The 3 Secret Sources of Indecision

by | Mar 17, 2015 | Career Design | 17 comments

One week you’re dead set on cooking for a living, the next you want to be a librarian.

The problem isn’t coming up with something you might want to do for a living, it’s committing to it. And the indecision is driving you crazy.

It’s not like you haven’t tried to nail it down. You’ve taken personality tests, read books on risk-taking, and completed countless personal development exercises.

And for a moment, you think you’ve figured it out. But only for a moment.

Then the doubt creeps in and you find yourself back at square one again. Are you really good at creating new recipes? Do you really have a passion for the Dewey decimal system or are you just an avid reader?

And then there’s the coup de grace, the voice in your head that says even if you knew what you wanted to do with your life, no one would hire you anyway.

Sigh. Better to just give up on the dream of meaningful work and make the best of what you have, right?

I see this quite often among my No Regrets clients, so if this sounds like you, know that you definitely aren’t alone. In my experience, the problem isn’t that you’re wishy-washy. The problem is that you’re suffering from one of three hidden psychological barriers.

Barrier #1: You don’t have enough information

Maria had tried so many unfulfilling jobs, she was burnt out. Knowing that she liked to help people, and needing a dose of peace and contentment herself, she thought a job as a spa therapist would be a perfect fit.

She quit after a single day.

“It is barely glamorized slave labor,” she told me.

It’s easy to romanticize a career and imagine what it will be like. You see the job from the perspective of a customer and think you understand what the job entails.

On the other hand, Maria’s experience in the job was also limited to a particular establishment. For example, I know someone who created a beauty salon and spa in her house. She loves the work and it’s a truly unique experience for her clients too.

In another case, Colin came to me because he really wanted to open his own theater, but his wife was reluctant to agree because it would mean a significant drop in their standard of living.

I asked him how many theater owners he had surveyed and how much they made. It turned out he had never talked to one. Ideally, he’d talk to both those making more and less than he was hoping for, so he could start to get a sense of what made the difference and whether he was capable of performing to that standard.

I happened to have a friend who made quite a decent living at it. It was a single data point, but it was step in the right direction. His own network could probably yield several more.

It’s essential you gather enough information on potential careers to make an informed decision. This means getting real data, either through a test-drive or through interviews with people who have done what you want to do. Day-dreaming or relying on media representations of a career is not enough.

Barrier #2: You have conflicting visions of who you are

A big part of choosing a new career is making decisions about what you like and who you are. And while it seems like these should be the easiest questions of all to answer, they often aren’t.

For one thing, you may be trying to answer questions for which you have no reference answers. That can be unsettling because our education system teaches us that there are right answers and wrong answers, and the right answers are those that have been externally validated (i.e. we don’t necessarily decide what’s right).

For example, my husband is fascinated by sailing stories filled with adventure. He admires sailors who sail around the world or participate in high stakes races. But if you ask him about his own happiest memories, they are nearly always quiet times with the family at home or drinking coffee at the local cafe.

For myself, I keep saying I want to be a writer, then I fall back in love with growing my business. I don’t think it has to be an either/or choice, but I’m forcing myself to acknowledge that writing may never become the highlight of my career the way I thought it would. And that’s okay.

The old saying “actions speak louder than words” is relevant here. For anything you’re feeling conflicted about, you should ask yourself, “What have I done to demonstrate this belief? Are my actions consistent or are they mostly what I would do, if only I had X?”

In my husband’s case, he always said he would do a lot more sailing, if only he didn’t have a job. So, he’s taking a year off of work to test that idea. I’m giving myself several months to exclusively focus on my business–while paying attention to how it feels not writing.

And if our dreams don’t turn out to be the career passions we imagined? We can keep them as a fun hobbies or side activities, and then move on to something else without second-guessing ourselves.

Defining yourself in this way can be scary, but it’s a lot better than always wondering “What if?”

Barrier #3: You’re afraid to close doors

This manifests itself in a couple of different ways.

The first is a fear that if you quit your job to pursue something else, and it doesn’t work out, the door is closed to ever returning to your previous job. Who says? I have a number of clients who tried out a new career, decided they were being too hard on their old job, and negotiated a return (usually with better benefits, not worse).

For example, one client moved to another state in order to get a graduate degree in public administration. Unfortunately, while in school she discovered she wasn’t all that interested in her post-graduate opportunities. We not only found a way for her to get her old job back, but they hired her as a virtual employee so she wouldn’t have to move again.

Chances are, if you’re missing your old workplace, they’re probably missing you too.

The other case where a fear of closing doors pops up is for those who love so many different things, they see choosing a career as a kind of rejection of the other possibilities. Such people are frequently called scanners or multi-potentialites.

One such client of mine, Andrew, felt a constant sense of dissatisfaction that he hadn’t found the right career. He struggled to choose a new direction, despite a long list of interesting options, because “it meant letting go of the imagined life each one could bring.”

When he forced himself to roughly prioritize his passions and committed to testing his ideas out, he found a career that allowed him to group three of his passions together. More importantly, he finally enjoyed what he was doing instead of always thinking about what he wasn’t.

It’s important to note that there are instances where closing doors is fairly easy. For example, when you get married, you presumably close the door on other relationships as well as a host of experiences and opportunities that are incompatible with the priorities of your marriage. Many of us not only close those doors willingly, but want to do so as early as possible.

Which suggests that something else is really at play when it comes to indecision…

Are you afraid of embracing your true self?

Speaking for myself, I know the reason I was so eager to get married the first time, even to someone who killed my cat, was that it represented something about me, not just to me. My father used to tell me I was incapable of real love. I was desperate to shed that image and prove him wrong.

Maria wasn’t just seeking peace, she needed to see herself as a peaceful person, someone capable of experiencing it in addition to providing it.

My husband wants to believe he is adventurous and a risk-taker. I want to believe I’m the next Malcolm Gladwell. Chances are, we’ve bundled our self-image into our passions.

Andrew realized it was his daydreams that were holding him back, not his realities.

I’ve listed three sources of our indecision, and that explains things at one level. But we can go a little deeper, can’t we?

Our indecision looks like a rational weighing of options. At its roots, however, we are often afraid that who we are and what we want is not enough.

The question is: enough for whom?

It’s your life, after all. What if you decided to live it as bravely and honestly as you can?

Then every decision becomes easier, because you know it’s one you can live with.