Talk back to your imaginary monsters

In career and “Plan-B” coaching, you often hear the phrase: “I would love to do this and that, but …”. But then I can’t maintain my standard of living. But then I’d be considered crazy. But I lack the expertise or experience. On closer inspection, these “buts” often (though not always) turn out to be as harmless as the paper tigers of Chinese lore. 

When I’m self-employed, what do I do when I miss the exchange with colleagues? Seek out contact with other self-employed people. What do I do if I don’t generate enough sales at the beginning? Build savings or apply for a start-up grant. What if being self-employed doesn’t make me happy? Go back to being employed. Many “worst-case scenarios” were either not so bad at all or I came up with a lot of things I could do if worst came to worst.

The worst decision: no decision at all

Regardless of whether I would have accepted, changed, or left my professional situation at the time: after months of hemming and hawing, I made it my priority to actively make any decision at all and then not to second-guess that decision afterwards. And until now, as a self-employed coach, I’ve stuck with it 😊.

Career decisions are not easy for anyone. But they are always an opportunity to reflect on yourself and your (professional) life. To sum things up in the immortal words of baseball icon Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

*Quelle: Science Notes, Das Magazin für Wissen und Gesellschaft, 18. März 2018, Was tun? Wie wir uns entscheiden und warum nicht. – Science Notes

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