Philip is an established professional with a nasty habit. Every time he finds himself bored at work, he starts sleuthing through the Internet in search of a new career. What may seem like a harmless past time is contributing to his career dissatisfaction and restlessness. The more he explores “his options,” the more confused he becomes about what he wants to do with his career, and whether he should stick out his current situation, or move on. The more he researches, the more his brain churns. It becomes harder for him to access his intuition.
Philip has some well developed skills in marketing. He enjoys the field and feels like he is making a difference. Each time he starts a new job, he is enthusiastic about the prospects and long term potential. He often thinks: “I can see myself doing this for ten years!” But it never fails. One year into the job he starts to think about his options and wonders if he is missing out on a better opportunity somewhere else. Soon after, he finds himself staring bug eyed at his computer as he googles potential career options.
Philip is a Career Maximizer (Schwartz, 2004). Career Maximizers are people who are always looking for a better employment deal. No matter how good they have it they wonder, “Is this as good as it gets?” They are always looking for ways to raise the stakes to see if they can squeeze out some incremental happiness.
About a month ago and after a particularly challenging day, Philip started fantasizing about ditching his career and becoming a Ski Instructor. He indulged this idea by exploring training options, researching jobs on international mountains, checking out the price of real estate at different resorts, and reading marketing materials for ski touring companies. That night he lay awake thinking about the implications of leaving his job and hitting the mountain. He tossed and turned as he did bank balance calculations in his head and weighed all the pros and cons. That week he found it difficult to focus at work and he noticed little negative details about his current job - like the stale air in the office tower and how constricted he felt in his tie.
Two weeks later, he had a new idea. “Forget about being a ski instructor, I should be a wellness consultant.” He spent the night researching different conferences and speaker bios. He felt inspired to make a change and imagined how great his life would be if he took this career path. That night he lay awake wondering how he could switch into this new area, and the steps he would need to take. He was excited until he thought about making a change, yet again. It hit him hard. He just couldn’t seem to stick to things. Then, he felt heavy and depressed.
Career Maximizers and people like Philip often start to think about career options when a psychological process called adaptation kicks in. Simply put, adaptation happens when we get used to things, and we start to take them for granted (Schwartz, 2004, p 167). Each time Philip changes jobs he goes through a careful process of evaluating his options and prioritizing which of his values are most important for him to express. But, it never fails, after two years into it he starts to complain, and take these things for granted. He can not sustain feeling fulfilled. Even though this process is normal (think the honeymoon phase when dating a new beau) most people do not anticipate it in their careers, or even worse, they are surprised by it.
When Philip starts to experience this inevitable point of adaptation, his internal alarm bells go off. Rather then recognizing this as a normal part of his career experience, and seeking out new challenges in other areas of his life, or in his immediate situation, he immediately turns to the internet for new ideas. As he fantasizes about different options, he imagines the novel experiences and starts to feel disappointed in his current circumstances (no matter how good they are). The reality, however, is that even if he changes jobs yet again, he will still reach this point of adaptation soon after settling into his new role.
So what’s a Career Maximizer and person like Philip to do?
First, recognize that all new experiences will eventually hit a point of adaptation. You will soon feel comfortable and you likely won’t feel euphoric. Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell (1971) labeled this the Hedonic Treadmill. No matter how good your choices and how pleasurable the results, your subjective experience will get back to where you started.
Second, boycott the internet for awhile. When you start to feel neutral stimulation with your current career reality, don’t immediately start researching career choices. Instead, focus inward and ask yourself what feeling you are trying to regain. If it is a feeling of excitement, ask yourself: “How else can I get this feeling without changing my career path, yet again?”
Third, recognize that any gains you may get by changing jobs may be incremental. It is unlikely that another change will really bring you that much more joy. Instead focus on other parts of your life where you could experience feelings of novelty or challenge.
Fourth, when you think about a career option, try factoring adaptation into the choice. Ask yourself how you will feel once you have gone through the initial fun part. Imagine yourself five years down the road.
Fifth, foster an attitude of gratitude. Although it may sound cliché, reminding yourself of all the good things you have can have a surprisingly positive impact on overall career and life satisfaction.
Lastly, if none of this works, ask yourself if you are making career choices from your authentic self, or who you think you "should be." If you are making choices from your adaptive self do some deep personal reflection to discover what you want and need, and explore your emotional history to understand where this adaptive coping mechanism first kicked in, and how you are overusing it today.
Brickman, P., & Campbell, D. T. (1971). Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. In Appley (Ed.), Adaptation-Level Theory.New York: Academic Press.
Schwartz, Barry (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. Harper Collins Publisher:New York.