I recently received a call from a distressed former graduate assistant who was working in a new full-time job. In a downtrodden voice she told me, “I made a huge mistake accepting this job.”
Among many concerns, she wasn’t doing what she was hired to do, and she was—understandably—unhappy. Even so, I didn’t see her decision as a mistake, and I told her as much. I reminded her that she made the best decision she could with the information she had. She was able to get to the geographical area where she wanted to be, and she had the opportunity to learn and build her experience in the role. “Meet people, try things, and learn everything you can,” I told her. “But keep looking for the next opportunity. This is just the first stop in your career!”
I frequently encounter people struggling with a career decision they believe they have to get “right” or disaster is surely imminent.
What if I take this job and I hate it?
What if I select this major and later figure out I want to do something different?
What if I take an opportunity with this company, while my friend takes an opportunity with another company—and her life is way better than mine?
But this idea of right and wrong in your career path is a fallacy. There are only choices, and with every choice comes an opportunity. Deciding to join a committee could give you an opportunity to network. Deciding to apply for another position with your current company could give you an opportunity to advance faster than staying in your current role. Deciding to apply for a position with a new company could give you an opportunity to move to a great new geographic location. Deciding to get an MBA could give you an opportunity to increase your earning potential.
See? Whatever decision you have to make, the most important thing is that you make the most of it, rather than focusing on making the “right” decision. So how do you capitalize on this “no right or wrong” philosophy? Here are four ideas to get you started.
1. Accept That Not Everyone has a Linear Career Path
Career Chaos Theory (sometimes known as Happenstance Theory) posits that many people follow non-linear career paths due to the unpredictable circumstances that influence our paths. You are probably familiar with many examples this: the accountant who gets laid off and becomes an entrepreneur, the corporate CEO who follows a lifetime passion to become a minister, or the museum curator who moves home to care for an ailing parent and finds a niche in the business world.
These twists and turns can look chaotic on the surface, but if you dig a bit, you’ll often find that the person was able to take lessons and skills from one circumstance and transfer them successfully to another—by being flexible and open to change.
A great foundational document to learn more about this is John Krumboltz’s “The Happenstance Learning Theory,” which contains one of my favorite career-related quotes of all time: “So if you are undecided about your future (as indeed every sensible person should be), don’t call yourself undecided; call yourself open-minded.”
Another powerful read is You Majored in What?: Mapping Your Path From Chaos to Career by Katharine Brooks. The book is geared toward liberal arts majors whose career paths are often less obvious than some of their counterparts who majored in engineering or nursing. Regardless of your background, however, the book can help you recognize how to combine and capitalize on varied interests and skills.
These works will help you shift your mindset away from panicky thinking about career decisions to an adaptive mindset that recognizes and builds on opportunities—no matter what choice you make.
2. Incorporate the Word “and” in Your Reasoning
When you are thinking or talking through a significant decision, stop using “or” and “but”—words that limit your options. Instead, try substituting the word “and,” which opens up possibilities.
For example, let’s say you’re trying to decide if you should apply for a new position. With a limited mindset, you might think, “I’m interested in this new position, but I have security where I am. I can apply for that job or I can stay where I know I have a steady paycheck and am on track for a raise next year.” When you substitute “and,” it sounds like this: “I’m interested in this new position, and I like the security of my current position.” From this shift, you realize you’d need to ask some pointed questions about salary and prepare to negotiate if you pursue the new position. Suddenly, considering the role doesn’t have to mean sacrificing stability.
This simple change in the way you think and talk about your options strips away limitations and opens your eyes to new possibilities.
3. Make the Absolute Most of Any Decision You Make
Whenever you make a decision, throw yourself into it full-force. After all, a decision that required so much thought and energy is one that deserves a high level of commitment.
For example, if you join a new committee, make a point of meeting everyone else on it. Make friends and share ideas. Aim to showcase your abilities among the committee members, but also try to learn from these new contacts. Maybe your specialty is communication, while someone else is an established project manager. Collaborate with that person to learn more about project management, which can help you in your future assignments—both with the committee and in your full-time role.
This is also applicable when you decide not to do something. Maybe you decline joining a committee because of your current obligations. Throw yourself wholeheartedly into those commitments. Learn everything you can from the work you are doing and the people you are doing it with.
Capitalizing on your decisions is the only way to move forward and continue to create opportunities for yourself.
4. Keep in Mind That a Single Choice Doesn’t Have to Define Your Entire Career
If you pursue something that ends up making you unhappy, don’t panic. Tell yourself that it’s simply a stepping stone to something bigger and better. Think about it as a level in a game: You have to earn as many points (e.g., knowledge, contacts, or skills) as possible to move to the next level. Then, look for an opportunity to make your move.
The only mistake in a less-than-ideal situation is giving up. Everything is an opportunity to learn and grow, if you choose to learn and grow. You can’t control everything in your environment, but to paraphrase Viktor Frankl, who survived Nazi concentration camps to become a renowned psychiatrist, you control your response to your environment. No one can stop you from learning. No one can stop you from building relationships. No one can stop you from promoting yourself.
So, what happened with my unhappy former graduate assistant? She recently interviewed for a new job. She asked more and better questions during the interview process because of her previous experience. She was more discerning in evaluating the company and making a decision. Ultimately, she went for it. She has been in her new role about a month, and she absolutely loves it.
Even though she disliked and was eager to leave her former job, she is adamant that she would not have been considered for her current role without the experience she gained in that role. Her previous job wasn’t the wrong job for her. It was the right job at the time, which later opened the door for a better opportunity.
There is no right and no wrong. There are just choices and opportunities.