Why Do People Chase the Wrong Career Paths?

02/14/2017 02:28 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2018

Why do people often end up chasing the wrong things in their careers and lives? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Scott Sonenshein, Management Professor at Rice University, author of Stretch, on Quora:

We have a natural tendency to compare ourselves to others to assess our situations. What is part of our psychology to help us assess our safety and standing has been distorted by a culture of accumulation and consumption. Chasing is the behavior that reflects the belief that we need more to do more. We mistakenly think that having more money, a bigger office, a better title, or a larger budget are needed to live a successful and satisfying life - and to work effectively. Unfortunately, it's easy to become fixated on what others have that we lack. But frequently, we don't need more at all. We can be successful by being more resourceful with what we already have to accomplish personal and professional goals.

Chasing is an accepted part of our society, manifested in expressions such as "climbing the corporate ladder" and the "pursuit of the American dream." On social media, where people disproportionately share only good news and superficial markers of success, we are given the impression that accomplishments and good fortune are discovered, and not the result of creative effort and applied talents. We fall into the trap of thinking if we just had what others did, we'd be satisfied.

Specific to careers, a lot of people start their careers with very little idea about what they want to do. Faced with a lack of understanding of their work style and priorities, and an intolerance for ambiguity, they gravitate towards easy to understand, clearly laid out professional paths. Many people subscribe to oversimplified versions of success and life, where risk and uncertainty can (and should) be avoided and there's a false security in defined paths. For some college graduates this typically means banking, consulting, or accounting, while for others it means routing themselves to conventional grad school programs.

There's a natural comfort to seeing how one's career will unfold on a relatively predictable and stable pathway. It's a safe bet - but it's also hard to get off these paths once we're on them, even if we're not enjoying the ride. I know lots of people who went to law school and then were miserable when they started their first gigs, while mired in student loans. Over time, these same friends would then double down, investing a lot more time and energy in building a career that would have high switching costs to get a fresh start.

There's huge benefits to being thoughtful about positioning your career early on, before investing all of your talents and energies in something you're likely interested in (versus chasing a career you think has high status and that you think will earn the respect of others). The best incentives are satisfaction in matching your talents and skills to real needs that can be positively impacted by your contribution. Taking a role for its markers of success is a recipe for disappointment. Following an opportunity because spending your time meeting its objectives energizes you, leads to better satisfaction.

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