I coach and mentor many people who struggle to decide what to do with their careers and their lives. Sometimes they’ve been working for a few years, and already have hit their “Quarter Life Crisis”, when they realize that they’re now doing the work that they studied for since the age of 4 — but they can’t see themselves doing this work for 40 more years. Or even 40 more weeks. In other cases, they’re trying to decide if all their problems would be solved if they simply relocated to another city, state, or country.
While many people would be grateful to have any job at all, I’m describing what I call “The Curse of the Well-Educated, Geographically Mobile Person”. I’ve worked with people who have degrees from top schools such as Stanford, Cal-Berkeley, or the University of Chicago. Upon graduation, they often can choose to go into investment banking on Wall Street, do management consulting in London, found a tech startup in San Francisco, or work for a non-profit to bring clean drinking water to Africa.
Thanks to the Internet and social media, it’s now easier than ever to switch jobs, careers, and countries. Immigration reform in places such as the EU have made it commonplace for someone to grow up in Poland, study in Paris, and work in Rome. As for myself, I worked as an English teacher in Frankfurt, a business journalist in Spain, a phone salesman in San Francisco, and a McKinsey consultant in Munich — all pre-Internet.
But so many options can be frustrating and paralyzing. As psychologist Barry Schwartz describes in his book The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less, a consumer can feel a lot of stress when they have a huge number of choices on aspects of life — both important and trivial. (“Get the toothpaste that’s with or without fluoride? Buy a condo or keep renting? Marry and settle down, or keep dating more and more people on Tinder?”)
Psychologically, this is related to “Fear Of Missing Out” (“FOMO”), the common emotion in the age of social media, when your behavior is driven by the Angst that no matter how good this moment may be, there is something better going on somewhere else, and you could actually be doing that right now, if you just managed things better. (For more on this, check out my earlier blog “Who Are You Comparing Yourself To?”)
So whether a person is 25 or 75, and they ask me for advice, I first ask them “What are your non-negotiables in life?” By “non-negotiables”, I mean the aspects of your life which you absolutely must have to be happy. For example, you could say “I’ll work anywhere in the world, but I have to work in finance”, or “I’ll do any job necessary, but I’m not leaving Seattle, because my ailing mom lives here”, or “I have to work in a company with less than 100 employees, because I hate big-company bureaucracy”, or “I have to earn at least $50k per year.” Some people find it very useful to combine multiple non-negotiables: “I’ll only work in a finance job in Seattle for a small company, earning at least $50k per year.”
Why intentionally limit your choices, especially in the age of FOMO? So you can shift your focus from “things I can do” to “things I really want to do”. Shift from “where I could be” to “where I am”, which helps you enjoy the here and now. And instead of chasing 7,369 possible future employers, you’re chasing 20 — which is a manageable number for a focused, thorough, and highly successful job search. Instead of the 3,522 women you could be dating in Brooklyn, you focus on the one you’re already living with.
In my popular Happiness Workshop entitled “Live Before You Die! Find Pleasure, Purpose, and Peace”, one of my Practices is “Invest in Family, Friends, and Community”. I recall mentoring a talented young Berkeley engineer who was German, worked in Korea, and ended up in Silicon Valley. He was struggling to decide whether to continue with another high-stress, low-pay, high upside startup in San Francisco, or to relocate to Southern California for a much less intense, but otherwise excellent job. Once he realized that his non-negotiable was to start a family and live a balanced life, his career choice became easy. And it turns out that he’s now doing very entrepreneurial things – but inside of a large corporation.
Is he missing out on today’s frenzied startup scene in Silicon Valley? Yes.
Is he a lot happier now, because he’s building his life based on the non-negotiable of investing in “family, friends, and community”? Absolutely.
And he tells me the surfing is a lot better down there, anyway.
; – )
In my next blog post, I’ll discuss a process you can use to identify your non-negotiables.
* This is my fourth blog post. If you liked it, then you might also enjoy my other posts, here.
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Copyright 2014, Jim McCarthy. All Rights Reserved.