Getting Back on Track

Yesterday I had my third session with a client who is in her early 40s, has a PhD in chemistry, a Masters in electrical engineering, and a Bachelor’s in art history, and who attended one of the top 3 Ivy League schools. She has worked at a government agency, a major consulting firm, and a small startup, but has been generally dissatisfied and unfulfilled in her work

She had completed the assignment I had given her in the previous session to severely edit her resume and make it bolder and more visually appealing, but the end result wasn’t much better than the original. She tearfully confessed that she hadn’t really given it her all because deep down she despaired of ever making the course correction we had identified as achievable and desirable for her. That despair, she admitted, had led her to make only a half-hearted effort at the task. She articulated her fears roughly like this: “I’m afraid it’s too late for me. I wish I hadn’t majored in art history. If only had stuck to one path. I just don’t have the experience that employers are going to be looking for.”

Past Thoughts in the Present

Note that all of these thoughts relate to either a past that is unchangeable or to an imagined future, but the thoughts are creating a problem in the present. I couldn’t help but lay out for her one of my favorite analogies: comparing a job or career search to the functioning of an automobile’s GPS guidance system.

Let’s say that you’ve decided that you’re going to take a road trip to visit your nephew in North Carolina. You get in your car, enter “Charlotte NC” into your GPS, start the engine, and begin to drive. The voice emanating from the little black GPS box begins instructing you: “Make a left turn in 150 yards and then bear to the right.” After a half dozen of these instructions you become irritated by the voice and decide to turn it off and begin navigating solely visually, following the highlighted route on the map. After about another ten minutes you find yourself engaged in thought about a difference you’ve had with your boss, and a few minutes after that see a sign that says “Harrisburg next exit.” You realize that while you were preoccupied with thinking about the problem at work you’ve made the wrong turn somewhere and are heading north instead of south.

How much time do you want to invest berating yourself for your inattention? How much energy do you want to put into figuring out where you made the wrong turn? Hopefully very little. Instead it would make the most sense to turn that voice back on and hear her say to you “recalculating:” the GPS is searching for the best route to Charlotte from your current location. It doesn’t berate you for having made a wrong turn.

Similarly, if you look back on your career progression does it make much sense to spend a lot of time bemoaning past choices? Yes, there is learning to be had from past mistakes, but probably a lot less than you would imagine. Here is a fact that many people don’t realize or find hard to believe: people ALWAYS make the best decision they can given the information available to them at the time. Whether deciding to have a second helping of potato salad or whether to get a divorce, no one EVER makes an intentionally second-best decision at the time the decision is made. In retrospect the decision may turn out to have been an unwise one, but at the time the decision was made it seemed the best choice, otherwise the person wouldn’t have made it.

“But” you may be thinking “suppose I don’t know my ultimate destination.” Many of my clients don’t. But I always try to help them lay out a step-by-step plan for getting there. In the GPS analogy, then, the individual steps become a series of destinations to which you plot a route one by one.

Whatever career track you may have been on it makes sense to invest in moving forward and calculating your new route, leaving the mistaken route behind.