Steer clear of decision-distractors and ask yourself some productive questions instead.

By Karen Roter Davis (General Manager, Urban Engines)

This post originally appeared on Karen’s blog

A few months ago I met up with a friend who had done a volunteer project for my company, Urban Engines.  As a former management consultant and current second-year MBA, he was at a career crossroads.

Should he go to a startup, or return to his former consulting firm, which was offering to pay for his MBA if he returned? What would he stand to gain from each? What opportunities would he close off with this choice? What if he made the wrong decision?

Framing Questions and Identifying Decision Distractors

I asked him a bunch of different questions, such as what kind of work he liked to do, what he found most challenging and if that was the same or different from when he felt most accomplished, what environments he liked to work in, what kind of monetary constraints, if any, he had, if he had a specific startup in mind, what did he want to learn, and from whom did he want to learn it?

He didn’t know all the answers, but the questions got him thinking about what he needed to find out that would help him in his decision-making process.

Then, we talked about what I’ve started to call decision distractors – things people tend to think about, but that don’t really facilitate good decision-making — and how you can combat them, regardless of where you are in your career:

Distractor #1: What if I Make the Wrong Decision?

No one has a crystal ball — at least one that actually works. (And if you do, please contact me, because I’d like to invest!) We make the best choices we can using what little information we have at the time, and usually with good reasons for doing so.

That said, there are some things you can do to make it easier to course-correct if your wants or needs change without unfocusing yourself. For example, if you think you might be interested in a startup at some point, but the current timing isn’t right, stay connected to the ecosystem.

Volunteer or advise friends or former colleagues in startups. Get involved with more entrepreneurial efforts within your current organization. Inversely, if you decide to go to a startup and fear it may close off bigger company opportunities, seek out opportunities for growth and mentorship that would allow for an easier transition if the startup doesn’t turn out as you’d hoped.

Big picture, there’s very little you can’t “fix” from a career perspective if you decide you’ve made a mistake. I’m not saying it won’t be a bit painful, but even tattoos can be removed. So take the pressure off yourself.

Distractor #2: People Will Think I’m “Not This” or “Too That”.  

This is a bit of a corollary to #1 above. And admittedly, recruiters and hiring managers do tend to box people in a bit, which makes sense for them. They are narrowing focus to find the best candidates who fit their requisitions; often hiring managers have very, very specific criteria in mind. So it’s natural that you might feel as if an option may be closing or closed off if there’s a chance your background won’t be met with the reception you’d prefer by prospective employers. How do you navigate this?

There’s an old saying, “Have a friend for every day of the week.” More directly, cultivate your network and keep it strong over time to generate referral opportunities instead of subjecting yourself to snap judgments. @ReidHoffman has written excellently about this.

That said, if someone tells you — as they inevitably will — that you’re “too this” or “not enough that,” what should you do? Consider the source and his intent.

Is this a someone an expert who knows you and your objectives well? Is the advice actionable? Can you be authentic taking it? If yes, you can give it higher, but not absolute weight. If no, don’t waste mental cycles; it’s a distraction. Thank them for their feedback and move on.

Similarly, as you cultivate your networks, diversify your mentors. Mentors come in several varieties: Official (not usual); Unofficial; Total and Partial (like eclipses); and yes, we have “BizarroMentors” roaming the range with the BizarroExperts. I’ll save my thoughts on mentors for another post.

Distractor #3: That Greener Grass Has a Lot of Fertilizer in it

Startups can sound very exciting. So can fancy titles at big companies. And a humblebrag on a social network about an award can, too. The job market is designed to incentivize people to convey their best selves when describing their careers and choices. Don’t believe the hype.

Some people know exactly “what they want to be when they grow up” very early on, and it remains fairly stable throughout their lives. In one way they are blessed, because they can be laser-focused on achieving their career goals as they so choose.

However, I think that seemingly lucky set is actually much smaller than it seems. Most people just do a reasonably good job — consciously or unconsciously — of weaving a story to justify their choices in retrospect.

What do you want? When the scene fades to black and no one’s watching, what’s going to make you happy? Looking at what seems to be greener grass, it’s easy to forget the added fertilizer — there’s a healthy mix of a lot of cultivation and manure that goes into those external views you see. And some grass that looks green from far away is just a stinky pile of dirt when you get up close.

I think I’ve brought this metaphor as far is it can take us before it becomes Distractor #4….

So good luck, and happy gardening.

Photo credit: Inka1 via Shutterstock.