Two Ways Psychology Traps You in an Unwanted Career

How psychology impacts career change decisions

Happier by receiving compliments, but unhappier the rest of the time. 

I served as a data scientist, and web developer for multiple clients and non-profits. The testimonials and recommendations I received made me feel I made the right career choice, but the early morning anxiety spiral stayed. 

I never truly enjoyed scrubbing client datasets or fixing ugly bugs in their interface. Yet, I was doing it consistently for at least 8 hours daily. Anyone who saw me watching technical videos at 2 AM with my eyes half closed would believe I was a tech nerd. But I wasn’t. 

I was trying to be one, but I wasn’t.

Pressurising me into a career that wasn’t meant for me, psychology played a huge role in nurturing my anxiety. And I’m not alone, 90% of people regret rushing their career choices and 47% of older millennials wish they’d chosen a different career path.

How does psychology impact career decisions?

Psychology impacts your career decisions exactly like it impacts your fashion sense, food taste, and friends circle. 

The work we do to earn a living is our self-esteem and we want others to perceive only good things about it. This takes us into a never-ending cycle of seeking validation while making one of life’s most critical decisions. 

Most of us won’t agree, but we want to impress those around us. When buying a new dress, joining a coaching program, or hosting parties, we look for compliments like “You did the right thing”. 

While external validation is necessary for your mental well-being, it can easily go out of your hands. External validation can keep you in a delusion of being happy, but it doesn’t guarantee internal validation. It happens often when others love what you do but your heart isn’t contended. 

In career transition, psychology fools you into believing others approve of your career choices and you must build credibility around it. But deep down, you’re anxious, disturbed, and exhausted.

The two psychological principles that affect career change

When I let go of my unrewarding career choice last year, I knew exactly what kept me hooked to the not-so-fulfilling career, but I couldn’t describe the feeling in words. One random day, I ordered Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini and everything started to make sense. 

He explains the seven principles of persuasion with real stories, studies, and tips to avoid them. Among the seven principles, I found the two that trapped me in the wrong career.

Consistency

I signed up for a freelancing workshop in college and took my friend along. Later, I found out really bad reviews about it so I wanted to take my classes instead. But, since I made my friend pay a small amount for the workshop, I couldn’t leave it. I had to go with her so she doesn’t perceive me as a betrayer. The workshop was a waste of time and I had to beg my professor to allow me to sit in the exam.  

You must have bought unwanted subscriptions or offered an undesirable favour so you aren’t known as erratic or a liar. 

Robert B. Cialdini explains how consistency and commitment make us do unwanted things and how companies use them to trap us. 

He says, Once an active commitment is made, then, self-image is squeezed from both sides by consistency pressures.

Social proof

We tend to follow others. It gives us a sense of belonging and makes decision-making easier for us. Think of how you cook, the college you picked, the clothing you like, and the hair colour you prefer, you’ll always find a person or a group of people who inspired your actions. 

I did a small survey earlier this year on how people deal with Imposter Syndrome. 31% of the respondents claimed they feel like an Imposter when they observe others’ work. This highlights our vulnerability to external influence.

Picking a career others directly or indirectly tell you to pursue can become problematic. Inspired by what others show on social media, we tend to forget that If someone likes a career, it’s not because the career is perfect, but because it suits their lifestyle.

How these might be impacting your career change

Knowing how consistency and social proof influence your decisions will help you craft a better career change strategy. So, take a screenshot of points you think are critical or take notes so you know how to make better career change decisions on time, unlike me.

The consistency of being an expert

You’ve got a good reputation in your career on LinkedIn or your circle and don’t want to damage it. The same happened to me and I just kept thinking about announcing my career change. 

I built my brand around web development and feared losing my followers and engagement on LinkedIn. On top of that, fear of losing web development job opportunities would trail over my head. 

What if I don’t succeed in a new career and lose my credibility in web development was the first thought I’d get in the morning. The fear of being known as a liar was so strong that I kept “Front-end Developer” in my headline even after I started working for clients on writing projects.

Robert B. Cialdini’s principle of consistency isn’t just about others’ opinions about you. Sometimes your mind is committed to consistency, stopping you from change. 

When you’ve committed years of dedication and hard work in a career, you automatically avoid rethinking other career options. It’s common to submit yourself to an unfulfilling life because you’re too occupied in the never-ending hustle of getting ready for work, working, and coming back unsatisfied. You’re either too busy to notice you need a change or hopeless.

Not feeling ready is one of humans’ most common excuses when taking a big step. 

I’m not ready to start a business. I’m not ready to relocate. I’m not ready to travel alone. And the list goes on.

Fear of uncertainty prompts us to find an excuse every time. During a career transition, even when you’ve got a good set of skills, you won’t feel ready for a change. No matter how exhausting your current job is, you’ll find an excuse to stay.

When I got an offer at a boot camp, I was reluctant to accept that because I wanted that fancy Software Engineer title. My stubbornness made me overlook my strengths. 

Social proof of what others are doing

As the psychology of consistency fools us into thinking we can’t change our minds about our careers, social proof offers a trap of hassle-free decision-making. 

Witnessing others making a specific career choice and loving that career, we tend to follow them.  

When I entered software engineering, women in STEM was a popular term. Believing being a girl in STEM would earn me some prestige, I compromised four years in trying to be something I wasn’t meant to be. 

My siblings kept reminding me that engineering is the only fulfilling career. Even though I had a writing portfolio ready, I ended up deleting that and tried to pursue engineering. 

Studying with technical folks, engaging with people in tech on social media, and reading courageous career transition stories from all possible domains to software engineering, I was convinced that it was the only right career. 

The filter I had set in my mind, kept me from exploring new careers. The notion of the “right career” would automatically make me look down on other jobs. 

I might be dumb, but I don’t exaggerate when I say I felt superior in associating myself with women in tech because it was considered something to be proud of.

Until one day, even after my contract at the boot camp ended, I realized how my anxiety soared after I stopped writing daily. 

How can you save yourselves from this?

Hitting send on the resignation email isn’t the solution. Acknowledging that your mind played tricks on you and taking small steps towards a change ensures a safe transition. 

Most of us, if not all, have passions like singing, writing, filmmaking, cooking, baking, and speaking, and we can monetize them all. If you think you don’t have any skills outside your boring job, you need to think harder. 

My friend used to think the same but she was a brilliant stylist and had an eye for design. My brother thinks he isn’t good at anything but he dumbfounds everyone with his knowledge of global finance. 

Think about the things you like to do when you’re free or happy. Think of ways you can monetize them like starting a music YouTube channel or building a virtual mathematics school.

Are you influenced by others?

Social media hides the dark side of everything and fools us into thinking others are having the time of their life by pursuing a specific career. Whenever you’re about to make a career decision, ask yourself, “Am I solely influenced by someone on social media or their lifestyle?” and “If I never followed X person, would I still make this career choice?”

Did you fall under the trap of stereotypes?

Stay away from the trap of stereotypes. I fell into the stereotype of “Empowered women are software engineers”. If you are among the minorities in a career path, you have a chance to succeed. If you’re following the majority, you might still have made the right decision if you truly love what you want to pursue.

Do you want to pursue a career for higher income only?

Money is one of the most important aspects of your career, but it isn’t the only one. You can still make money in careers not known for it. For example, Ali Abdaal left his career as a doctor and became a YouTuber. If he lived where I’m from, people would’ve named and shamed him for wasting his precious degree. 

Ask yourself, “Do I want to pursue an X career because it has high-income rates” or “Would I still pursue it if it hadn’t high-income rates?”

Self-awareness to make better career decisions

When you know yourself well, you know what’s important to you. Self-awareness is the key to making better career change decisions as it guides you to a clear path. 

Take a notepad and answer the following questions to understand your desires:

1. Why am I not happy with my current career?

2. What matters most to me in a career?

3. How much time can I allocate to career transition with other responsibilities?

4. Will I have to sacrifice any of the good things I have now in my new career?

Answering these questions will help you brainstorm possible alternatives to your current job and if you need any. 

Again, ending your current job to pursue a new one isn’t a strategic move. You may struggle to find a better transition if you aren’t fulfilled. While money isn’t the only thing to look for in your new career, take care of what you have right now and make a safer move.

Self-awareness helps you tune into your gut feeling, guiding you toward better decisions. 

Take small steps. Create your curriculum. Test your capability by gaining some real-world experience. Know that you’re not alone.

Last words

Have these principles of psychology also impacted your career choice? If yes, how? If not, is there anything I forgot to mention?

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