Not many of us are consciously aware of the moment we choose a career. It’s not the same decision-making process that goes through our head when we are ordering dinner or deciding whether or not to go out for a run; it’s something that happens unconsciously over time. Something our brain decides and puts together after looking, reading and experiencing other people’s jobs.

But, psychologically, we don’t usually choose our careers on what we’re really good at, or what we would find really fulfilling. We choose them based on a range of external factors – careers we deem to be great because of our friends doing them, or because they pay well. We caught up with career psychologist, Nimita Shah, to ask what actually is going on in our brains when deciding what career to pursue?

1. How we are making these choices

There are so many career options now, Nimita explains, that making a valued decision on what to choose is really hard. “Years ago, choice was limited and you were born into professions, but now there is so much choice and the way we are choosing isn’t usually the best way!”

What do we do? We look at what our family do for jobs, what our friends do, what those around us are doing, and if they’re enjoying their jobs, we wonder if we should do it, too. “We should look at what will be more valuable to us, and what is meaningful,” Nimita adds. ”

STUDY: The Economist had three subscription offers. 1) Online subscription for $59, 2) Print subscription for $125 and 3) Print and online subscription for $125. The majority of people (84%) chose both because they felt they were getting value for money, but they didn’t necessarily need both. As soon as that option was taken away, 68% of people chose online. “It’s proof that we are influenced by things that don’t matter and the external world affects how we make that choice.”

We make choices based on ‘short-term comparisons‘ Nimita tells us. You might think ‘which one will I actually get a job out of? Which career choice pays the best?’ when what we should be asking ourselves is ‘What interests me the most? What motivates me?’. These short-term decisions essentially affect what we value in the long-term. And the result? “We discount career options and it leaves us unfulfilled.”

So it leaves you with the question – what do you really want? What values are aligned with you and how much do you want it?

2. Our brains are negatively-biased

“We are evolved to think negatively,” Nimita says. “Our negative memories are 3-5 times more powerful than positive memories, and we hate losing twice as much as we love winning!”

“It’s not a bad thing,” she continues. “It’s good for survival, but it’s less good for building something constructive around reasons why we can do something.”

Some are more positive than others, but Nimita advises us to identify our strengths and suggested actions of how we can use them to start rewiring our brains and let us know that we do have the good stuff inside us. If we have ten bad interview experiences, we will need 10 or 20 positive interview experiences to get over the initial negative ones. Why? Because of our negative bias. We have to balance the bad with even more than the good.

Back to making decisions, this point is the sort of thing that will make us say “I’d LOVE to be in radio, but I’ll never get a job it’s too competitive.” And so we don’t even try, and we never do get that job in radio. Sound familiar?

How can we make better career decisions?

The key to a fruitful, happy and long-term career is doing something that you really find meaningful. One that fits with your values.

Align your own values

“A simple but quick exercise is to do value exercises online,” suggests Nimita. ” It lets you get in touch with your values, whether than be creativity or helping others. It helps you figure out if your decisions are lining up with what you really value in life.” They’re the core values - Try one test here.

Choose self-awareness over expectation

But values aren’t enough to base career decisions on. You need to be clear on what you are interested in and what your strengths are. Get a blank piece of paper and write down everything, without a career in mind. Nimita suggests to explore ways of gaining self awareness around your skills, interests, strengths and personality preferences. “A lot of is about paying attention as to what gives you energy and what depletes you”. Self awareness away from expectations can usually tell you a lot. Don’t think about what jobs are more competitive, what jobs offer the most money, just think about yourself, or what really matters to you.

Discover your interests

When we were younger, we were encouraged to have hobbies, go to after-school clubs and find out what we loved doing. When you’re at the point where you’re choosing your career, suddenly those hobbies go out the window, but interests are the key to having a fulfilling career. “Go into Waterstones,” suggests Nimita. “What section are you drawn to, or do you walk towards? Is it crime? Is it travel? Keep an eye on where you go. When you get there, what are you looking at, what books interest you and ask yourself why.”

At The Career Psychologist, Nimita runs workshops as well as one-to-one sessions helping people make better career decisions. Of course there’s loads of stuff you can do for free and by yourself, but if you need a little extra help – there’s people waiting to help you.

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