Our culture worships planning. Everything must be planned in advance. Our days, week, years, our entire lives. We have diaries, schedules, checklists, targets, goals, aims, strategies, visions even. Career planning is the most insidious of these cults precisely because it encourages a feeling of control over your reactions to future events. As that interview question goes: where do you see yourself in five years time? This invites the beginning of what starts as a little game and finishes as a belief built on sand. You guess what employers want to hear, and then you give it to them. Sometimes this batting back and forth of imagined futures becomes a necessary little game you play in order to ‘get ahead’.
In reality, people frequently don’t know what they want and psychology has proved it. That’s why career planning, or at the very least just deciding what you’re going to do next, is so unpleasant. It’s no fun at 18 years old when people ask what you want to do. There seem to be so many different options, each with myriad branching possibilities, many of which lead in opposite directions, but all equally tempting. Surrounded by these endless spiralling futures, it is no wonder that many a school-leaver sticks with what they know and follows in parental footsteps. But we don’t all want to trust the tried and tested, whether for good reasons or bad. We want to make a decision all of our own, based on our own values and preferences.
If it’s hard at 18, it’s even harder in midlife when people are theoretically better equipped to make their choice. In reality by your 30s wide-eyed optimism has normally been replaced by a more cynical outlook on jobs and the workplace. Now it’s more clear what the downsides of certain jobs are. There’s not only our own experiences of work but we also have friends at work, all of whom colour our perception of their careers.
Everyone has their own internal trade-offs. How much routine do you like: boring but safe? How much do you like travel: exciting but you’ll be away from loved ones? How much do you care about earning more money: and taking a more boring/stressful/less fulfilling job? Whatever the outcome of all these swings and roundabouts along with many more, the reason that deciding what to do with your life is so difficult is that it involves predicting the future.
There’s many reasons why it seems we should be good at prediction what we want. If I know that I’m enjoying what I’m doing now, then I should enjoy it in the future shouldn’t I? On top of this I’ve got years of experience building up a set of things I like – cinema, books, sitcoms – and things I don’t like – trips to the dentist, severe embarrassment and flu, especially not all at the same time. If I’ve got this huge bank of likes and dislikes it should be easy to predict my wants in the future. And yet, it seems we are often surprised by what the future throws at us.
The idea of making mistakes about what we might want in the future has been termed ‘miswanting’ by Gilbert and Wilson (2000). They point to a range of studies finding we are poor at predicting what will make us happy in the future. My favourite is a simple experiment in which two groups of participants get free sandwiches if they participate in the experiment – a doozie for any undergraduate.
One group has to choose which sandwiches they want for an entire week in advance. The other group gets to choose which they want each day. A fascinating thing happens. People who choose their favourite sandwich each day at lunchtime also often choose the same sandwich. This group turns out to be reasonably happy with its choice.
Amazingly, though, people choosing in advance assume that what they’ll want for lunch next week is a variety. And so they choose a turkey sandwich Monday, tuna on Tuesday, egg on Wednesday and so on. It turn out that when next week rolls around they generally don’t like the variety they thought they would. In fact they are significantly less happy with their choices than the group who chose their sandwiches on the day.
This variety versus sameness is only one particular bias that people display in making predictions about their future emotional states. There is another counter-intuitive bias emerging from the work being done in positive psychology. This looks at how people predict they will feel after both catastrophically bad, and, conversely, fantastically positive occurrences in their life. For example, how good would you feel if you won the lottery? Most people predict their lives will be completely changed and they’ll be much happier. What does the research find? Yes, people are measurably happier after they’ve just won, but six months down the line they’re back to their individual ‘baseline’ level of happiness.
So, in the journey from the sublime – predicting how we’ll feel about winning the lottery – to the ridiculous – predicting which sandwiches we’ll want for lunch – we are incredibly bad at knowing our future selves. And if we can’t even decide what type of sandwich we might like next week, how can we possibly decide what type of job we’d like to be doing in twenty years?
With age occasionally comes wisdom. Over time we learn, whether implicitly or explicitly, that we are not that good at predicting the future. At the very least we begin to recognise it is a much less precise science than we once thought.
A stranger future
This means your future self is probably a stranger to you. And, on some level, you know it. That’s why it might be hard for an 18 year old to choose their career, but it’s a damn sight harder for someone in midlife when limitations have been learnt.
This might seem like just another way of saying that people get more cautious as they get older, but it is more than that. It’s actually saying that it’s not caution that’s increasing with age, but implicit self-knowledge. People begin to understand that the future holds vanishingly few certainties, even for those things that would seem to be under our most direct control, like our sandwich preferences.
Best guess beats careful planning
The argument about miswanting applies to any area of our lives which involves making a prediction about what we might like in the future. Career planning becomes painful precisely because it’s such an important decision and we come to understand that we have only very limited useful information.
The best strategy for career planning is this: make your best guess, try it out and don’t be surprised if you don’t like it. But for heaven’s sake don’t mention this in your interviews.[Also see the aptly named ‘chaos theory’ of career planning that I’ve noted before.]
Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2000) Miswanting: some problems in the forecasting of future affective states. In: J. Forgas (Ed.). Feeling and Thinking: the role of affect in social cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.