Eggs or Pancakes? The Catastrophic Mind And Career Decisions

By Dr Rob Handelman

Whenever I go to a restaurant, I’m the last person to order.  Okay, I’ve narrowed it down to eggs or pancakes for breakfast.  Then I start thinking, Hmm.  I had eggs last time I was here…But I had cake last NIGHT. I need to watch my cholesterol…But the syrup here is the best…I order the eggs.

A minute later I’m second guessing myself:  wait, the pancakes…Why am I making such a big deal of this? It’s just breakfast!! 

Even though it’s “just” breakfast, my brain is still going to do one of its main jobs – control the future.  My future breakfast pleasure.  My future breakfast suffering! What if I choose wrong? What if I make a mistake??!! Even with such small decisions, fear of making the WRONG choice is something that keeps us stuck.

Building on Ross McIntosh’s last post, our brains have evolved to keep us safe, to stay alive, and to minimize suffering.  As we’ve ensured survival, food, shelter and social ties, we go up the evolutionary scale and the next order of business has been to maximize pleasure, comfort, satisfaction and all sorts of other good stuff.  A disappointing breakfast experience does not pose significant danger to me.  It does however appear to pose significant danger to my satisfaction. It’s not a catastrophe, but my brain may not know the difference –  It is still going to do its best to control the outcome.

So if deciding breakfast causes such stress, imagine what happens when it comes to our work lives, which have become for many of us a source of meaning, satisfaction and identity?

Our Catastrophic Minds And Careers

The larger the commitment of time, resources and energy, the higher the stakes and the seeming risk. The larger the risk, the harder our brains work to manage that risk.

So, even after we’ve clarified our work values, our life values, explored options, done research, potentially chosen a career path or next step that fits all the criteria we’ve identified as being important, we may still be left with the Fear of the dreaded WRONG CHOICE.

When I explore with my clients what this “wrong choice” might look and feel like, it usually evokes some sort of fear of intense failure, or shame, or at the very least, a looooong disappointing work life.  And the experience of Regret, with a capital R.  We fear that we will live in a constant state of regret, fear that we won’t be able to handle that regret! We worry that we have closed off the opportunity to feel satisfaction in our work lives ever again!

No wonder we get stuck.  The idea of making a choice without ensuring that it will be a PERFECT fit can be paralyzing.  And yet, that Fear of Regret is happening Now, In This moment.  Although our brain works well at problem solving, it is a VERY POOR predictor of feelings and thoughts in the future.  That is, we’re usually wrong about how we’re going to feel.

So yes, when we make a choice, of eggs or pancakes or career, we run the risk of creating feelings of Regret, or loss, which comes with any major life choice.

But perhaps we can keep in mind that:

  • The brain is a poor predictor of future feelings.
  • That we will most likely not experience Regret at every moment once we move forward.
  • That even though we may not be able to create perfection, there will ALWAYS be the opportunity to be creative, to grow, to be challenged, to express, to be recognized, to contribute…and so much more.

And we can ask ourselves:

  • Do I want to live my life attempting to avoid regret?
  • Can this Fear of Regret be worth experiencing if it means moving towards what really matters to me?

Career Change, Executive Coaching, Getting Unstuck coaching