Career decisions can be tough decisions. We are often choosing between two or more options, with incomplete information; we may not know exactly what each option will really be like once we are immersed in it or how we will handle the challenges. We may have two or more good options, and we have to decide what kind of person we want to be – a freewheeling creative or a steady organiser, for example. On the other hand, we might be choosing between a rock and a hard place, and not be sure which option will best allow us to survive today and thrive tomorrow.
A logical way to make a decision is to list the pros and cons of each option and then analyse which option has the most weight on the benefits side. Most of us have probably done this at some point! It may or may not have helped.
A more sophisticated version of this would be to create a table, and list the main options in each row, and then have a series of columns to represent the main factors that you want to take into account (for example, pay, location, creativity, values). You can then score each option against each factor and add up the total score for each option.
Now, both these exercises can be useful thought experiments, but the latest research on how we make decisions suggests that we shouldn’t expect to make a good decision immediately after doing an exercise like this. (Blink by Malcom Gladwell is a great read on this subject).
The rational, logical parts of our brain can only analyse up to seven factors at a time, according to research, whereas most career decisions involve many more than seven factors (will I like the people? can I dress how I like? is there flexitime? what aspects might be boring but necessary? what will be challenging? what will my boss be like? is there a direct bus?), all of which will be differently weighted for us depending on our priorities.
For complex decisions, we generally make better decisions when we access our intuitive brains, which are able to sift through hundreds of factors, checking how they relate to our previous experiences, and then coming up with an answer which is signaled to us as an emotional reaction or physical sensation, our gut feeling. Logical processes can actually lure us into paying too much attention to certain factors, while missing out the more subtle factors and the weight we attach to each factor. For example, we might start to focus too much on pay, and ignore the impact that a tedious commute would have on us.
So after doing any kind of logical analysis of the options, we should put it away for at least a week, forget about it and allow our subconscious time to mull things over while we get on with our daily business. Good tasks that allow the subconscious to get to work include complex puzzles, running, walking, yoga and meditation.
Liane Hambly introduced me to an exercise which is designed to help us access our intuitive decision making abilities. It can be done as a solo meditation, or a practitioner can guide a client through the process. The client does need to be willing, as this may be rather unexpected!
To work through the exercise, the decision-maker needs to close their eyes, and visualise one of their options. To make the vision seem more real, they can be guided to add a lot of detail – background noise, smells, how they are dressed, who is with them, colours, what exactly they are doing, how their whole day has been, what they have liked, what they have not liked, what family and friends are saying about it.
Once they have created this strong image of themselves inhabiting one of their options, they can be guided to take note of any physical sensations or emotional reactions. For example, they may notice a churning in their stomach, which could be anxiety or excitement or both. They may notice a light feeling of relief at being in the right place. There may be tension in the jaw, shoulders or face, suggesting some aversion to the situation.
The exercise can be repeated for a second option, again taking time to build up a strong sensory picture of what it would be like to inhabit the option, and taking note of the reactions.
Regular meditators will be used to concentrating and noticing their physical reactions, whilst other people may find it a bit more difficult and need more guidance. Before using this exercise with a client it’s important to get comfortable with it as a solo exercise.
Once you or client have noticed intuitive reactions to each option, the next stage is to explore their meaning. Fear of the unknown does not necessarily mean this is the wrong option. What would happen if the fear was overcome? How would that feel? Excitement does not necessarily mean something is the right option. Is there enough excitement to create the motivation to overcome practical difficulties or limited opportunities? More research may be needed.
Sometimes a strong intuitive sense of the right decision will emerge, and you or your client will be able to move forward confidently. Sometimes the choices are harder, perhaps because there are there are two equally good options. The intuitive voice may be more of a whisper, harder to hear in the chatter of daily life. It’s important to create the quiet mental space to hear the intuitive whisper.