The Competency Trap In Career Choices and How To Avoid It

Most of us use the ‘what we know’ lens to determine, ‘what we do’. But it’s wrongheaded and leads to a trap that’s hard to escape.

It’s that time of year when I receive calls from either students about to enter the workforce or people switching jobs because they are frustrated.

“I’m a psych major and I’ve always liked creative stuff. I won an art prize at high school. So, I though I’d get into User Experience design.”–W

“I’ve been in the publishing industries for years but I’m not excited by it. I think I want to be in the sustainable energy technologies space but I don’t have any experience in that industry.”–G

Thanks to the way we’re brainwashed in school, you think your major or your experience is the only path to a career. Or worse, you mistake your domain knowledge for your passion. Not only is this not true but it creates an incongruence that follows you for life.

Incongruence causes anxiety. We associate the investment made in a college degree or early career choice with potential future success. It’s a sunk cost fallacy. Based on the half a dozen reports I could find, about half of all graduates will end up in careers they didn’t study for. Your degree, or your experience, or your parent’s wishes are not your passion or your career.

Hopefully, school taught you how to think, not regurgitate what you studied.

To help reframe their next steps and find something more aligned with their interests, career entrants or career changers, can ask these questions…

  • Sustained interest: Can you do this work for a reasonable period of time without losing interest?
  • Love or money: Can you honestly say you love it or is it just the paycheck you want?
  • Acceptable stress: Does the work come with a high physical, mental or emotional cost? Will it pay you well enough to live without stress?
  • Future opportunity: Can you honestly say you’re capable of being one of the best at that thing?
  • Circles of influence: Can you imagine yourself working with people in this space or industry for a long time?

Let’s dig in deeper…

  • Sustained interest: Having an interest in what you do is energizing. While you don’t need to be passionately in love with your career, it should hold your attention and pass the “bullshit jobs” test. Bullshit jobs are, “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” Can you imagine doing this work for the next 5 or 10 years? Can you see yourself challenged in creative and positive ways by this work?
  • Love or money: Many of us, me included, do things for love and not money. I ride bikes (which costs me money), I raise money for charity (which takes time), and I mentor a dozen companies for no financial reward (because I like the work). Those are hobbies. But to live in a society we also need an income. Can you make money doing the thing you want to do? Do you need to make money? Maybe you have a partner or family that can support you if there’s more love than money in that work? Don’t confuse your love of a hobby for a career. Sometimes they overlap but they don’t have to.
  • Acceptable stress: If the work literally kills you, however slowly, then no amount of money is worth it. Some jobs are inherently dangerous but all work has underlying stress. As an entrepreneur I would find myself paying for the ability to have my own business with stressful hours required to make startup life possible. As I’ve got older my priorities changed and some stress became unacceptable to me. There are hidden costs to all work. A good example of this is the cost of daycare verses the income from a job. If the income from the job is only equal to the daycare, then is it worth leaving your kids with strangers to go and work for a paycheck?
  • Future opportunity: The work should be inherently transformative. Good work evolves. Bullshit work is repetitive. Humans are not machines. Humans are organic. They love to be challenged and grow. Choosing work that helps you grow and mature is critical to a satisfying life. Pointless work, no matter how much it pays, will eventually result in boredom, stress, and self-pity. You don’t need to know exactly what the future will hold, only that there will be lots of opportunity to explore new paths.
  • Circles of influence: You become the average of the people you spend the most time with. Choosing work also means choosing who you work with. Understanding the types of people that inspire you is a great indicator of both future satisfaction and creative potential. If all the people you know in that industry are unhappy it’s unlikely that this work will magically make you happy. Most problems are “who” problems, and not “what” problems. Choose your coworkers and influences carefully.

Don’t fool yourself, there will be crap days in all types of work. All work sucks sometimes. But if the bad days consistently outnumber the good days there’s a good chance this work is not for you.

Good luck.



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