Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Career Paths / Career Change

The So-Easy-It’s-Almost-Crazy Secret to Making Any Career Decision

I’ve always been plagued by indecision. In one particularly illustrative example, my nine-year-old self broke down in tears in a shoe store having to decide between the purple hi-tops and the pink and green hi-tops. I just didn’t know which option would be the best way to kick off the fourth grade.

In my adult life, this has often come up in job-related decisions. I’ve spent weeks wringing my hands, tossing and turning, and endlessly contemplating: Should I work at this small agency with great people, or the larger one with better pay and name recognition? Should I take the new position, or hold out for a promotion at my current job? Should I stay in the city I love or move for a great career opportunity?

Of course, I utilize all of the tried-and-true methods: making long lists of pros and cons, talking things out with friends, making a choice and sleeping on it, and even taking a class on quantitative analysis (complicated Excel models most definitely included).

But in many situations, there’s no clear “right” answer, or even a best one. Which is why I really loved the advice I read recently from Inc.’s Jayson Demers. When faced with a particularly tough crossroads, he writes, try asking yourself: Who do I want to be?

As he explains:

Instead of thinking what you want to do, think about who you want to be. Picture how your identity will change as the result of your decision. Are you the type of person who works for a casual, laid-back company, or the type of person who makes more money and wears a suit every day? In a way, our decisions construct our identities, so use this strategy to help you figure out who you want to be.

Yes, it’s important to know and think about all of the practical pros and cons of any given option. It’s certainly valuable to consider the monetary benefits, growth potential, and happiness factor of each opportunity—and to understand the benefits and tradeoffs of each.

But if you’ve done that and you still aren’t clear, try going through this exercise. Grab a notebook, and write out the answer to: “Who do I want to be?” Think about yourself three years out (often, one year seems too soon and five years too far away), and describe the ideal version of your future self in as much detail as possible.

Then, ask yourself: “Will the job opportunity—or opportunities—I’m considering get me closer or further away from that person?” Your answer just may be crystal clear.

If not, and if you’re comfortable doing so, this can be a great exercise to do with a friend. Talk through who you want to be and describe how each option would get you there (or not). Other people can often uncover messages that we miss, or even pick up revealing cues that we can’t read, like body language, tone of voice, or nervous habits.

No, asking yourself who you want to be isn’t easy. But in the long run, it’s the question that will get you closer to the right answer—and to the life that you really want to live.

Oh, and I decided I was a pink and green hi-tops girl. Haven’t looked back since.

Photo of rock scale courtesy of Shutterstock.