Career decision making – trust your gut

When I give thermodynamics presentations to high school and college students, I begin with a 10-minute discussion about career decision-making based on my own experiences. I now share this discussion with you, both to provide you with helpful and hopefully inspiring ideas and to also seek your feedback. Do your thoughts align with mine? Let me know! [Note: the examples I use are from my academic years to align with the students, but the process I lay out applies to my entire career.]

Overwhelm

Are you trying to decide what to do for your summer internship, your first job, the opportunity to switch jobs, to retire, or to accept an overseas assignment? If you are, I’m guessing you’re experiencing some degree of overwhelm. Here’s why.

Choice!

“…one of the most difficult types of emotional labor is staring into the abyss of choice and picking a path.” – Seth Godin, Linchpin, p. 57.

Fear of living without a map is the main reason people are so insistent that we tell them what to do. – Seth Godin, Linchpin, p. 125

Because you have options, you have choice, and that can be a source of overwhelm. Choice is both a blessing and a curse. Wouldn’t life would be so much simpler if someone told you what to do, what decisions to make? Yes. But wouldn’t that be rather boring? And who exactly would tell you what to do? Who knows you better than you? Sure, your parents might weigh in early in life, but at some point, it’s your choice, and that choice can be overwhelming, as well manifested by this scene with Robin Williams from Moscow on the Hudson. The goal then is to develop an approach to reduce the overwhelm by transforming the decision-making process from scary to exciting. Here’s how I did this. Maybe it will work for you.

Maslow’s Pyramid

In 1943 American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a priority sequence for human motivation. As later illustrated by others (to the right), humans are only motivated at each stage in sequence up the pyramid once they feel satisfied with the stage they’re in. It’s very hard to worry about feelings of accomplishment when you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from.

Survive then Thrive

For my career decision-making, I took Maslow’s pyramid and simplified it. I wasn’t aware that this is what I was doing in my early years. I’m only recognizing it now. When I had to make a decision, my first priority was survival. Once I felt comfortable with that, and narrowed down the field of options, I then made my final decision based on my desire to thrive. Let me explain this process in more detail.

Survive

For each individual career decision, I had a range of options to choose from. At times, yes, it was overwhelming. But in the end I was able to narrow down the number of options by first passing them through my “survive” filter. To me, survival meant financial independence. Each career decision took me toward financial independence, the point at which I no longer had to work for somebody else. Some of these decision didn’t earn me more money but instead earned me experiences that I knew would lead to higher-earning opportunities later on. Note the additional criteria I added to my “survive” filter: whatever it was I chose had to be something I was good at and enjoyed doing.

Thrive

There is no intellectualizing what resonates with you… When it reveals itself, you feel it. – Ryder Carroll, The Bullet Journal Method, p. 146.

The now-smaller list of options met up with my second “thrive” filter. This filter was governed by what I was passionate about, and the part of my body that best understood this was my gut. When a select group of “survive” choices came in front of me, I invariably knew, without necessarily knowing why, the one I wanted…as well as the one(s) I didn’t want. The one I wanted resonated with me, especially if it offered me the opportunity to journey on the road less traveled.

At some point, you have to make the decision

The important point I emphasize in the above illustration is the final red dot. At some point in the process I realized I had to make a decision, both to move forward and to gain experience. Sometimes the decision may have been to stay put, as this is always an option. But even with this seemingly non-decision decision, my choice to stay put was often accompanied by a decision to make a stronger commitment to what I was then doing.

Failure is guaranteed if you never begin – Ryder Carroll, The Bullet Journal Method, p. 125.

There is no “right” decision

The “thrive” decision was admittedly hard at times. Why? Because I often felt that a “right” decision existed and that my life would be forever damaged if I didn’t choose it. I now realize, in hindsight, that this is false. There is no “right” decision in my “thrive” filter. Once I realized this, it helped keep “analysis paralysis” at bay. Each decision leads down a different path, and for the most part, each path will work out just fine. They’ll just be different, that’s all.

Why I chose Bucknell University

For example, I considered a range of undergraduate universities: Bucknell, Lehigh, Clarkson, RPI. They were all good. I would have enjoyed any of them, each in a different way. Why did I choose Bucknell? Well, because when I visited the campus during high school spring break with my parents, Bucknell’s cherry blossoms were in full bloom–in hindsight, I think the grounds keepers somehow ensured this as it was spring break visit week!–and this sold me. Something in me clicked. My gut told me that Bucknell would work for me. I couldn’t list the reasons. The beauty of those trees played a role, perhaps. But I think there was much more to it than that. Sometimes decisions from the gut bypass the brain. All the experiences that I had in my life up until then, including the conversations with others and especially my parents, led me to that decision.

More experiences = better gut feel

This brings me to the curved arrow going from decision to experience. To me, the more decisions one makes, the more experiences one gains, and the better the gut feel develops. Gut feel doesn’t develop in a vacuum.

When you come to a fork in the road, take it – wisdom shared by a friend

Listening to your gut feel is so important when making career decisions. When considering the final decision from a range of options, you often just simply know deep down which decision you want. You feel it in your body. Trust this feeling. Use it to guide whether to do something… or not.

Consider the following, as described by Russ Roberts in his engaging book Wild Problems (p. 44). If you have to decide between two options, flip a coin, and while the coin is still spinning in the air, note which side you are hoping will come up. In that moment, you’ll realize that you don’t even need to see the outcome, because your decision will have already become clear to you. Trust your emotions. You don’t need to explain them to yourself or to others.

Why I went to Karlsruhe

As a final example of how this process worked for me, consider my decision to do a post-doctorate research project in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Remember those various display cases lining university hallways? They contain all sorts of interesting information. It was a rare occasion when I would stop and read, but all it took was once. I was walking down the MIT hallway, thinking about what company I was interested in joining upon graduation, when, for some unknown reason, I stopped at a case similar to the one on the right and actually read what was in it. A flyer spoke of scholarships offered by the German government to do post-graduate work at one of their universities. Bam! It hit me. I had never considered this before then. And all of a sudden it went to the top of my list.

Where did this decision come from? It came from everything, all of my experiences. My conversations with foreign students at MIT, the movies I watched, the stories from my dad about his international travel for Bristol-Myers, my interest in taking the fork, the road less traveled, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live in a foreign country, not with a group, but on my own, knowing it would force me to learn the language. So many different experiences primed my gut to tell me, “Apply”. And I did. And I went. And I never looked back. This decision provided me with another experience, a big experience, that further developed my gut feel for the decisions I would be making later on in my life.

Final thoughts

The survive-then-thrive approach indeed helped me to manage the overwhelm during my career decision-making process. Along the way I learned to trust my gut more and more. How did you approach your own decision making process? The same? Different? If you do try out any of these ideas, please let me know. In the meantime, thank you for reading my post. While I don’t specifically discuss the above concepts in my recently published book Block by Block – The Historical and Theoretical Foundations of Thermodynamics, they do make for a stimulating starting point for an engaging conversation around what motivated the early thermodynamics scientists in the directions they took in their own lives?

Published by Robert T Hanlon

I earned my Sc.D. in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and subsequently conducted post-doctoral research at Karlsruhe University in Germany. My professional career took me to Mobil Oil Research & Development Corporation, the Rohm and Haas Company, and then back to MIT where I am currently involved with their School of Chemical Engineering Practice.

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