This article is part of a series written by ASSETT’s Student Technology Consultants to support CU students, especially in uncertain times. Your Many Futures is a follow-up to our previous article, Where Are You Now?
In 2000, psychologists at Stanford and Columbia universities conducted a study on how the number of choices impacts one’s actions. In one experiment, researchers presented shoppers with a display of a limited (6) and extensive (24) display of jam samples in a grocery store to compare how the number of choices impacted a shopper’s purchasing decision. Psychologists found that when faced with more choices, people are less likely to make a decision. With a sample display of six jams, shoppers were more likely to make a purchase than with 24 sample options. Thus - more isn’t always better.
CU undergraduates have a large degree of freedom when it comes to life decisions. We’re told that we can do anything and be anyone. With so many options this freedom is in some ways great and paralyzing at the same time. What if I choose the wrong path? What if I hate what I am doing? What if I never make it in the career I was thinking of? When these thoughts linger in the back of your mind, making any kind of decision becomes incredibly difficult.
But that’s okay. We want to help you break down that thinking.
The book The Defining Decade equates this state of decision making paralysis to treading water in the middle of the ocean. When you have infinite options ahead of you, making any decision can feel like being in the middle of the ocean, no land in sight, and having to pick a direction to swim without knowing if you will hit land. But if you don’t pick a direction, you will be stuck where you are, treading water, not moving out of fear of going the wrong way.
Spoiler alert: There is no right direction, but treading water and not making a decision will not work in the long run.
Treading water, or, doing what is comfortable, but not what you want to be doing, in the long run, will not work permanently. For me, treading water was waitressing. I knew I could do it and that it would cover my bills, but I didn’t want to be doing it in ten years.
So how do you start swimming? How do you pick a direction when there are so many possibilities? It’s like the jam sample experiment. You narrow the number of decisions down.
Narrowing down the jam jars
There is no one right answer to what you want to do in life. The average person switches career directions 5-7 times. So get it out of your head that the direction you choose will be the only one available to you. You can try a new flavor of jam if you don’t like the one you chose.
Let’s think about all the possible careers and lives you’ve wanted. Do you want to go to medical school and become a doctor? Great! Write it down. Did you also think it would be fun to open a coffee shop with a cute deli? Also great! You can have wildly different ideas about things you might want to do. There is no one right direction. Try to be open-minded and diverse in your thinking.
Consider non-career ideas that you’ve thought might be fun and make you happy. Do you want to get chickens one day? Or join an amateur soccer team? Get into photography? When planning out your future, incorporate these ideas alongside your career ideas.
Now that you have these possible directions, pick three, and think about what the next five years approaching each idea might look like. Write down what each of the five years could look like for each possible direction. What small actions help you get to the larger goal?
Even though you have multiple five-year plans written out, none of them will likely happen as you planned them out. That is okay. This exercise isn’t an exact recipe, rather, it’s a way to test the waters for all the possible directions you might want to go.
Now that you have some ideas about the directions you might want to go, it’s time to take actionable steps.
What small steps get you in the direction you would like to go, these will also give you an informed decision about if these ideas are something you would like to do. If you have thought about pursuing a career in media or public relations, you could take some freelance writing gigs to make connections and get experience. If you thought that you might want to go to vet school after college, you could volunteer at an animal shelter or ask to shadow a veterinarian for a day.
Chances are that these steps won’t pay the bills, and you may need to do these in addition to whatever job keeps you financially stable, but they will inform you about what directions you will be interested in pursuing.
As we discussed earlier, things don’t always go as planned. Maybe you find out the direction you chose is not the one you want to go with in the future. Maybe a global pandemic canceled your internship. When things don’t go as planned, it’s okay. You made a decision, and you are closer to land than if you had only been treading water in place.
If you’d like to start thinking about how to make the best of your future now, the ASSETT book club will be reading Meg Jay’s The Defining Decade. For more information or to sign up, please email Sam Kindick at Kindick@colorado.edu.