Every now and again I come across something that reinvigorates me and makes me determined to redouble what we’re trying to do at The Career Psychologist. This video is one of those things.
The thing about difficult career decisions is that they are a ‘hard choice’ in the sense that there is (probably) no right or wrong answer. (Our process is designed to weed out the ‘wrong’ choice, but more often than not clients are left with choices that still feel difficult to make using reason alone).
This, Ruth Chang argues, is what makes them so hard…and so liberating. After all, if we there were only choices between the ‘right’ choice and the ‘wrong’ choice then life would be very dull and there would be no real choice at all.
Now what does this remind me of? This, in essence, is the ACT approach to values:
“A choice is a selection among alternatives that may be made with reasons but not for reasons….”
Values are choices. They are freely made; free in the sense of there being no coercion, no ‘having to’ driving the choice. In this way values help us construct ourselves around something we choose, as opposed to something we drift into or ‘should’ be doing.
Ultimately values are a way of asserting ourselves during our few precious moments on earth. Our chance to say ‘this is what I stood for’.
This short video explains Experiential Avoidance, how it relates to career paralysis…and what we can do to counteract it.
If you are anything like me, every now and then you catch yourself falling into the emotionally laden trap of comparing yourself to others. For example:
Speak to a friend who you perceive as highly successful? You are failing in comparison.
Come across a really nifty gadget at this year’s Ideal Home Show? Why didn’t you think of that?
Read about Mariah Carey. You have never received a diamond bracelet!
If I think about it long enough (and even sometimes if I don’t), I can usually find someone who performs better or has more than me. I then feel pretty bad about myself, after all ‘to compare is to despair’ as the saying goes. Yet I am constantly reminded how blessed I am in my own life in more ways than one. So why do we do it? Why do we fall into the ever alluring trap of comparing ourselves to others? According to Social Comparison Theory, we do it in order to make accurate evaluations of ourselves. One way to evaluate how we are doing is to get information from those around us. We feel pressure when other people land that high paying job, get a promotion or when they start their own business. In fact we make many decisions usually by comparing with others. Career decisions are no exception.
It seems then, that social comparisons are a pervasive, albeit natural thing we humans do. Yet we are often told to avoid or stop comparing ourselves to others; this in itself is a difficult and near impossible thing to do! I would even argue that it’s not necessarily wise advice in all situations. For example, comparisons can be a valuable source of motivation and growth, especially if we believe we can learn and improve by looking at others. But it all falls down the moment we devalue our own self worth by feeling inferior, consumed with envy and jealousy, spiralling into a frenzy of self-doubt, low self-confidence and depression. Even comparing ourselves to those that are less fortunate can come at a price. Feeling superior at the expense of someone else’s misfortune can halt our own need to challenge ourselves to do better and it can exacerbate mean-spirited competiveness, instead of collaboration. Furthermore, we are no longer comparing ourselves to people in our own immediate vicinity anymore, with the upsurge in social media and twenty four seven access to the web, we now have even more people than ever to compare against!
So what does this all mean? Well I doubt most of us are ever going to stop comparing ourselves with others. But it is important to keep in mind that it is likely to be an imperfect comparison because the information we are using to compare against is inaccurate. We don’t always see the entire picture, what people portray to the outside world is likely to be an edited version of their reality. Research suggests that people are less likely to reveal negative emotions than positive emotions. For example, how often do people respond with ‘I feel like a failure at work, I am scared that I am not spending enough time with my children and I think I am losing my mind’ when asked how they are doing? Not very often. So if you find yourself comparing yourself to someone else, pause and take a moment to ask yourself if you have all the information.
We humans are notorious for being hard on ourselves; we ruminate about how imperfect we are in comparison to the next person. We want to be more successful, better looking, and richer and so on then someone else. Yet it consumes our energy, time and leads us further away from pursuing our own values and a life of meaning constructed on our own terms. What do YOU want to accomplish? What kind of person do YOU want to be? What do YOU want to stand for in life? What do YOU want people to remember about YOU? If you can imagine looking back on yourself at the end of your life and what you have achieved, try to base it on your own barometer upon which you will compare. So if like me, you catch yourself comparing to others (and it will happen), compassionately acknowledge the value in learning from the talent of others, and refocus your energy into being the imperfectly perfect, best version of YOU.
A reflection from Tales of Hasidim by Martin Bubber:
Rabbi Zusya said: “In the coming world they will not ask me:
‘Why were you not Moses?’
Instead, they will ask me:
‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
Written by Nimita Shah (This blog was first featured in the online Womanthology magazine).
Five years on after making my career change, I felt fear. Fear that I am not working hard enough. Fear that maybe I am not doing the right thing and wasting time. Fear that I am not good enough or achieving as much as the next person. And yet this is the life I have chosen!
After feeling stuck for so long in a career where it felt like a part of my soul was dying every day, I decided to go back to university and study Psychology. I was petrified but it also felt liberating to do something simply because I liked it without thinking about where it would take me. A few years later, I am fortunately able to combine my love of Psychology with the science of career decision making. Yes life is definitely better, but to say it is a stroll in the park now is a lie.
I get to do what I love but by moving in a direction I really value means I also open myself up to what I really fear. Because I care so much about pursuing a meaningful path, by definition I am scared by it too, it represents my highest hopes and my darkest fears! Oh the humanity!
The truth is that you can live a life where you do avoid difficult emotions like fear, or you can choose to move towards something that you really value. If you want to live a fearless life, be prepared to stay in your comfort zone or worse still, stuck like I was. Both options can be painful but the latter makes the experience of fear worthwhile with a sense of meaning. I have come to realise that to pursue a life of meaning, we must be willing to have the fear. Like the flipside of a coin, I can’t have one without the other.
Fear is here, ultimately I believe, to protect us. Our minds did not evolve to ensure our happiness; it evolved to scan the environment for mortal danger constantly. Is that a bear I see in the distance or a blueberry bush? Our minds evolved to detect the bear to ensure our survival; after all you can have lunch many times but actually be lunch once!
Fear is not a bad thing in and of itself, but sometimes we forget its true evolutionary purpose. In order to pursue what really matters to us, it also means risking failure and taking steps into the unknown. And when we do that, guess what happens?! Yep – fear shows up. Right before any major good thing in my life, I was scared.
When I walked away my soul crushing job – fear.
When I decided to study Psychology – fear.
Right before I speak at a presentation – fear.
Writing my first blog entry – fear!
So if you feel fear, nothing is wrong with you. And if you are feeling fear because you are in danger, then that is how you should feel, it is protecting you and keeping you alive! If we can use fear as fuel, it can act as a compass keeping us on our chosen path. So the real question is, are you willing to carry your deepest fears with you if meant you get to live your dreams?
Written by Nimita Shah (This blog was first featured in the online Womanthology magazine).
It has been a few months since I wrote a blog post. I haven’t been able to come up with a ‘great idea’ for a blog post. My mind tells me ‘Rob writes so well, better that he writes the blog’ or ‘others express things better than me, why try?’ or ‘I need to think of something amazing, and until I think of something amazing, I can’t write anything’ or ‘Something needs to emotionally move me, before I can write about it’ – So – I procrastinate, and procrastinate and experience more and more anxiety about writing blog posts for TCP.
This is where values come in. My values underpinning writing blog posts are:
- Connection (with myself and with the readers)
- Contribution (I want to make a difference)
- Self expression (I want to share me, the authentic me)
What is not in here as a value is ‘being perfect’ or ‘being better than other writers’ – it is simply about me connecting with the readers of TCP, contributing to both the business and our readers, and a vehicle for self expression.
As you can see – my mind comes up with a lot of reasons for not living my values. It gets stuck in a number of ways:
1) It compares my writing, ideas and abilities, to others (in this case Rob’s). This comparison serves to de-value me – make me ‘not ok’ somehow, or ‘not good enough’ Is it helpful? Not at all. Comparison usually puts us in a ‘better than’ or ‘less than’ position – and may stop us from truly discovering who we are – what our own unique strengths are. So notice when you are comparing yourself to others, and ask yourself ‘is this helpful’? If it is – great! If it isn’t, what might be more helpful, in this moment? What ‘action’ might help you move towards what is important to YOU, your values?
2) It gets stuck into the ‘if…then’ rule – that I can only take action if a certain number of conditions are met. This can be the case in a number of areas in our life. When I am more flexible I will join a yoga class. When I have found the perfect topic or idea for a blog post, I will write a blog entry. Perhaps it is ‘action’ itself that results in experiences that move us forward, towards our values, towards a more meaningful career. If we wait until we have the ‘perfect’ conditions – we will not take any action, and stay stuck . So, I decided to just start writing – and this is what is flowing out. Maybe action IS the first step?
3) When I move closer to my values – my mind gives me 100’s of reasons of why moving in that direction is not a good idea. If I listen to my mind, I often ‘get stuck’ – I go around and around in circles. Your mind will give you so many reasons why a particular career is ‘impossible’ before you even give yourself a chance. We therefore discount so many options that might meet our criteria, before we have even explored the options. My mind gave me lots of reasons I shouldn’t be writing this right now – yet here I am, writing this anyway, living my values, despite all the reasons my mind tells me not to. What value are you going to live today despite what your mind says? What ACTION are you willing to take today, to move you forward?
Taking action is sometimes the first step. When I sat down to write this today, I did not know what was going to come out, I did not have a clear idea or picture or vision for this blog – I am not saying that having a vision isn’t important – what I am saying is, sometimes taking action can help us discover our vision, our values, our wants, our needs. Perhaps action IS the first step?
This post was written by Taslim Tharani
6. It’s other people that make us happy – Csíkszentmihályi (1996)
You might not believe it, crammed onto the Northern Line, but it’s true. Evidence shows that it is isolation, not feelings of despair, which cause mental illness, depression and even suicide. This is perhaps unsurprising as being with other people and collaborating with them successfully meant that you were accepted in the tribe, which was critical to survival.
Conclusion: getting rich is unlikely to make you happy by itself. Instead, think about how you can best add value to or help others. Not only will this make you happier, it may well make you richer.
7. ‘Meaning’ is about understanding – Steger (2008)
If you want a meaningful life, you need to firstly understand your true self. Who are you? What do you stand for? Then you have to understand how you fit into the world. What do you believe in? What do you want to do whilst you’re here?
Without meaning we feel uneasy and anxious because we don’t fully understand what we’re doing. This definition of meaning can be applied for small things like understanding the meaning of a word in a sentence, or larger things like understanding our lives. Meaningful work can therefore be found at the intersection of where you use your unique strengths in a purpose that you believe in.
Conclusion: Focus on understanding what you uniquely offer, and then focus on understanding what sort of cause you want to contribute to. If you’re consistently doing that the end result will bring meaning.
8. Control over our work lives is critical - Langer and Rodin (1976), Whitehall study (2005)
A famous experiment in 1976 by Langer and Rodin showed that if elderly people were given a plant to care for they had much higher levels of happiness than if they were given a plant but the nurse cared for it. This finding has been repeated many times in many ways. The Whitehall Study is a large-scale experiment which showed that those with less control over their daily work schedule had poorer health and died younger than those who had great control. If you are looking to be happier in your work, look for ways in which you can increase your control over it.
Conclusion: ask yourself how you could exert greater control over your working life. What could you learn or train in that would help you? What role or field would you feel more in control in?
9. Goals work – e.g. Nicholls (1990)
The brain evolved to solve lots of different problems in different situations and it is very good at it. That’s why only motile organisms have a brain in the first place. There is evidence to suggest that even just writing down a goal will help you achieve it.
Conclusion: if you’ve been thinking about a career change for a long time, action beats thinking.
10. There is magic in starting something
OK, this one can’t be proven, but we believe it intuitively. Once you commit to doing something bold, strange forces move to help you and opportunities open up. People you meet respond differently, the nature of conversations changes, you read about things that could help, you chance upon solutions. If you make choices repeatedly based on your vision, your values, your highest talents, you shift the whole universe to act in your favour. Doing work you love becomes somehow inevitable.
1. We’re poor at decision making – Kahneman & Tversky (1979), Gilbert (2004)
When weighing up the costs and benefits of a decision, we make two errors. First, we overestimate the probability of failure in a new direction because of our negative bias. Second, we underestimate the benefits of change because we fail to imagine or visualise the results of that change in much detail. This has been shown time and again, not least by Dan Gilbert.
Conclusion: we have to think differently about career decision making. Firstly, we need to become more aware of our successes and achievements. Second, we should try to visualise what we actually want in life in greater detail. Sounds obvious. Not many do it.
2. Our brains are pre-wired for survival, not fulfilment – Maslow (1943)
We’re survival machines. Our brains think evolved to anticipate and predict the worst and we try to eliminate this risk. That’s why our cognitive functions and emotions evolved too – and why we’re 3 to 5 times more sensitive to negative stimuli than positive.
But as Maslow predicted, once we have survival we adapt and want fulfilment. And fulfilment isn’t created by avoiding risk, or by surviving. Happiness, after all, is not the absence of sadness. Fulfilment often requires us to imagine something better and to take risks to achieve it.
Conclusion: your brain will protest if you consider something new, but fulfilment probably depends on it. Fulfilment is about contributing something unique to a cause you believe in. And remember we adapt and learn from failure – very few decisions are irreversible.
3. We learn helplessness – Seligman (1975)
Let’s say you fail once at something. Then you try and fail again. The third time you don’t try quite so hard so you fail again. Then you give up. You stop trying. This is known as ‘learned helplessness’ and it is amazingly easy to induce. In fact, it’s possible to induce learned helplessness in about 2 minutes.
When we think about our careers we often come at it from the perspective of a learned helplessness. When all you’ve done is what you know, it’s hard to imagine that you could do anything else.
Conclusion: being aware of where you may have learned helplessness is a good first step. But second, ask yourself how useful these thoughts are to the achievement of your goal.
4. Negative emotions are to be expected – Hayes (1998)
We often treat emotions like fear and anxiety as though they must be avoided, when in reality they are an inevitable part of growth – and of being human. Equally we often treat our internal thoughts as representing the ‘truth’, when in reality they are just thoughts. Many people try to avoid negative emotions or ‘fight’ the pain, but research shows that being willing to accept these thoughts whilst progressing towards your valued outcomes is more effective.
Conclusion: Negative emotions are an inevitable part of any activity where we learn and grow. Acceptance of negative emotions whilst continuing to make progress towards one’s valued goals is a far more effective strategy than avoiding or fighting them. (If you feel the need to beat your negative emotions first, check that the valued outcome is valuable enough and check that you are truly willing to accept the emotions that come with it).
5. Happiness is not a luxury –Fredrickson (2000)
Many people see work as something to be endured. But happiness has consistently been shown to lead to better health, longer life and more productivity. Barbara Fredrickson’s famous ‘broaden and build’ theory explains why people who regularly experience positive emotions show heightened levels of creativity, inventiveness, and “big picture” perceptual focus. These experiments have also shown positive emotions play a role in the development of long-term resource such as psychological resilience and flourishing. However, it is happiness as the side product of meaning and engagement that counts. Hedonic happiness cannot be controlled!
Conclusion: The fact is, being happy is as likely to make you more successful at work, than less. However, chasing happiness by trying to limit our exposure to unhappy thoughts is a trap!
Psychology is frustrating because it seems at once to offer no answers at all and at the same time to prove things which are obvious. But occasionally, it strikes at the heart of something.
Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, describes an experiment whereby 17% of people agreed to have an enormous ugly billboard reading “Drive Carefully” erected in their front gardens. Two weeks earlier, a subgroup of residents had agreed to display a three-inch-square notice saying “Be A Safe Driver”. Revealingly, 76% of those who agreed to the large billboard agreed to the smaller one.
The point is this is how most of us make decisions. Even big ones, like career choices. We drift into jobs often through chance, sometimes because it’s what’s expected of us or because it pays well or because we’ve done something similar before. But this small decision is likely then to shape a huge part of the rest of your life, because humans justify their decisions to themselves after the event. We seek consistency, above all.
As Oliver Burkeman says: Partly, this is a matter of keeping up appearances: if you’ve presented yourself as committed to road safety, you may fear, albeit subconsciously, giving a contradictory impression.
This is where career psychology can offer some insight. We need to know ourselves better, and as objectively as possible, if we are to make sound decisions. Otherwise we risk falling into something, then justifiying our decisions for the rest of our lives.
Last year I set myself two goals. The first was to write a book and the second was to get fitter. (Me and err, everyone else in the country).
The problem I faced with both is time. I don’t have any. (Me and err…etc etc).
So how did I get on?
Well, I don’t have a book. I did some writing when on holiday and that was valuable. But other than that, nada.
However, overall I maintained my levels of fitness. So, partial failure, partial success.
What were the differences and what can I learn from that?
- The most obvious difference is that running offers me a break from sitting at my desk, whereas writing is just more of the same.
- Exercise is also clearly connected to a value. I see exercise as essential to my mental wellbeing, whereas the book is connected to the idea that I ‘should’ write one.
- Exercise is a habit. I know what it feels like to start running and to have a thought that says ‘I can’t be bothered’. I am able to have that thought without feeling the need to actually stop running. With writing, any thought that says ‘now is not the right time’ or ‘you are rubbish at this’ feels more powerful. In ACT terms I am more ‘fused’ with it. So I stop writing.
- Perhaps the most important difference is that with exercise I am prepared to focus on tiny steps. I run in the margins of my life. I run home. When I can’t run home I do 5 minute sprints right outside my flat. I feel ridiculous and my mind says that it’s not enough….but I do it anyway.
So here are my top tips for setting new year resolutions:
- Start with a value. What matters to you? Whether you are changing career or getting fit, start by getting clear about why this matters. What values do you want to move towards?
- Focus on behaviour. What specific behaviour will take you towards your value? What would I see if I were to film you taking action in the direction of your value?
- Focus. Working in short, intense bursts is better than setting aside whole chunks of time. Try the pomodoro technique to encourage focus and urgency.
- Accept that change is about compromise. In the early days any change will feel strange and perhaps half-hearted. You will feel like an imposter when you step into a gym for the first time. I felt strange when I called myself a psychologist for the first time. This is normal. I am strange. So are you.
- Defuse from your thinking. When it comes to behaviour change your mind is not your enemy, but it is not your friend. What matters is not what we think per se, but our relationship to those thoughts. I can have the thought ‘I can’t be bothered’ and still bother. So can you. It’s amazing. Try it.
Today is Monstrous Monday or something. It’s one of those made up days like Blue Monday which is basically nonsense but which perhaps does a useful service in reminding us that for some, today is the day they’ve been dreading for weeks.
If you dislike your job, enough to be miserable, but not enough to leave; if you endlessly think about other options, only to discount them and end up staying right where you are, then you may be stuck in career paralysis. If so there are plenty of excellent resources and books I can recommend. But unquestionably the most popular place to start (for my clients at least) is here, with my Career Paralysis slides. The first set outlines the problem. The second provides free tools and resources to try and solve it.