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More Options, More Problems

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An expanding class of smart, ambitious professionals have created so many options for themselves that they find it virtually impossible to do a darned thing.

Tom, a reluctant 29-year-old management consultant, has the largest career option set of anyone I know. By virtue of his experience, skills, and financial situation, he could realistically be any one of the following: a high-powered professional services partner, a full-time actor, an entrepreneur, a venture investor, or a professional hockey player. His career decision tree features a diverse set of branches, each offering its own distinct mix of financial and nonfinancial rewards. He's young, healthy, and unattached. He's been taught all his life to carefully weigh alternatives and pick the path with the highest expected utility.

But as this career Superman soars high above the professional world, his kryptonite becomes painfully obvious. With so many options in tow, there's one thing he can't do, something that an Ivy-league education didn't prepare him for and the exact thing that keeps him in a permanent state of stress and anxiety: the need to decide.

Like Tom, many of us intuitively believe in the value of options, especially when it comes to something as important as our careers. Economists explain that rational individuals assign value to leaving doors open, even when there's little likelihood of ever walking through any one particular door. Parents stressed the importance of education as a way to increase professional optionality, and blue-chip companies tout infinite exit prospects to potential employees. But after our personal decision trees grow to a certain point, is creating more branches for ourselves really better?

While writing Passion & Purpose, I had the privilege of interviewing dozens of high-performing individuals about their career options and decisions. Everyone in my sample was in their late 20s or early 30s, had attended top-tier schools, and had worked for several years in reputable companies. Financially content, they rated intellectual stimulation as the number one reason for choosing a job, and moved between jobs and countries frequently to find a fit.

The most striking finding, however, was a common reason underpinning this restlessness: the desire to defer. Convincing themselves they had yet to find a true calling, they relentlessly pursued careers that increased their future options. They were betting that the pain of creating more options now would pay off in the pleasure of a better life later.

These potential superstars belong to the Hesitation Generation, an expanding class of talented individuals who inadvertently are training themselves to be systematically indecisive. As this group grows, they reassure each other of the need for versatility and flexibility in a rapidly changing world.

But a relentless quest to accumulate more options might be sabotaging your career and harming your well-being. Here's why:

Generating options can quickly become an end in itself. Instead of accepting that option value has diminishing returns, many individuals toiled away at roles in professional services firms, corporations, and the public sector with a large (and understandable) focus on increasing the career options that would await them upon their resignation. By their second or third job, however, many had fallen into the dangerous habit of making decisions solely to increase the number of options available to them. This was all at the opportunity cost of creating real value and pursuing their passions.

More options make it harder to choose. Rather than closing the very doors that they'd dedicated their lives to prying open, many found it easier to simply defer making career decisions altogether. There's a definitive (and definitional) problem here: Deferring a decision means you haven't made one. Thus, some of the most talented individuals in the world find themselves stuck in an unending holding pattern, a professional gray zone housing those who have the most options of all and have failed to convert any of them for fear of missing out on all the others.

The choice you make is unsatisfying. Ironically, those with more options tended to feel less satisfied with the path they were currently pursuing, irrespective of what it was. Like Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice predicts, these individuals are faced with a feeling of learned helplessness caused by a seemingly infinite list of choices to optimize. Our ever-increasing use of social media compounds these feelings by making comparisons more rampant and convenient, and leaving us endlessly second-guessing the choices we've actually made, knowing more are out there.

In a world where deciding is difficult, we have to choose: Dedicate our energy to building a large but ultimately meaningless set of potential paths, or move forward on our convictions with gusto? Those who pick the latter have the opportunity to break important new career ground.

Are you accumulating career options at the expense of following your true passions? What can you teach others about avoiding hesitation and making decisions?

This post was originally published on HBR.org.

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