Combining our rational thought process and gut instinct may give us the best of both worlds, says Julia Yates at the 2015 Naturejobs Career Expo in London.
Guest contributor Catherine Seed
Deciding on our next career move is a struggle over which many of us have lost sleep. Whether we stay within academia or decide to start looking beyond the ivory tower, there are many paths to choose from. Conventional wisdom stresses the importance of logically thinking through the decision and weighing the available options before we decide. After all, career decisions are life changing: it is important to take time and care in making them, isn’t it? Well, maybe not. This rational approach may leave us unhappier in the long term, argues Julia Yates, a psychologist and career coach at the University of East London, UK.
While the idea of keeping career options open has traction, the reality is that there are more options than we can properly evaluate. “Actually, our brains can cope with about six,” Yates said. She noted that the UK Office of National Statistics recently catalogued some 37,000 available job titles, far more than can be rationally assimilated at once.
We use two systems every day to make decisions, she said: slow and conscious rationality, and nearly instantaneous ‘gut instinct’. Yet, counterintuitive as it may seem, rationality doesn’t play a huge part in career decisions, she said. The complexity of career decisions hampers the conscious and rational thought process, added Yates. The uncertainty of the outcome, the potential for change and the number of options render a choice empirically difficult. “We almost never have complete information,” she explained, and because the rational approach — breaking down and comparing our options — is so complex, it is not highly useful for assessing career decisions. Even when information is available and quantifiable, not all criteria are equally important. “You would need a very big bit of paper to work through it all,” she said, and probably some complex statistical analyses.
Still, Yates cited evidence that those who think through every option (whom she called ‘maximizers’) are more likely to end up with the best jobs and highest salaries – but end up less happy. Cataloguing the options means that no matter what maximizers choose, they are aware of and remember what they are missing out on. Given that there is rarely only one good career option to choose, maximizers can be plagued by the knowledge of what they turned down, as well as the outcomes of the choice they made, which are beyond their control.
For those who would accept the greater accuracy of a rational approach over a happy outcome, all might not be as it seems, says Yates. “Even when you think you are making a rational decision, you are probably not,” she said. “The gut instinct sneaks in there early on, reaches a conclusion and doesn’t tell the conscious part of your brain what the conclusion is, but persuades your conscious brain to look for all pieces of information that will support that gut instinct.”
At the same time, while going with our gut might make us happier with our decisions, we shouldn’t overlook the negatives of that process. “The gut instinct relies on lots of shortcuts,” she said, “and they don’t always work.” Yates instead argues for the acknowledgement of our gut instincts to get the best of both systems, and to apply rational thought to our gut instincts. “When you combine the two, you are more likely to find jobs that suit you and jobs you are happy with.”