Is the best career advice to take less control and be more ambivalent?

Most career advice is activist, urgent goals, plans and action. In short, you must control your career.

Ottawa productivity consultant Chris Bailey breaks that pattern when he argues on his blog “in our uncertain world, it’s a wasteful exercise to plan your career too far into the future – and it’s especially pointless to predict how the arc of your career will unfold.”

Instead of planning far into the future, he suggests asking: Are you pointed in the right direction and moving at a speed that’s rewarding for you? “If you are, keep it up. If not, try adjusting the projects on your plate, as well as the habits you have – or consider a different company or job that will allow for that flexibility. Developing effective work habits and taking on the right projects are two of the strongest determinants of career success. Plus, life’s too short to spend eight hours a day doing work you don’t like,” he says.

Relinquishing control – or, perhaps more accurately, relinquishing the desire or belief you can exert some control – may lead to anguish. His answer: Don’t go there. Don’t worry about it. The more uncertain the world becomes, the less control you have over the future anyway. Try to see it as fun, just immerse yourself in interesting stuff that matters today at work. “It’s okay to not know,” he insisted.

Not knowing can happen, ironically, in a reverse situation, when things are not stable but you have been thrust into a career inflection point that seems to demand immediate action. The pandemic, economic uncertainty and recent layoffs have brought many people to such fork-in-the-road moments, academics Brianna Barker Caza, Naomi B. Rothman, Jamie R. Strassman and Brittany Lambert write in Harvard Business Review.

They explain that inflection points ignite tensions between our personal and professional “selves.” Conflicting goals arise, leading to confusion and ambivalence. Again, this has advantages, so don’t fight it too hard.

“Although ambivalence may be somewhat uncomfortable, often provoking feelings of being torn, conflicted and mixed, it can actually be good for decision making, especially when problems are complex. Studies have shown that ambivalence can increase creativity, advice seeking and job search activities, and may even reduce commitment towards failed courses of action,” the academics wrote.

It’s an opportunity to reevaluate yourself. What do you value? What do you prioritize? Who am I now? Who do I want to be? The academics say you are grappling with your “identity complexity” – the multiple, valued self-definitions or identities that stem from holding multiple social and work roles, belonging to various social groups and having many distinctive personal attributes and interests.

Allow yourself time to stew over these questions and inconsistencies. “Give yourself a deadline that isn’t in the immediate future and allows you to devote time and energy to listening to your emotions and considering your alternatives. We think that doing this helps you harness, rather than suppress, the information you’re gleaning from your ambivalence to make a more informed decision,” they say.

Remind yourself that a single career decision doesn’t have to be permanent. Think about your choice as a decision for now – not forever. “The beauty of most career decisions is that they’re often reversible, or at least recoverable, and there will always be another decision to be made down the line,” they say.

Whether at an inflection point or not, be more relaxed about the supposed need to control your career. Allow ambivalence. take time. Go with the flow. Embrace, or at least accept, inaction and ambivalence.

Quick hits

  • Buy your internal critic a retirement gift, suggests writer Claudia Dawson. Make it something tangible that you can see or hold in your hands when the inner critic is insistent, to remind him of retirement
  • Productivity consultant Laura Vanderkam is writing two lines in a sonnet every day, which takes less than five minutes but produces one completed poem a week – 52, she forecasts, this year. She is tackling 10 pages a day of Jane Austen with the goal of reading that author’s complete works by December. There is great power, Ms. Vanderkam advises, in doing something in short bursts: You never have to do much; you simply have to be consistent.
  • If you haven’t heard back after a job interview, workplace advisor Alison Green says you can call back a week after the deadline they stated for a decision. For your own peace of mind, however, assume you didn’t get the job and move on.
  • Author James Clear says one of the most critical skills in life, but never taught in school, is choosing where to direct your attention: “After graduation, the valedictorian will often get lapped by ‘average’ people who better invest their time.”

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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