Career Decisions

“Should I go to dental school?” — this is one variation of a question I hear often.  Other variations include:  “Should I go for a promotion to an executive position?”, “Should I go back to work?”, or “Should I start my own business?”   These are big career questions, and usually there are two big dimensions to them.  One dimension is the practical, tactical one — issues of time and money.  There we think about the cost of making the change or doing the training, availability of positions, expected income; and how all that lines up with the money you think you need, family obligations, other interests and so on.

This practical, tactical dimension involves a lot of left brain work — talking to experts, internet research, even spreadsheets.  Let’s call the other dimension the feeling dimension.  There we get involved in such introspective questions as “How do I feel about spending four years in a dental school?”, “How do I feel about eventually working as a dentist (or in that executive role or in that other new job or business)?”, “How do I feel about having less or no time to do whatever other activity might interest me?”  If you need a spreadsheet to address the feeling dimension, then you have bigger issues!

Nowadays we all tend to be big thinkers, and that’s a problem.  For example, if you find yourself mentally tallying up pluses and minuses in response to a question about how you feel about a new job, then you are probably thinking when you should be feeling.  You can’t get to honest feelings through thinking.  Unfortunately, the hyper thinking-oriented modern world tends to push us towards two options with respect to feelings:  option one is to dump them into a category of things that shouldn’t get in the way — things like alcohol, angry outbursts, trashy novels, and prejudices.  The other socially sanctioned option for feelings, the one that is offered up as the higher road, is to “get your feelings under control” — in other words, you are expected to submit your feelings to your thoughts by rationally choosing appropriate feelings.  Maybe some day we can design a robot that works that way.  Maybe Mr. Spock is an ideal for folks who want people to work that way.  But I’d rather stick with people the way they really operate.

As Carl Jung discovered, thinking and feeling are two distinct rational functions.  Both are needed.  Submission of one to the other results in unstable perversions.  Individuals who neglect thought and just go with their feelings are likely to have poor boundaries (hurting themselves and others), to be viewed as “loose cannons”, to be rejected as “irrational” and to just make a mess of the practical realities of daily life.  Whole societies that are feeling-driven can be terrifying (Nazi Germany) or simply unsustainable (the hippie revolution).

On the other hand, when only thinking is respected (a widespread modern problem), we get crises rooted in suppressed feelings — rampant depression and “emptiness”, psychosomatic disorders, and occasional outbursts of unexpected violence.  Getting back to the career question, we find the modern epidemic of people who “rationally” chose a respected, well-paying career that suited their intellectual or technical talents, only to find after years of success that they were bored or frustrated to the point of clinical depression.  Indeed, both thought and feeling need to be respected.

When clients come to me with practical career questions, it is often necessary to reframe the discussion in a way that honors both thought and feeling.  Folks are often eager to work with a coach who will help them think systematically through practical issues — qualifications, experience, salary, benefits, opportunity for advancement, reputation, cost of housing, quality of schools.  Yet they are often at a loss about their own relevant feelings — their emotional connections, their feelings about what it might be like to be in that new place, the suppressed fantasies of other possibly “crazy” life choices, the “irrational” fears that might be holding them back.  These things all get swept under the rug in the rush to be responsible and rational.  In situations like this, it is useful to step away from the career question completely, and spend some time getting back in touch with oneself, becoming resensitized to one’s soul.  Without that step in the process (and it can be a long one), we risk just being practical — and that is always the greater tragedy.