Choosing a Career in the Era of Too Much Choice

The abundance of professional possibilities can make choosing a career difficult.

How To Find Fulfilling Work

In "How to Find Fulfilling Work," Roman Krznaric reveals how to make sense out of choosing a career.

Cover Courtesy Picador USA

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How to Find Fulfilling Work (Picador USA, 2012), by Roman Krznaric, shows how to take working life in new directions — how to negotiate the labyrinth of choices, how to think about personal ambitions and motivations, and ultimately how to take concrete steps to choosing a career that is fulfilling. While not ignoring the insights of psychology or the need for practical planning, it reveals wisdom about work found in sociology, history, literature, film and philosophy. It may be a false illusion that there is some perfect dream job out there for us, an ideal calling or vocation. But this book is premised on the idea that it is possible to find work that is life-enhancing. The excerpt below comes from chapter 2, “A Short History of Career Confusion.”  

‘Blue Poles’

I remember, aged 23, standing with my father in front of Blue Poles, a painting by Jackson Pollock. He told me that the poles made him think of the bars of a prison cell into which he was gazing. My interpretation was the opposite. I felt as if I was trapped inside a cell, looking out in frustration at the free world.

‘But how could you possibly feel that?’ he asked. ‘You have so much freedom and so many opportunities before you.’

Of course he was right. After graduating from university in Britain, I had travelled around Australia and Indonesia, earned some money working in telephone call centers, and volunteered at Amnesty International. Finally, I had found a job as a financial journalist in London — although it was not nearly as fulfilling as I’d hoped it would be.

‘I feel I’ve got too many choices. All those squiggles on the canvas are my confused thoughts about what to do next. And the bars, maybe, are my fears about making the wrong decision. I don’t think journalism is my true vocation in life. But how am I supposed to discover what is?’

‘You’re only young, kiddo. You can try different careers. There’s no point doing something you don’t really enjoy.’

It was well-meaning but bland advice that brought out my frustrations.

‘You don’t realize how hard it is to be free,’ I replied brusquely, recognizing how pathetic it sounded as I said it.

He couldn’t really understand. It made no sense to him that someone in my position could feel trapped. My father had arrived in Australia as a refugee from Poland in 1951, and had little opportunity to pursue his talents as a mathematician, linguist and musician. After serving three years as an auxiliary nurse in a Sydney hospital — forced labor that was the price of his citizenship — he was lucky to find a job as an accountant at IBM, which gave him the security and stability he needed to construct a new life following years of wartime dislocation. He worked there for over fifty years.

I, on the other hand, had career possibilities that he could never have hoped to imagine. And yet there I was complaining, in the National Gallery in Canberra, feeling perplexed — almost paralyzed — by the array of choices before me. Should I try another branch of journalism? Or perhaps train as an English teacher and find a tutoring job in Spain or Italy? Maybe do tennis coaching for a while? Or a postgraduate degree? No matter how hard I stared at Blue Poles, I could not see any answers.

I am not alone in having experienced such swirls of confusion. Indeed, very few people today are able to shift career without going through a turbulent period of uncertainty about what direction to follow, which can last months — or even several years. Yet before focusing on how to make the best choices to find fulfilling work, we need to address a critical question: why is it so difficult to decide which career path to take? We must understand the sources of our confusion prior to seeking a way out of the labyrinth.

On some level the problem is plain overload. We can walk into a bookshop and find dozens of inch-thick career guides, each profiling hundreds of different jobs. One website lists 12,000 careers, starting with 487 under the letter ‘A’ alone — able seaman, abrasive grinder, absorption operator, acetone-recovery worker…How are we supposed to choose between so many options? But beneath the sheer number of possibilities lie three fundamental reasons why career choice is often such a conundrum: we are not psychologically equipped to deal with the expansion of choice in recent history; we are burdened by our own pasts, especially the legacy of our early educational choices; and because the popular science of personality testing rarely helps us pinpoint fulfilling careers.

As we gradually grasp how these forces shape our lives, we will discover that being able to identify the causes of our career dilemmas is the beginning of moving beyond them.

The Inheritance of Choice

In 1716, the ten-year-old Benjamin Franklin began working with his father as a tallow chandler in Boston. But after two years, the young boy was sick of cutting wicks and filling moulds for candles, and began dreaming of running away to sea, so his father thought to find him another career. They walked together around the neighboring streets, where Benjamin could see the available options, watching joiners, bricklayers and other tradesmen at their work. Although Benjamin was ‘still hankering for the sea’, his father finally decided that his bookish son was best suited to becoming a printer, and so secured him an apprenticeship that legally bound him to a print workshop for the next nine years.

For most of history, people had little choice about the jobs they did. Work was a matter of fate and necessity rather than freedom and choice. As with Benjamin Franklin, the decision was often made by their parents, and they were typically expected to follow the family trade. The occupational surnames that so many of us still carry, such as Smith, Baker and Butcher, are remnants of this tradition (Krznaric means ‘son of a furrier’ in Croatian). Many had the misfortune to be born into slavery or serfdom, and women were generally confined to work in the home. Since the industrial revolution, however, the range of career opportunities has expanded beyond recognition. We need to understand not only the origins of our new era of choice, but how we have become psychologically tyrannized by our hard-won freedom.

Karl Marx, one of the first social thinkers to take the subject of career choice seriously, saw that the erosion of feudalism and the rise of wage labor in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries offered some hope for change. Each worker had ‘become a free seller of labor-power, who carries his commodity wherever he finds a market’. That sounds like progress. But he also pointed out that this was an illusory freedom, because most of the possibilities on offer were back-breaking industrial jobs that turned people into slaves of the capitalist system, ‘which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor’.

If you were a poor woman in Britain, France or Belgium, for instance, you might be working in the coal mines as a ‘drawer’, crawling down the shafts on your hands and knees, and hauling up loads of coal to the surface for twelve hours a day, through tunnels less than thirty inches high.

The nineteenth century may have been the era of Dickensian poverty and hellish laboring in the mines and textile mills, but it simultaneously witnessed a revolution in career choice through the spread of public education and the invention of the career open to talent. It was increasingly common, especially in northern Europe, for job selection to be based on merit and qualification rather than bloodline or social connections. Here at last was a chance to scramble up the social hierarchy — though you were most likely to benefit if you were a middle-class man. The British civil service, for example, began making appointments through competitive examination, a development which infuriated the aristocracy, who wanted the cushy jobs for themselves. Few outsiders were able to break into esteemed professions such as law, medicine or the clergy, but if you were the clever and hard-working son — or even daughter — of an artisan or laborer, you might now be able to find your way into white-collar work as an office clerk, tax collector or teacher. By 1851, there were 76,000 men and women working as school teachers in Britain, with a further 20,000 governesses.

If the expansion of public education was the main event in the story of career choice in the nineteenth century, in the twentieth it was the growing number of women who entered the paid workforce. In the US in 1950 around 30 percent of women had jobs, but by the end of the century that figure had more than doubled, a pattern which was repeated throughout the West. This change partly resulted from the struggle for the vote and the legitimacy gained from doing factory work in two World Wars. Perhaps more significant was the impact of the pill. Within just fifteen years of its invention in 1955, over twenty million women were using oral contraceptives, with more than ten million using the coil. By gaining more control over their own bodies, women now had greater scope to pursue their chosen professions without the interruption of unwanted pregnancy and childrearing. However, this victory for women’s liberation has been accompanied by severe dilemmas for both women and men as they attempt to find a balance between the demands of family life and their career ambitions — a subject I will come back to.

In the twenty-first century, we stand as the inheritors of this gradual shift from fate to choice that has filtered into most Western nations. This is not to say that we now live in an age of enlightenment where everyone can, like Sylvester Stallone’s boxing hero Rocky Balboa, achieve the mythical American Dream and become whoever they want to be, even if they were born on the wrong side of the tracks. Just ask the migrant workers on the checkout till at your local supermarket, or professional women trying to break into the upper echelons of the corporate world. But looking at the big historical picture, there is little doubt that the majority of people searching for a job today are likely to have far more career opportunities than if they had been living only a century ago.

To get a personal feel for this historical transformation, it is worth pausing to draw a family tree going back a few generations, and including the occupations of each of your family members.

Now ask yourself this question:

• How much choice have you had over your working life compared with your parents or grandparents?  

As in my own case, this family tree is likely to show the career options dwindling away as you go back in time. Perhaps your grandfather was proud to be a factory foreman, but he did not have the education to climb further up the ladder, and his career was disrupted by the war. Maybe your mother was one of the brightest girls in her class at school and wanted to go to university, but she succumbed to family and social pressure to marry young, have children and become a housewife. In all probability, you will have had the good fortune to enjoy many more opportunities than your forebears.

Yet if we are so lucky, why does choosing a career and finding fulfilling work still feel like such a challenge? The answer, according to psychologist Barry Schwartz, is that we now have too muchchoice, and are not good at dealing with it. Although a life without choice is almost unbearable, says Schwartz, we can reach a tipping point where having an abundance of options becomes an overload. ‘At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.’

In his book The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz begins by discussing our excess of consumer choice, noting that his local supermarket offers its customers 285 varieties of biscuit and 175 kinds of salad dressing. Another example he gives is the telephone industry. Unlike only a few decades ago, most people in affluent Western nations now have a choice of dozens of private telephone providers for their homes. But it can be extremely difficult to choose between the various companies, since they all offer different pricing systems, special deals and contract rules. Researching and weighing up the options can take hours. ‘One effect of having so many options,’ argues Schwartz, ‘is that it produces paralysis rather than liberation — with so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all.’ Hence we frequently give up and stick with the telephone company we’ve already got. A second effect is that ‘even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options’. His main explanation for this apparent paradox is that we can always imagine having made a better choice, so we will regret the decision we did make, and thus feel unhappy about it.

Schwartz believes that similar effects can arise in the realm of career decision-making, since we now have so many more options than in the past, having left behind the days of Benjamin Franklin. Of course, choosing a job is different from shopping around for the right phone company or stereo system: we can’t simply select the most enticing offer, since we are limited by factors such as our educational qualifications and work experience. Still, we may face dozens of possible pathways. Do you try to switch out of insurance broking into management consultancy, or maybe law or teaching, or move to a smaller firm, or spend a year travelling to clear your head? Or if you are thinking of retraining as a psychotherapist, will you take a course that focuses on psychodymanic, behavioral or cognitive approaches, or perhaps humanistic, person-centered or integrative? Being confronted by so many options can be a bewildering experience, as I remember when standing in front of Blue Poles. The consequence is that we often become psychologically paralyzed, like a rabbit caught in the headlights. We get so worried about regretting making a bad choice that we may end up making no decision at all, and remain frozen in our current unfulfilling career.

Are there any solutions for dealing with the choice overload that afflicts modern society? Schwartz makes two main suggestions. First, we should try to limit our options. So when we go shopping for new clothes, we could make a personal rule that we only visit two shops, rather than endlessly hunting for a better design or a better bargain. Second, we should ‘satisfice more and maximize less’. What he means is that instead of aiming to buy the perfect pair of jeans, we should buy a pair that is ‘good enough’. In other words, by lowering our expectations, we can avoid much of the angst and time-wasting that arises from having excessive choice.

The problem, though, is that while such strategies might be helpful when shopping, they are inappropriate for making career decisions. There are no easy ways to limit the options — should we just look under the letter ‘A’ of a career guide? Moreover, the work we do is such a significant part of our lives, that ‘good enough’ is just not good enough. We should be striving for greater satisfaction rather than settling for less. What we really need to do is narrow down the choices by thinking more deeply about the core elements of a fulfilling career, and then devise concrete ways of testing out which of them best suit our aspirations.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from How To Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric, and published by Picador USA. Copyright 2012 by The School of Life. All rights reserved.