Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 8, 2021

Finding your way without the career map

By JOHN CORBETT | February 7, 2013

One of my favorite Dave Matthews Band songs raises a question that will surely be asked of many seniors as they approach graduation this spring: Where are you going?

Even for those who have never put a considerable amount of thought into the question, it has almost surely been presented by family members, companions and graduate school applications in any one of its disguised forms: What are you doing this summer? What are your plans for after graduation? In 10 years, where do you see yourself? In short, how do we find our calling?

With such ominous questions ahead (even those who won’t be graduating for another year or more), it is easy to find oneself paralyzed by the magnitude of the task. However, I have a proposal which should be welcome among those who don’t envy the task of mapping out their future: Don’t worry about it.

One of the most obvious yet overlooked reasons you shouldn’t worry is the false model of the “career” as stasis. Though popular notions which allege that the average person makes six to seven career changes throughout his or her life are likely misguided, figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that most young workers between the ages of 20-24 will change employers multiple times in that span. The takeaway here is simple – entry-level jobs will allow you to get a feel for an industry. And if you feel compelled to change careers or even industries, you won’t be the first to do so.

Another study shows that your career is not the only thing that will likely change as you grow older. A Harvard University survey published in the journal Science indicates that while individuals tend to look back on periods of their lives with feelings of how much they’ve “changed” and “grown,” they consistently believe that they will change less in the future. In spite of what experience tells them, people prefer to believe that their current level of wisdom and maturity represents some plateau of personal development that they have finally achieved. The catch – the same subjects, interviewed ten years later, report the same feeling of having undergone immense change in the past decade, while still believing that now, finally, they’re done growing.

The findings suggest two things: first, that people never really stop growing and developing personally; and second, that this comes as a surprise to nearly everyone. This simple observation is one that those entering the job market should take to heart. Instead of trying to answer the question, “What will I want to do for the rest of my life?” you should be asking, “What do I want to do now?”

So, you’ve thought about it, and you think you know what you want to do now. But even if you’ve answered this question, how can you be sure that you’ll find meaning in it? That you won’t wake up one day, 30 years from now, and realize you’ve made the wrong decision?

Again, there is good news – this time in the economic concept of “sunk costs, the idea that once you’ve invested something that can’t be refunded – time, effort, money – into an endeavor, you’re less likely to give up on it. The sunk costs concept is essentially a buffer against buyer’s remorse in the job market. The key observation here is that once an individual has put time or effort that they can’t get back into a career, a hobby or a relationship, they are loath to give up on it, and more likely to feel an obligation to it. And through this process, rather than searching for an occupation that delivers us meaning, we create meaning in our chosen field.

As it turns out, most human beings, especially college students, have a keen, if unconscious, awareness of the concept of sunk costs. After all, college is an immense sunk cost, and with that investment is the desire to turn a profit. This desire manifests itself in many ways. That aspiration to attend a more prestigious university while all of your friends went to state school? That’s sunk costs – you’re not going to let all that hard work during high school go to waste. 

And sunk costs can extend to doing things for others as well as for yourself. Parental pressure is a perfect example. The reason you don’t want to disappoint your parents who, by the way, spent 18 years raising you and are paying your tuition? Sunk costs, secondhand-edition: They’ve done so much for me; the least I can do is live up to their expectations. 

Though these examples sound more bleak than benign, they are simply to illustrate that sunk cost considerations dominate human decision making, and often substitute for a more drawn-out decision-making process. And while this may still seem like falling short of “finding meaning” in an occupation, the good news is that most people, motivated by sunk costs to stick with it for the long hall, do eventually find aspects of their work that they value.

One final important insight: It doesn’t matter so much what you choose, so long as you choose it. The feeling of having made an active decision is the first step in the process of building up “positive sunk costs” on your way to finding meaning in an occupation. If you feel that you’ve actively sought after the career, it will be more meaningful to you than if you feel you’ve sleepwalked into it. This is why all entrepreneurs boast of “self-fulfillment” and graduate students who continued their education simply because “it’s a tough job market” are the ones who wake up with “quarter-life crises.” Bottom line: Choose something, almost anything, and invest yourself in it; you’ll create meaning and define your own fulfillment.

John Corbett is a sophomore Economics and International Studies double major from Portsmouth, R.I. He is a staff writer for TheNews-Letter.

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