Your Inner Caveperson and Career Stuckness

by Ross McIntosh

Several years ago, when I dared to think about leaving the Civil Service after more than 20 years, my thoughts were laden with anxiety and doom.

In his book The Happiness Trap Dr Russ Harris explains the evolution of the human brain, from cavewoman to the current day.  As the world was full of danger the initial purpose of the human brain was to keep us alive.  Today most of us are looking for more than just to stay alive, yet our brain’s essential purpose is unchanged.  This can sometimes impact important career decisions.

Brain priority 1: Lookout for danger!

The earlier our ancestors could identify signs of danger the longer they survived. With each generation they became more skilled in survival techniques. For example, if early man was considering a solo trip outside the cave, the brain would suggest that there might be a lion outside, waiting to attack. Today our minds primary function is still to highlight risks and their catastrophic consequences.

At my career crossroads my mind generated thoughts such as “how can you consider leaving a secure job?”, “what about your good salary and pension?” and “how could you survive in the outside world with an uncertain jobs market?”

These thoughts, generated by my survival-focussed, caveman brain, reinforced my apprehension and could have prevented me from taking action.

Brain priority 2: Stay in the group, keep in with the Joneses

In the Stone Age if you were rejected by your group you’d be out in the cold, wild world with all its dangers, alone.  This meant death.

So the mind of the cavewoman (or man) was constantly comparing itself with the rest of the group and asking questions like:

  • am I fitting in?
  • Is my contribution OK as good as the others?
  • Am I doing anything which might get me kicked out?

As I ruminated on leaving the Civil Service my mind was saying, “you won’t be as successful as Helen or Paul who left and established a new career”, “you don’t have any transferrable skills” and “you should stay here with what you know”. The comparison with others phenomenon helped my ancestors survive, but was actually holding me back and preventing me from thriving in my career.

Brain priority 3: More is better

As a caveman, the more weapons, food and children you had the better. More resources = better survival.

Translate this to the modern world.  Don’t we all need more? A promotion, a pay rise; few of us would turn down a promotion in status or resources.

But is more always better in the modern world? We work with clients who are very successful in their professions and hold senior roles with substantial rewards, yet they know that a further promotion is not the solution.  I had achieved successive promotions in the Civil Service which provided us with a good lifestyle, yet what I was looking for was not more status or reward, but more meaning in my career.

I found that reflection on the evolution of my brain really helped me to understand the thoughts and emotions generated by my mind at my career crossroads. If you feel like your caveman and cavewoman mind is holding you back:

– What thoughts is your mind producing to fulfil its function of protection?

– Who do you compare myself with in terms of your career?

– Are you influenced by the need for ‘more’?

– How helpful are these thoughts in terms of building the kind of career you really want?


Career Change, Getting Unstuck coaching

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