4 Ways Your Brain Is Keeping You Stuck In Your Career Change – And What To Do About It

Image of sand sculpture people flying while holding brain balloons

Newly Updated

Image by H. B. from Pixabay

Feeling stuck, lost and helpless in your search for fulfilling work? Unable to move forward, but not entirely sure why? Sometimes your biggest obstacles are on the inside. Natasha shares how your mind might be making your shift a struggle – and specific strategies to make progress faster.

Throughout your life, there's one trusty sidekick that can usually be relied on to keep you going.

It carries you through routine tasks, brushing your teeth while you ease into the day, auto-piloting you through busy streets of people.

It helps you weigh up how to tackle that tricky conversation at work, what to do when the electricity bill comes in higher than usual one month, how to get the mosquito out of the bedroom.

You rely on your mind for everything.

It's always there, keeping you company, keeping you on track.

So the idea that you can't always trust it is a pretty uncomfortable one.

But it's also true.

Our minds are incredible tools, calculating and regulating, measuring and guiding, considering and philosophising... and in order to be able to process the overwhelming amount of information constantly bearing down on us every second of every day… they take shortcuts.

We take mental shortcuts – otherwise known as heuristics and cognitive biases – constantly.

Much of the time, this is a positive thing.

It saves us time and energy, and when the decision you're trying to make is whether to bring a coat to the restaurant or hope the good weather lasts, it's fine to make some rule-of-thumb judgements.

But your career change is a bit bigger than that.

And some of the cognitive biases and heuristics that your brain defaults to might actually be the very things keeping you stuck.

Let's take a look at some of the biggest culprits and a few strategies to tackle them.

1. Anchoring bias

Anchoring bias is the tendency to rely disproportionately on the first piece of information we learn about something, affecting how we interpret any facts we encounter later on.

For example, if a pair of shoes in one store is marked as £1500 ($1850), but you see the same pair in the shop next door for £150 ($185), you're much more likely to see them as a bargain than if you had never seen the first pair.

Perhaps you did a careers test in your teens at school. No matter how ridiculous the results might have appeared, they've almost certainly stuck in your mind. They may even affect what you believe you're able to be good at today.

Or, if you take an interest in a new industry and someone tells you it's really hard to get into (because their sister tried ten years ago and was unsuccessful), that story will colour your feelings about that career path.

It doesn't matter what information you hear next – it'll all be measured against the 'anchor'.

In smaller decisions, this bias helps us make comparative choices quickly, without overloading our brains with information.

But in more significant choices, such as your future career, it's likely to make you discard perfectly good possibilities, and narrow down your options too quickly.

“For a while I was really interested in going into teaching. But then I spoke to a number of teachers who told me their salaries, and I couldn't help but compare it to what I was earning in my marketing job.

“Somehow it didn't matter that I was crying in the toilets every day on that salary, or that I'd be able to live perfectly comfortably on a teacher's income. I just wasn't able to disconnect my decision-making from the number I was currently earning.” – Lottie, Career Change Launch Pad Alumna

How to avoid anchoring

1. Gather information from multiple sources.

Aim to gather a wide range of facts, experiences and opinions before making your mind up about something, and take the time to analyse what you learn with the anchoring bias in mind.

If you're holding informational interviews with people in an industry, try to have multiple conversations rather than just one, and weigh up the accounts equally.

The first accountant you speak to may be scathing about the industry, but the fact that she'd been having a bad week shouldn't make you skeptical of the excitement and passion in the eyes of the second person you interviewed.

If you're running a Shift Project in an area you're interested in, try things out several times, and give your experiences a chance to distil.

You might have felt like you were a useless artist at your first life-drawing class, but that doesn't mean that after a few sessions you won't start to notice a capacity for sketching that you didn't know you had.

2. Create your own anchor.

Lottie's story shows how powerful an anchor can be – especially a financial one. But you don't have to use the anchor you're given.

In the case of salary, laying out your financial situation and actively choosing a number as your 'non-negotiable' (based on logic rather than circumstance) can be a constructive way forward.

Or, if you were raised in a household where status and respect were touted as the yardstick against which to measure a career, acknowledge that fact and choose a different metric to be your new yardstick (or anchor). Joy, for example, or social impact.

2. Availability heuristic

If you've ever gone swimming in the ocean and been suddenly overwhelmed by a fear that there might be a shark nearby, this is the availability heuristic at play.

Statistically, you're more likely to be killed by a mosquito than by a shark.

But the terror you feel in the ocean is probably far greater than the minor irritation of hearing the whine of a mosquito in your bedroom after the lights go out.

That's because when we make decisions, we tend to base them on what we remember. And what we remember is influenced by a huge range of things: expectations, beliefs, emotions, and frequency of exposure.

Media coverage of shark attacks is far greater than of malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. The information is more widely available, and, because there's shock-factor involved, more easily recalled, so you're more likely to overestimate the risk.

The availability heuristic simply refers to this specific mental shortcut: what comes to mind the easiest – what's most available – is true.

Or, to say it very simply: “What I see is all there is”.

When you think about the options that are available to you for your next career, chances are the list is fairly short: the careers you hear a lot about, minus the ones you think you're not qualified for.

Your perception of what's possible for your future is defined by what's most easily called to mind.

This is why often it can feel like there's no way forward.

Rather than thinking: “There are hundreds of thousands of careers out there. I might not know them all, but that means all I have to do is discover a few more – there's got to be plenty I could do”, your brain says to itself: “I can only think of 28 careers right now, and I'm not qualified for any of them. I'm doomed.”

The availability bias can also, as in the shark / mosquito example, distort our perceptions of risk, so we end up worrying about the wrong things.

We might remember someone in our office who quit their job and invested all their savings to start their own business and failed, becoming an office laughing stock and causing tensions in their family.

The fact that this is the only person we know who tried to start a business – and who failed in such a dramatic way – makes us enormously overestimate the risk of starting a business.

We don't walk down the street looking at all the shops, or flip through the local small business directory, and think: “Somebody started that business, and that one, and that one…”

The only story that sticks in our head is the disaster, and that's what dictates our next steps.

How to avoid the availability heuristic

1. Keep your mind in Discovery mode

Part of the issue with the availability heuristic is that it makes us assume that the edges of our experience are the edges of reality.

So, find ways to remind yourself constantly of how little you know, and set yourself the mission to discover new and surprising things wherever possible.

Expanding your fishbowl not only gives you access to new and interesting information – it makes the exciting experience of discovery the most easily recalled, which turns the availability heuristic against itself.

2. Seek out hard data wherever possible

The availability heuristic is a cognitive shortcut – a psychological way of balancing speed and accuracy.

So the best way to counteract it is… to count. What ARE the facts about shark deaths in your area? How many businesses DID successfully start up last year? Who started them?

How can you talk to them to find out: what did the successful ones do differently from those who failed?

It might feel dull and time-consuming, but hard facts are the only things that will give you the reality of a situation, over and above your brain's predisposition to short-cut.

3. Confirmation bias

Of all the cognitive biases, this is likely to be the one you're most familiar with.

Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek out, notice, and remember information that confirms our current reality or prior beliefs.

C. James Goodwin gives a great example of confirmation bias in his book Research in Psychology: Methods and Design:

“Persons believing in extrasensory perception (ESP) will keep close track of instances when they were 'thinking about Mom, and then the phone rang and it was her!' Yet they ignore the far more numerous times when (a) they were thinking about Mom and she didn't call and (b) they weren't thinking about Mom and she did call.”

If you're afraid that changing career will be a disaster, then stories and ideas that make career change sound risky and doomed to fail won't just seem more believable – you're actually more likely to notice them in the world around you.

Examples of people making successful shifts will skim right under your radar. Or you'll read them and pass them off as flukes, forgetting them much faster than the examples of people who tried and failed to find fulfilling work.

If you're holding informational interviews – designed to help you challenge your assumptions and find out the truth about a career path – the very questions you ask are likely to be ones that seek out evidence to confirm your pre-existing beliefs.

This means that no matter how much you want to believe a career change is possible, or wish things were different than they are (or at least, how you think they are), you're unconsciously gathering evidence that keeps you in a 'stuck' mindset.

How to avoid confirmation bias

1. Try listing out your strongest beliefs and fears about your shift on paper (keeping in mind that some of these won't even seem like beliefs – they might seem like 'facts')

Then, actively look for ways to challenge what you think you see. Seek out information from a range of sources, and gather the data you would need if you were going into a debate to support the opposite view. Then compare it with the information you used to support your original decision.

2. Discuss your thoughts with others.

Talk about your beliefs and ideas with a wide range of people, and in every case, do your best to take on their viewpoint, even if only for a short period of time. Surrounding yourself with a diverse support team can help you avoid the 'echo chamber' of your own opinions, and keep you in a more humble and objective state of mind.

4. The Sunk Cost Fallacy

How many years have you invested in your career to date?

How much effort have you put into it?

Does making a shift feel like you'd be making all of that time and energy a waste?

This is the 'sunk cost fallacy' at work – the tendency to keep doing something that doesn't make sense anymore, simply because of how much you've already invested in it.

“Every time I thought about leaving the law, I thought about the money my parents had paid to help me get my degree, and the years of training I'd put in, and I felt sick. Yes, I was unhappy, and no, I couldn't imagine spending the rest of my life as a lawyer, but I couldn't imagine throwing away all that money and time either.” – Anne-Marie, Career Change Launch Pad Alumna

But you can't get those years back, and what that time and energy has actually proven is that no matter how much you try, or how long you stick it out, it doesn't help.

By continuing down a path you know isn't the right one, all you'll achieve is more wasted effort.

How to counteract sunk costs

1. Start from where you are.

The past is gone – it's over, and while you can't get it back, you have the fruits of your labour in the present moment.

So without thinking about your situation in terms of hours invested or effort expended, lay out what you're working with right now.

What skills do you have? What have you learned you're energised by, and what do you now know drains you? What resources do you have to draw on? Who do you have around you to help?

2. Keep the big picture in mind

Imagine – or draw – a timeline of your life, from your birth to the end. Then, look at the amount of time you're likely to have left. How do you want to feel in those days and months and years?

Zooming out to the 'big picture' of your life can put a lot into perspective.

3. Celebrate mistakes

If part of the sunk costs bias is based in an unwillingness to 'fail' or look bad in front of other people, changing your relationship with mistakes can make a huge difference.

Practise becoming proud of admitting your mis-steps. Instead of hiding your mistakes, actively talk about them with others, and share what you've learned from them. What a relief that you won't make that mistake again! How brave you were to even try in the first place!

It'll feel uncomfortable at first, but becoming someone who's willing to openly get things wrong will reduce your fear of being seen as a failure – and you may find it actually wins you more respect in the eyes of others.

Cognitive biases and heuristics are a natural function of your mind – you can never eradicate them completely.

Gut-feel and instinct can also be powerful tools that keep you safe in risky situations; they're not something to ignore all the time.

But they're also ancient circuitry designed to protect you from high-risk, immediate dangers – so they're not always appropriate for longer-term, less sabre-toothed-tiger-style problems.

By being aware of some of the shortcuts and misjudgements that you're likely to fall prey to, you can start to counterbalance them in proactive ways.

Which of these biases might be keeping you stuck in your career change right now? Let me know in the comments below.

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is head coach, writer, and experience designer for Careershifters. When she's not working, you'll find her listening to neuroscience podcasts, learning pottery, and dreaming up her next adventure.