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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

No, Really: Your Brain Is Standing in the Way of Your Career Goals

When it comes to decision-making, you probably think that you have the ability to do whatever you want. After all, you have free will—the innate human ability to choose for yourself.

In reality, though, the way you make decisions is much more complicated.

It turns out that thinking is much less determined by your personal agenda and much more influenced by your environmental and social realities than you may have thought. And this is particularly true when it comes to our career decisions.

Here’s why: When you engage your cognitive process, it often defaults to take in what it needs to survive. In the words of Richard Boyatzis’ Intentional Change Theory, you are most often thinking in terms of your Real Self, the self that is fighting for survival.

However, to set a career goal, and more importantly to create the energy to carry it out, you need to turn your attention to thriving (rather than surviving). In other words, your default thinking process becomes cumbersome to your desired future outcome.

How Your Brain Works in Uncharted Territory

Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow can help us further understand and make use of this idea. In the book, he uses the characters “System 1” and “System 2” (terms adopted from psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West) to highlight two roads that the brain normally defaults to.

He explains: “System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” Think about the last time that you walked into a meeting somewhere you had never previously been. I would guess that you opened the door, walked in, took stock of the room, and then picked a chair to sit in, in front of a table. System 1 is the character in your brain that helps you automatically recognize what’s in front of you and gives you the confidence to sit down, because you “know” that you’re not going to fall down.

System 2, on the other hand: “…allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.”

Imagine you walk into a room in which System 1 fails to recognize any of its contents. Nothing looks like a traditional chair or table—or even room, for that matter. In other words, your brain is failing to find past references to make sense of this reality. In this moment, System 2 would kick in. Your concentration would become more intentional about your surroundings, and you would feel as if it took more effort to figure out what to do in this new, seemingly bizarre space.

The latter example (System 2) describes how you may feel while navigating through a career obstacle. After all, more often than not, challenging career goals lead you to new, awkward, uncomfortable places.

The good news is: When you find yourself in uncharted territory, you have the opportunity to grow. The bad news is that it doesn’t necessarily mean that you know how to embrace—or even recognize—the growth while it’s happening.

Often the discomfort can feel overwhelming. In these instances, the stress signals in your brain will fire, causing your brain to go “running for the hills” in search of System 1. Your brain operates on a path of least resistance and will always try to find the easiest way to do something. When faced with adversity, it will try to use System 1 to find an answer. Often, though, the “right” answer will also be the most comfortable answer—the solution that most closely resembles some situation in the past that mirrors your present.

But what happens when the challenge you set for yourself leads you to truly new experiences? What if the answer that System 1 finds takes you two steps back, instead of one step forward?

You must first be aware that your brain is not trying to trick you, it’s trying to work as efficiently as possible. After all, that’s how it has evolved to manage the complexities of your life.

What it Means in Practice

So, how can you use this to your advantage? As you work toward your next career goal, use these pointers to overcome the urge to move away from any discomfort you encounter:

  1. If what should be a major change feels easy, System 1 is likely holding you back from truly challenging yourself.
  2. Chaos and discomfort are not negatives. They are essential ingredients to the change and growth process.
  3. When you feel the urge to quit working toward your goal, pause. Take stock of where the emotions are coming from. Is the discomfort part of a new muscle you’re building, or have you overworked existing muscles too hard?
  4. Be kind to yourself. Career goals are often about change, and change is a process, not an outcome.
  5. Enjoy the journey. Don’t hold happiness hostage to the completion of the goal.

Photo of light bulbs courtesy of Shutterstock.