Making a decision and choosing a direction in life can be difficult. The pressure to get a good education, and to know what career you want can be too much as it is. On top of that, once you’ve scrambled for an answer, there’s pressure for you to stick with it.
Let’s use a hypothetical James as an example. In his last year of high school, James felt the pressure to make a decision: what was he going to do next? His family values university education, and he knew he could get the marks required for most courses, but he didn’t know what course to pick. What did he want to do for a living?
With no real idea, James took the advice of his family and teachers and looked at his interests and subjects. He was good at sport and played football outside of school. He was good at maths, too, and enjoyed health and biology. Not aware of the career prospects of any of those interests except maths, he told everyone he’d study business and probably do something in accounting or finance.
After his first year of his three-year university degree, James was having second thoughts. His parents were proud of him for getting into his university course and getting excellent grades. However, as good as he was at his business subjects, he didn’t really enjoy them. Nor did he look forward to working in accounting or finance.
During the second year of James’ course, he became aware of career paths in medicine. The one that got his interest the most was researching genetics and stem cells — it involved his interest in health and biology and he got to make a more direct positive impact with his career. What should he do? Changing university courses now would mean disappointing his parents, admitting he didn’t really know what he wanted all these years until now, and it would mean he had mostly wasted the last 1.5 years of time and money studying the wrong course.
Changing Your Mind
I don’t think a situation like James’ is rare. I don’t know many people who were confident in what they wanted from an early age, so it pays to have a strategy to deal with the above scenario.
What would you do if you were James? Stick to the university course you had already spent 1.5 years in, not to mention the $15,000 it cost? That would lead you down the path of accounting or finance that would be a relatively stable career and income but wouldn’t be a source or fulfilment or happiness for you. Or, would you choose to change degrees and start from scratch? This would means years and years more studying, and you’d be 1.5 years behind the people your age who went straight into medicine after high school. But you’re confident it would lead to a more fulfilling and happy career into the future.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy
I mentioned the sunk cost fallacy in my ATAR of 99.80 post — it’s an irrational decision, where the costs you’ve already experienced are taken into account when deciding what future action to take. I fell for it then, and we all fall for it if we’re not careful.
The key to making any ‘change of mind’ decision is recognising that the past has already happened. Continuing to do the things you are/were doing does not make up for the effort/money/time/stress already invested into it. In James’ example, 1.5 years was already used up and he had already spent $15,000 on his course. What he should do is look at all of his options and their consequences and decide what outcomes he likes best.
- Pay $15,000 more and spend 1.5 years more to finish the business degree. Complete three years of professional development in an accounting role (if that’s what he chose) to become fully qualified and experience a stable yet unfulfilling and unrewarding career in accounting for the next 40-odd years; or
- Pay $50,000 and spend 5 years studying the undergraduate and master’s degrees required to become a geneticist (if that’s what he chose) and experience a fulfilling, rewarding, and occasionally exciting career in genetics for the next 40-odd years.
Notice that the first option includes the previous costs paid (1.5 years and $15,000) without the emotional attachment of “if I leave this course, I will have wasted the last 1.5 years”.
When Changing Your Mind Is the Right Decision
Changing your mind isn’t always good (not deciding at all can be even worse). After you have made a decision to start directing your resources (time, money, effort, etc) towards achieving it. If you change, and change, and change your mind, the direction your resources are being transferred to keeps changing and you don’t really make any progress towards your overarching goals.
However, we never have perfect knowledge: there are plenty of things we are unaware of and simply couldn’t have considered when we made our decision. We also don’t know how the future will pan out: perhaps your perspective on life will change after travelling, or you’ll learn more about yourself that opens up another career/life option, or you fall in love earlier than expected and start a family sooner as well.
As time progresses, you will learn more things, become aware of new things, and events outside of your control will unfold or reveal themselves to you. As each new chunk of information becomes available to you, you have to recalculate your old decisions if you want to make sure you’re on the best path possible for your goals. Changing your mind when new information becomes available is imperative for success.
Sticking with an old decision even though new information says it’s no longer the best is silly. For example: continuing the one-hour drive to the airport after you get a text from your airline telling you the plane has been delayed and is due to depart tomorrow; or, going ahead with your plan to set up an ice-cream stand at a local festival even though the weather forecast changed from ‘hot and dry’ to ‘cold and raining’; or, staying employed by the same company for 10 years even after you found out better opportunities were available.
In the above example, James weighed up the pros and cons of each option and decided that the slight extra time and money spent studying in university would be nothing in comparison to a far more enjoyable and fulfilling career. The correct decision for James is to change career directions.
Dealing With Criticism
Sometimes the thing that holds you back most from changing your mind is the anxiety over what other people might think of you.
If you changed your mind and you told me why, I’d get it. I’d congratulate you. If you had really thought about things, figured out what you wanted, and now you’re going for it — awesome! After all, just like in the example of James, it’s often the right thing to do.
If someone thinks poorly of you for making what you believe is (for now) the right decision, then perhaps one or more of my thoughts below could explain why they feel this way:
1. It’s you
- They can see or they know things that you don’t, and you’re not actually taking everything into account when you think about your decision. If this is the case, be open to new, useful information and ask yourself if your view of the situation now has changed.
2. It’s them
- The people around you have their own values and ambitions, their own interests and desires. For example, it’s not hard to imagine a parent who values university education and academic achievement who has family and friends with similar interests. This parent likely brags to these family members and friends of theirs about your achievements and how proud they are of you — their sense of their own worth is somewhat linked to your achievements, and the criteria of those achievements. This sort of parent can easily (consciously or unconsciously) pressure you into performing so that they feel better about themselves.
My point? People have their own agendas, and if their criticism of you is based on anything other than a desire for your happiness and fulfilment then it’s not worth considering. If they are concerned about your happiness and fulfilment but simply don’t understand how the decision you have made is going to achieve that for you, then consider explaining it to them. If they’ll listen.
- If you’re going against the grain or just doing something different to that of your friends, you might get some unwelcome comments. These comments might come from people who are living in a bubble that they’re happy to stay in as long as they can. A bubble where life is simpler, there is a plan laid out for them, and that person and that person’s friends are all going to follow this story they have played out in their head.
Or perhaps they’re just going along with the story they’ve been told — that everyone should have made up their mind about what they want to do with their lives by high school and then following that plan. This person might end up changing their own career path if they didn’t get lucky and decide of one that fits their interests and financially well-being perfectly.
In the end, dealing with criticism is all in your mind. The right decision to make, however, might be to change directions. This will likely be the case more than once in your life. When those times come, be brave enough to choose the option that brings you the most happiness and fulfilment in the long run, regardless of the effort spent on the old path.