Using your instincts in career decision-making

“I’m thinking about applying for corporate jobs again and have been approached about a part-time Marketing Director job. I know it would be a good move and work with the family but for some reason I’m putting off making the phone call to the recruiter.”

Marion had left the corporate marketing world 6 years before to spend more time with her two children who were approaching senior school age. She now felt keen to return to work and had been focusing on the logical plan of using her past experience and networks to get back into a leadership position. She’d had a few promising leads but noticed that she was dragging her feet and putting off following up on them. Why was she making this so difficult for herself?

As we talked, I noticed that Marion’s energy soared when she spoke about friends who had set up their own businesses and about her own ‘impractical’ entrepreneurial ideas. When she reverted to talking about the ‘realistic option’ of going back to mainstream corporate life her energy drained away like a pricked balloon. Her tone of voice and body language were telling a different story from her words. As we talked, she identified a strong reluctance to give up her freedom and autonomy and the focus of our conversations switched to the feasibility of entrepreneurship. Having turned down a second round interview for the Marketing Director role, she is now enthusiastically developing her own venture.

Rational vs Instinctive Decision-Making

Many of us tend to believe that our decisions should be directed by our rational brains and we distrust our emotional response. But we need to remember that our experience of working, be it positive or negative, is subjective. Whether we enjoy a job depends just as much on how we feel about it as how good it looks on paper. Our emotions are often linked to underlying values, like Marion’s pull towards freedom. And an instinctive reaction can pick up something intangible (like a company culture or a manager’s personality) that does or doesn’t feel right before you can explain the reason why.

And there’s another reason to listen to your intuition. It’s true that ‘gut feel’ can be misleading and lead to faulty conclusions*. On the other hand, psychology studies show that we do not always think best when we rely on reason alone. For more complex decisions (like career choice) our rational brains can hit information overload. If we put our attention elsewhere and allow our unconscious mind time to work through all the factors and come to a decision, we are more likely to make an ‘instinctive’ choice that we will be happier with over time, even if goes against a logical pros & cons evaluation**.

Ways to incorporate the emotional & instinctive in your decision-making

1. Follow your energy. When you talk about each of your options, notice when your energy levels rise and when they drop. What are you most drawn to investigating? Ask your friends/family what they have noticed too.
2. Try describing yourself out loud in each of the different options: “I’m running my own business”, “I’m a Marketing Director”. Which intuitively feels best? Which feels more like ‘you’?
3. When you find yourself over-deliberating about your options, take a break, engage in an activity that distracts your mind for a few hours and then write down your decision before consciously thinking any more about it.

And in general, when you’re considering your next move, value your emotional reactions just as much as your logical analyses.

Note: names and some details have been changed to maintain confidentiality

Further Reading
* For examples of biases see Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast & Slow
** One study by Dijksterhuis & van Olden asked participants to look at 5 posters and choose which one they liked best using 3 different techniques: 1) pros & cons 2) gut feel 3) look, solve anagrams, look again, decide. A month later the 3rd group were happiest with their choice. This Unconscious Thought Theory effect has been replicated in more complex decisions such as renting an apartment (See Richard Wiseman, 59 Seconds).

julianne&katerinaAuthor: From the blog Women Returners: Back to Your Future aka Julianne Miles and Katerina Gould, an occupational psychologist and an executive coach who support professional women to return to work after a long career break.
     

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