Question

I really can’t decide between two good job offers that require a career choice. Each would take me deep into a career dramatically different from the other. I’ve done lists of pros and cons and still cannot figure this out! Got any suggestions?

(NOTE: This is an old question that I’ve never published because I didn’t have an answer for it — until now. Strap in, because some might think I’m going a bit “out there” on this! – Nick)

Nick’s Reply

career choiceSometimes you’ve got to make a choice between two job offers, or you’ve got to decide “Do I stay, or do I go?” Much of the time you can pretty easily judge the evidence supporting one choice or the other. But sometimes you can’t — because “I” gets in the way.

Does “I” cause confusion when making a career choice?

I is who talks to you when you stop living and start “paying attention.” Really, there is never a need to “pay attention.” We do that automatically. It’s how our senses and our brains work. As long as your eyes are open, when that swerving car comes toward you unexpectedly, your brain makes your body jump out of the way — you don’t need to “pay attention.”

Likewise, when you have job choices that seem confusing, it’s often illuminating to merely stop thinking about it. Stop I.

A lesson from the Buddha

A Buddhist friend suggests we don’t need I. In fact, I gets in the way of knowing all we need to know. And that includes knowing which choice in virtually any situation is the best choice for us.

Stopping I is hard. It’s why the Buddha spent years in contemplation — to stop his I. Well, not to stop it. Rather, to experience the knowledge that there is no I. Everything —  everything — is connected, is one, is Unity, so I is just an artifact of a brain that doesn’t know how to be still. There is no need for I when a person can sit quietly and see, hear, feel, smell and even taste what is before them.

This, the Buddha tells us, is knowing.

No, I’m not going religious on you. I’m not proselytizing or suggesting you give up your power of choice to a 2,500-year-old holy man. Many religions offer ways to know ourselves better. The point is to have a method to be still and know yourself; a way to turn off that distracting internal voice that can make your head spin with indecision.

One way to make a tough job or career choice

I’m telling you this because I’d like to help you make choices that seem daunting. We don’t encounter these all the time. Usually, we know exactly what to do. But when we don’t, I steps in and over-analyzes, over-rationalizes, argues too much and drives us into confusion.

So, how do we get rid of I so that we can just know what we really want?

A special edition of the Stanford alumni magazine is devoted to stories about chance and randomness. There’s interesting stuff throughout: some fun, provocative stories, as well as some college-magazine tripe.

But the best story in that edition is on the very last page. Perhaps an editor got loose from their I and saw the naked wisdom about what’s chance, what’s random, and how the chaotic universe will lead us to knowledge about ourselves without any need to think.

Make the choice you know is right

In Mary Poindexter McLaughlin’s “Keep the Change,” a seemingly random flip of a coin leads the author away from conscious thought — away from the I that talks to us — so she can see that she already knows the answer to her problem.

McLaughlin wasn’t choosing between two offers — but you might be. She had to choose between two careers. One career (as a university administrator) came with a job offer; the other (acting in theater) included no firm offer and required a big move.

With the flip of a coin, McLaughlin made a life-changing choice, but not because the outcome of the flip made the choice for her. The real outcome was that she easily and effortlessly made her own choice when the coin flip removed her I and revealed her knowledge of herself.

Flip off the switch and see the light

You cannot know what I’m talking about without reading McLaughlin’s very short article. Please check it out. If I didn’t think it worth your while, I wouldn’t recommend it. Maybe it’s a bit out there, but it set off bright lights for me. It made me realize sometimes I think too much and pay so much attention that I entirely miss what I already know.

Sometime, when you have a seemingly impossible choice to make, like a tough job or career choice, try what McLaughlin did —- flip a coin that flips the switch off on your I. I bet you’ll see better for just long enough to realize you don’t need to think to make a choice.

You just know.

I’m not suggesting you ignore your critical faculties. But, take a pause when you’re unsure — take a moment to know yourself.

(See also Don’t subcontract your job choices.)

Have I gone off my rocker? What is this Buddhism stuff? When faced with a tough decision, do you ever feel like you (“I”) are in your own way? How would you make a decision like this, if both options seem equally attractive? Do you find any wisdom in McLaughlin’s story?

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19 Comments
  1. Hey Nick! Nice to be early to comment this time.

    I read the story you mentioned, “Keep the change”, that was great. (A little spoiler follows). When she laid out the two options, I thought “she’ll end up picking the passion one”, I was pretty sure, because that’s what we pick when we’re really honest to ourselves (unless the odds are terrible, and hers weren’t). Some people are extremely risk averse, and after taking a safe choice, they try to congratulate themselves on having made “a wise decision”, as if to reinforce the idea that they’re not really missing out.

    I’ve taken my fair share of risky decisions in life, and every time I took a risk, even if I had to pay with pain for it, in the end it was worth it. It’s the feeling that I can die with no regrets.

    Sometimes the crossroads is between something that’s socially acceptable and something we secretly always wanted. Other times between something we somewhat like and is safe, and something we love and is risky (like in the story above). In either case I’d advice whoever is indecisive about it to stop thinking about what other people would think, or what would this look like in terms of status, and instead ask yourselves “is this something I would actually do?”; try not to “see yourself” in an idealized position doing idealized things, but instead, imagine yourself taking each step, one at a time, and see if you can actually arrive at the goal.

    As a parting comment, and as an example, recently I had to take a hard decision involving picking up a job with more work-life balance or one with much higher pay. In the process of deciding, at one point I stopped comparing the idealized version of both futures, and instead asked myself, “what are you ACTUALLY going to do?”. And that’s when the answer became obvious. I always end up doing this: I’ll push myself, and take just about as much responsibility as I can handle–regardless of pay!!–because I always commit like that. When I reminded myself that I always end up doing that, the choice was obvious: take the money; because the job with the promised “work-life balance” was not going to be so in the end, because of my own personality. I was going to ruin it with my own tendency to push myself out of commitment. In the end the choice really was: do you want less, or more money? And when put like that, it was painfully obvious.

    Cheers!

    • @Pentalis: I like your contrast between “idealized position” and playing a choice out step by step to see whether it’s realistic and desirable.

  2. I’ve heard (and used) this advice before, but only for things like “should we order Indian or Chinese?” and certainly nothing of the magnitude of a career choice/change.

    However, the psychology is sound. We let all the “rules” get in the way (you must choose financial security and prestige and stability and conformity and what is known and safe and won’t disappoint anyone [other than yourself]) and we lose touch with who we truly are and the path we need to follow to THRIVE, not just survive.

    • @Autistic: It’s difficult to break through the brainwashing we all experience from HR’s recruiting practices (interview with software, get recruited for wrong jobs, get treated like cattle, rely on keywords, etc.), the “job board/ATS” model of behavior, and the conventional wisdom (apply for all the jobs you can!)

      Job search is about understanding what’s best for you, and about what value you can deliver. It’s not about applying for whatever comes over the transom and “taking what’s available.”

      I agree: the psychology in that article is sound.

  3. Someone on LinkedIn recently said that interviewers should keep asking those tired old questions, because it’s important to make the candidate uncomfortable.

    I responded that, given the choice between a prospective manager who makes me uncomfortable and one who has a friendly and productive chat – I’ll choose the friendly manager every single time.

    I wonder how many excellent candidates their company has missed out on over the years?

    • @/Anne: Imagine trying to get someone to go on a date with you by doing all you can to make them uncomfortable! Imagine who/what you’d wind up with! I’d love to have the link to the LinkedIn article/comment you cited. Sounds like someone is kinda psychotic.

  4. The multi-talented Piet Hein wrote a famous poem about exactly this:

    Whenever you’re called on to make up your mind,
    and you’re hampered by not having any,
    the best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find,
    is simply by spinning a penny.
    No – not so that chance shall decide the affair
    while you’re passively standing there moping;
    but the moment the penny is up in the air,
    you suddenly know what you’re hoping.

    Piet Hein

    • @Martin: I love it. Thanks for sharing that. Somehow I knew the coin-flip method has been described before!

  5. I agree that doing the “risky” thing often pays off well…I’ve had that happen to me before in investments and other areas. And I, too, would much rather go with the manager who is friendly and I could speak to comfortably.

    My trouble has been taking the “safe” route. I took a career in programming, which has paid well and enabled me to pay the bills easily. But my wife has always been conservative and fearful of taking financial chances, so I feel sorta compelled to do that regarding work. However, I want to retire soon (I’ll be 63 my financial persons say I can do so now and not worry about money until I’m in my 90s).I’m kinda burned out with programming and would like to do something more people-oriented, as jobs I’ve had like that have always been more enjoyable. I realize there would likely be a salary cut, but I would sure like to look more forward to going to work.

    • @Bob, an idea sprang to mind as I read your comment: What about tutoring?

      You could share your coding and project management skills with eager learners on your own schedule/terms and make as much “supplemental” income as you want. $60-100/hour is a reasonable pay range for such an engagement, and demand is significant, especially now that remote learning is an accepted educational platform.

      You’d be helping and interacting with people AND putting your decades of expertise to good use with complete control over your work environment.

      My father is in his late-70s and is loving doing this.

      Or you could develop an organization that pairs programming students with charities and non-profits in need of programming resources to give the students hands-on work experience as a way to implement/reinforce what they’ve learned while helping others, developing a professional network, and building their résumés.

      Human beings aren’t meant to be automatons relegated to drudgery in the first place, but especially after decades of “time served”, you absolutely deserve something that gives you joy every day!

    • @Bob P.: What Autistic said X 10. Don’t give up so easily. Like you, I see the value in my wife’s point of view, but I also see the importance of fulfilling my goals. Like the Buddha said, find the Middle Way. :-) (I’ve been getting a big kick out of learning about Buddhism and I can’t help sharing it.)

    • I define “retirement” as “the ability to choose a job where compensation is not a primary driver.”

      As we take on more responsibility, compensation is critical. My goal has been that as I age, make my living with more knowledge/understanding/practice. And less with front-line work (I can not keep up with the young lions forever). And that I am less compelled to stay in any particular work situation.

      True story about to friends I ran with back in the day (it sounds like a bad morality fable):

      One guy wanted to be a musician, and became a music major in college. He did the math. Switched to accounting. Used his head for business to be financially independent before he turned 40. He composes (among other things) elevator music. Because he had resources, he was able to develop a business model with a profitable long tale.

      My other friend, who never took steps to plan for his future is doing rack-and-stacks in server rooms and data farms, for a company that treats him like s*.

      All of this is a long-winded way to say that now is the time to start exploring options (especially if your kids are out of the house). Anything from consulting to teaching at a community college, to who knows what? Now is your time!

  6. Did that once when I was in college. Since it was in the ’70s, I no longer remember what I was deciding, but the result was the same as hers.

  7. Difficult decisions are between two similarly good (or bad) choices.
    If they weren’t similarly good/bad, they’d be easy.
    The similarity may be because the outcomes are similarly unknowable.
    These are cases where further thought is futile.
    One might as well flip a coin, save one’s resources for taking action, and let action speak for itself.
    I do.

    • @Lewis: That’s solid psychology, too. Sometimes the similarity is difficult to see at first. There are other articles in that edition of the Stanford alumni mag that discuss that. The next step is to consult the literature on behavioral economics and decision biases. Fun stuff.

  8. I did that years ago, deciding which college I would attend. I kind of favored the risky choice, and when I flipped the coin, that’s how it came up. I needed the other choice to win to convince myself that my gut was telling the truth. I had to change the rules 3 times (I think I got to ‘best 3 out of 5’) before I got what I needed. Took the risky choice, never regretted it.

    • @Jim: Amazing how sometimes we just know how the coin flip must turn out!

  9. When I read the writer’s quandary, before I read Nick’s advice, my 1st thoughts were “nice problem” and to just flip a coin. Let me give you my 2 cents from the vantage of looking back from my 83 years.

    1. 1st, as Nick suggested remove YOU from the choice. There’s a term for it. Detach

    2. You’re wandering around in the land of analysis paralysis which has no end. Just focus on making a choice, & flipping a coin is as good a way as any other & it’s quick.

    3. Grab the result and run with it. Commit to it & give it your best shot at making it work for you.
    This sounds very casual for what you perceive as a life changing decision. It’s important but not that important. Because, there will more of the same ahead of you just as important. And you’ll find you will decide again & go where it takes you again & again. That’s life. And. If you don’t like where it’s taking you, you’ll effect a mid course correction. Yeah you’re facing the unknown, but keep in mind the unknown isn’t all negative, there’s a lot of positive things there as well.

    4. And this is important. Don’t play the “if only, woulda coulda game”. What’s done is done. Make it work. Everyone has a butt, but dwelling on it isn’t too healthy.

    Your chosen path will keep you busy enough to forget your current angst. What won’t give you peace of mind is …indecision, ending up doing nothing.

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