The 'Forever' Fallacy (Or: Why You're Probably Not Going To Find Your Perfect Career, And That's OK)

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You ache for it: that beautiful 'click' of finding your fit. The work you can dedicate your life to, safe in the knowledge you've found your place in the world. But does it really exist? Natasha explains the fallacy of the 'forever career', and the mindset shift that can break you out of the paralysis it induces.

Finding a career that fits you like a glove sounds delicious.

You've read the tantalising catchphrases:

"Find the work you love and you'll never work a day in your life..."

"Your dream job..."

"Your life's calling..."

"Discover what you were born to do..."

There's something reassuring about the idea. Somewhere out there, apparently, is a career waiting for you like a tailored jacket; something that encompasses all your skills, passions and oddities, and feels exactly right.

And if only you could find it, you could relax into the knowledge that you'll never, ever have to deal with this uncomfortable feeling again. The disconnect, the frustration, the sense of 'not-this' and 'in-the-wrong-place-but-I-don't-know- where-to-turn'.

The trouble is, you haven't found it.

And, I'd argue, you're probably not going to.

There are two key reasons why.

1. You are not a rock

"Any kind of lifetime commitment is based on your belief that you know the person you're going to be in ten years." – Daniel Gilbert, Harvard University psychologist and author of Stumbling On Happiness

In 2013, Gilbert, postdoctoral fellow Jordi Quoidbach, and University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson devised a series of online experiments with over 19,000 people.

What they discovered was that participants overwhelmingly felt they had changed more in the past decade than they would in the next.

No matter how great the changes they'd been through so far, participants in the study somehow believed that the person they were right now was essentially the person they would always be.

Gilbert and his colleagues called this phenomenon the 'end of history illusion'.

"Middle-aged people – like me – often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin," says Gilbert. "What we never seem to realise is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we're having the last laugh, and at every age we're wrong."

To check whether this theory resonated with the career changers we work with at Careershifters, I spoke to Ryan, who took part in our Career Change Launch Pad. He reflected on how much he's changed since he first began his career:

"My values when I graduated from university seven or eight years ago were very different to what they are now. I was very financially focused, very business based, very commercial, whereas now I absolutely don't think that's going to get me to where I want to be in life."

And this phenomenon – the erroneous belief that who we are is fixed and final and solid as a rock – is the lifeblood of the 'forever career' fallacy.

Don't get me wrong – the idea that it's possible to stumble upon a single career path that will sustain, inspire, challenge and stretch you across multiple decades is lovely.

But when you yourself are shifting and growing on a daily basis, looking for your 'forever' fit is at best a pipe dream, and at worst, downright destructive.

A forever career needs to be based on solid, unchanging factors about yourself. If your 'forever career' involves face-to-face sales, you'd better be certain you're not going to turn into a misanthrope in the next ten years. If it involves the political or social cause you're currently most passionate about, you're going to need to hope that your political priorities never change or evolve.

"I've come to the conclusion that finding the work I want to do is probably going to be a lifelong journey. You're looking at your career from these transient values that are changing and developing over time, so of course it feels hard to pick just one thing." – Ryan

You are not a rock.

You are, and will continue to be, an ever-evolving creature, discovering new possibilities and passions for the rest of your life.

Maybe it's time to look at your career as a similar kind of creature.

2. The world of work is changing

Once upon a time, a career for life was the standard model. Industries and career paths were fixed and reliable; if you were qualified and experienced in one area, you could be fairly certain that your skills and knowledge would continue to be valuable for the rest of your working life.

And you could be fairly certain that you knew what was available to you, too. It was unlikely that there would always be a new, exciting opportunity around the corner in a role you'd never considered before. You could confidently settle in for the long run.

That's no longer the case.

Jobs are disappearing. In fact, some consultancies and studies are predicting that up to 50% of jobs that exist today will be redundant by 2030.

And new careers, sectors, opportunities and possibilities are opening up across the board at a spectacular rate.

Agility, flexibility, innovation and change are the defining features of today's working world, and, for the individual, this means that those same qualities are increasingly important.

On the one hand, this can feel scary. Nobody wants to feel as though the ground is shifting and moving beneath their feet.

But on the other, it presents an incredibly exciting opportunity, if you look at it from the right angle.

Ilana took part in our Launch Pad a few years ago. In one of our coaching sessions, she mentioned what a relief it had been to finally let go of her parents' perspective on the world of work.

"Job security was always a big topic of discussion for my parents when I talked to them about my career change. Whatever I was going to change career into, it had to be 'safe'.

"But then I started to realise that they were coming at it from the perspective of a different generation.

"Real job security didn't come from the industries or companies I was looking at; the world of work isn't the same as it was in their day. I will never have control over whether or not my job is safe. But I do have control over what I have to offer.

"My own security has to come from me – from my own ability to be indispensable and creative and skilled in a range of contexts. It's not job security I really want, it's life security, and my life is in my hands, not anyone else's. And that realisation was actually very empowering."

As the world of work shifts its identity from solid, unchanging institutions to adaptive, innovative organisms, the locus of power is shifting too.

You no longer have to rely on being a perfect square to fit inside pre-determined boxes. Those boxes are evolving almost at the same rate as you are. In fact, they're popping up and multiplying like rabbits. The chances of you finding the single, 'right', 'forever' option in a sea of swirling, ever-changing possibilities is slimmer and slimmer by the second.

And the idea of a 'forever career' is a box in and of itself. Finding the one thing that you can curl up inside for the rest of your life is less and less realistic with every passing day.

Instead, it's time to focus on (and celebrate) the new, very real possibility that you can change your mind.

You can choose something you want to do right now, safe in the knowledge that if and when you evolve beyond its borders, there will be new options available to you.

The key is to shift your focus: from 'How can I be best equipped to stay?' to 'How can I be best-equipped to dance?'

So, now what?

In a world where almost nothing is 'forever', looking for your 'forever career' is a difficult game.

And, on some level, you know that there's probably not a 'forever career' out there for you. I don't imagine for a second that much of this is news to you.

And yet… you've been stuck because of it anyway, haven’t you?

Why do we hang on so tight?

After the 'end of history' study, Jordi Quoidbach had a theory: "Realising how transient our preferences and values are might lead us to doubt every decision and generate anxiety."

When you're stuck in work you don't enjoy, but you don't know where to go next, you're unlikely to be having a pleasant experience. It's uncomfortable and itchy and embarrassing. And the idea of a 'forever career' is enticingly drenched with the promise of never, ever having to feel this way again.

The discomfort of growth and development is something we often do our best to avoid.

We want the blissful-looking outcomes, but not the painful process.

And yet, there are ways to make the process much more enjoyable – and get free from the sticky, paralysing treacle of the 'forever' fallacy.

1. Let go of the lie: The first step of shifting your focus and finding some power in the new world of work is to get your head around the fact that your 'forever career' is probably not out there (and that even if it is, doggedly looking for it and nothing else is unlikely to help you find it). What do you need to do to give up on the fallacy?

"I think I was always subconsciously aware that there is no 'right' answer, but I was incredibly lost, until I did the Launch Pad, about what that feeling was trying to tell me. Then I met other people on the course who felt the same way, and after just a brief conversation about it, I had a real sense of relief that I'd managed to bring this elephant I'd been lugging around out into the open." – Ryan

2. Look for your storylines: Although you are an ever-changing being, there are probably narratives and themes that run through your evolution. However vague and overarching they might seem, they can help to guide your exploration (so you're not left overwhelmed by a sea of never-ending possibilities). What are the common storylines that seem to show up throughout your life?

"I haven't enjoyed many of my roles since I graduated from university. But when I look back at my whole life, the times I've been happiest have always been when I'm in nature and I'm helping people. It's not the most specific of guidelines, but I like using that knowledge as a touchstone when I'm weighing up where to go next in my career. It's reassuring to at least have something." – Ilana

3. Celebrate play: It can feel unsettling to think that you may not know where you'll be in five years' time. But one thing you can be sure of is that you'll grow and develop in a far more powerful way if you lean into the uncertainty, rather than bracing and fighting against it. Children learn, progress and evolve at an astonishing rate, and it's no coincidence that they have the space to explore, to enjoy, and to get things wrong. What could you do this week to tap back into the world of fun and of play?

"I look at my two-year-old niece: one minute she'll be a nurse, the next she's a firefighter, the next she's a housewife, and she's immersed in all these new environments and identities – she's learning and exploring and growing. And then, as we get older, all of that is drummed out of us." – Ryan

4. Focus on five: Forever is too long for anyone to get their head around. But five years? Five years you can work with. What would you really enjoy doing, and exploring, and growing into, if you knew you only had to do it for five years? What would you give yourself permission to try? Where would you dare to explore?

"Bringing my point of focus closer actually made me more willing to play. I decided that if I was only going to commit to something for a shorter period of time, I could afford to get it a bit wrong. I could afford to just try something – because if it turned out to be a disaster, then I could try something else. Looking for 'forever' was paralysing. But looking for 'five' was actually fun." – Ilana

What would it mean for you if you let go of the idea of a 'forever career'? 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.