Why Are We So Bad at Choosing the Right Job?
What would be your perfect job? Although there are well-defined parameters around what people actually want from work, our career-related choices are not always consistent with those parameters — even when we are consciously aware of them.
Consider that most of us want just three specific things from our jobs, namely:
- A sense of competence and mastery: acquired by being given the chance to perform above the expectation of our role, and to grow through learning opportunities that make us better.
- A sense of community or affiliation: the product of fair and respectful relationships with colleagues, and the sense that one is appreciated at work. This is why company culture is such a pivotal factor in driving satisfaction or dissatisfaction among employees.
- A sense of meaning and purpose: a feeling that we are devoted to something that matters, and that aligns with our core values and drivers.
Of course, it would be naïve to assume that every person in the world has access to a career that ticks all three boxes. But, at the same time, workers everywhere are expected to attain these goals, regardless of macro-economic circumstances, potential, and talent. As a result, most people have an innate desire to pursue a version of their perfect job, or at least improve their current role — something academics call “job crafting.”
This is not a bad thing. Optimizing your job to match your abilities and interests will likely improve how you feel and perform, something that almost seems too obvious to require scientific proof. Still, studies have been done, and unsurprisingly they show that job crafting is positively linked to employee engagement and employability, defined as the ability to get and keep desirable jobs and to remain relevant in the market throughout your career. Other research shows that job crafting enhances worker wellbeing.
A more relevant question may therefore be: If people are generally clear about what they want (and need) from work, why do so many of us make the wrong decision when choosing a job, particularly when we do have other choices?
Research points to a few a reasons:
Money talks – and people listen. As meta-analytic studies show, there is almost zerocorrelation between pay and job satisfaction. For example, lawyers earning $160,000 per year are as satisfied with their jobs as nurses making $35,000 per year. However, although money doesn’t satisfy, it still motivates. We make many, many, decisions focused on financial incentives, especially when it comes to our jobs. Even when people say that they would happily take a pay cut if they could work less, commute less, or have a more enjoyable job, they often don’t actually make those choices, and prefer to stick to the higher salary.
People are (too) good at tolerating bad jobs. We are probably more likely to put up with a bad job than a bad relationship. In fact, despite the popular view that people are happy with uncertainty and disinterested in long-term careers, the opposite is in fact true. When it comes to jobs and careers, it is really a case of “better the devil you know.” You can put people in meaningless roles and under bad managers, and they will still be reluctant to try something else, which explains the pervasiveness of low employee engagement scores even among the most successful companies in the world.
Poor self-awareness limits smart choices. As I illustrate in my latest book, people are generally quite inept at evaluating their own talents. Even when they do decide to “follow their passions” there is just no guarantee that they will end up doing something well, let alone that it is useful or in-demand. This means that there is not always a clear ROI to taking risks and changing careers. A good example is the recent influx of entrepreneurial or start-up activity. Despite the appeal of this “entrepreneurship porn” to a large number of young individuals who are excited by the idea of being their own boss and solving problems that excite them — the prospects of attaining even marginal success are low. Sure, the tiny minority that may end up creating the next Apple or Google could end up giving a great deal back to society. But for each of those success stories there are millions of major failures. On average, people who quit traditional employment to work for themselves will end upworking more to earn less and contribute less to the wider economy — when, in many cases, they may have been happier and more successful working for someone else.
It’s hard to know what to expect. Organizations spend a great deal of time marketing their jobs and careers in a highly desirable and appealing way. Job branding or company branding is an integral part of the war for talent. Look at any company website and you will see convincing statements about their commitment to diversity, innovation, corporate social responsibility, lifelong learning, and agile culture. Even trivial jobs camouflaged with sexy titles can appear quite desirable: “head prioritization ninja,” “director of possibilities,” “chief happiness officer,” and “global identity engineer,” to name just a few. Regardless of your background, expertise, and industry, a successful hiring process requires finding the right person for the right role, which means applicants must have a proper understanding of the role itself. If your expectations for a role are too far off from reality, then it will be very hard for you to make the right career move to begin with.
In order to land the job you really want, you need to be clear about what you are good at, what the job in question is really like, and de-emphasize financial incentives to fulfill other values and career drivers. Above all, you will probably benefit from being less resilient so you are less likely to put up with a bad job or a bad boss. The important thing to remember is that only a minority of people ever regret quitting a job. This implies that people tend to stay in jobs for longer than they should. As Hippocrates famously noted, Ars longa, vita brevis. It takes a long time to develop expertise and become skilled. Life is short — so don’t be afraid to choose the path you actually want.