When I talk to college students about their careers, there is often a disconnection between what many of them would like to do with their lives and what they are actually doing. It’s not uncommon for me to hear comments like these:
“I really want to be a writer, but I’m going to be a nurse instead.”
“I really want to start my own craft beer brewery, but I’m going to get my degree in accounting instead.”
“I really want to be a musician, but I’m going to major in engineering instead.”
I can certainly identify with these statements. When I was in college, I really wanted to play music, but I instead chose to major in electrical engineering (and, later, in psychology, when engineering became unbearable).
So why did I choose engineering rather than music? And why do so many students forgo a career that truly interests them for one that interests them considerably less (or maybe even not at all)?
There are numerous reasons, but one that pops up a lot during conversation is the notion of risk.
“I’d love to be a writer,” they say, “but it’s too risky.”
Ultimately, many students have the perception that it’s too risky to pursue the thing they love to do. Instead of taking a risk, they take the “safe” path, believing that it’s more practical and will lead to a better life.
But is that necessarily true?
Is Safety Safe and Risk Risky?
In this post, I want to address a misconception that seems to underlie many of the career choices that students make: that some choices are absolutely safe while others are undeniably risky.
First of all, let’s take a minute to make sure we understand what “risky” means. In everyday language, “risk” usually refers to the likelihood that something bad is going to happen (like when someone says, “That’s a risky decision!” or “You’re taking a big risk!”).
Let’s apply this definition to the examples given above.
This implies that (a) being a writer is more likely to produce a bad outcome than going into nursing (which is safe), (b) starting a brewery is more likely to produce a bad outcome than becoming an accountant (which is safe), and (c) trying to make it as a musician is more likely to produce a bad outcome than getting a degree in engineering (which is safe). (It’s probably also important to note that, for many, “bad outcome” simply means “making less money.”)
But consider this. Isn’t there the very real possibility that the so-called “safe” options are also risky in their own ways? Isn’t it possible that they might also produce a bad outcome?
If you take a minute to think about it, I think you’ll realize that the answer is most likely “Yes!”
If you get a degree in accounting (rather than starting your own brewery), you may find that you do not enjoy dealing with the incredible stress that comes with preparing tax returns from January to April every year.
If you pursue a degree in engineering (instead of chasing your dream of being a musician), you may realize—like I did—that studying electrical circuits for hours on end was incredibly dull (for me, anyway).
In fact, here’s the reality: There’s risk involved with nearly every choice you make.
If you purchase a coffee at Starbucks, it could scald your tongue (which happened to me just before I typed this sentence).
If you go to college, you could hate your roommate and end up hating college altogether.
If you take a new, high-paying job, you could end up working 100 hours per week and never see your family.
If you get married, you could get divorced.
If you smoke cigarettes, you could get lung cancer.
If you cross the street, you could get hit by a car.
These are all very real possibilities, and yet, the risk involved in making these choices doesn’t seem to deter us. In fact, we hardly think about them at all.
Why, then, does the possibility of experiencing a bad outcome in our career so greatly impact our choices?
Maybe it’s because the risk of getting hit by a car is minuscule compared to the possibility of making a bad career choice.
But what about divorce? The likelihood of experiencing a divorce these days is quite high (over 50% by some estimates). But that fact doesn’t seem to keep people from getting married. And yet, if we told students that they had a 50% chance of failing at a chosen career, many would probably abandon that choice.
There has to be something else involved.
Another Possible Explanation: The Good and the Bad
One reason, I think, has to do with the fact that people perceive good outcomes and bad outcomes differently.
In a ground-breaking set of studies conducted in the 1970s, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky examined how people made choices between risky “gains” and “losses.” (Kahneman was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for this work.)
Consider the following question that Kahneman and Tversky asked their research participants (which I adapted from here).
Scenario #1. Which would you prefer, Option A or Option B?
A: You have $100 and find $50 lying on the ground.
B: You have $200 and lose $50.
I’m willing to bet that many of you chose Option A (which is also what Kahneman and Tversky found). Interestingly, though, Options A and B are monetarily equivalent: With both, you end up with $150 in your pocket.
Let’s look at another scenario (adapted from here):
Scenario #2. You have $0 in your pocket, and you can choose either Option A or Option B.
A: You have 100% chance of gaining $1000.
B: You have 50% chance of gaining $2500.
In this case, Option B is, mathematically speaking, the better option: It’s actually worth $1250 (2500 x .50 = 1250). But what Kahneman and Tversky found is that most people chose the “safer” option, Option A. In this case, people were risk-averse. They avoided the risky option in favor of the sure thing.
One more for you:
Scenario #3. You have $2500 in your pocket, and you can choose either Option A or Option B.
A: You have a 100% chance of losing $1000.
B: You have a 50% chance of losing $2500.
Here, Option A is actually the smarter choice, mathematically speaking. If you lose $1000, you will still have $1500 in your pocket. With Option B, a loss ends up costing you more (2500 x .50 = 1250). Nevertheless, Kahneman and Tversky found that people tended to choose Option B more often. In this case, people were risk-takers. They were willing to take a chance because of the possibility of keeping all of their money.
In sum, these studies suggest that we are often unwilling to take risks when we’re thinking about the possibility of gaining something. In contrast, we tend to be riskier when we think about what we might lose.
Back to the Point
So, what does this have to do with students making a choice between writing and nursing? Between opening a brewery and becoming an accountant? Between music and engineering?
In my experience, when most students make career choices, they are thinking of their career choice as a “gain” of sorts. They are gaining employment, gaining a good income, gaining the ability to pay off student loans, gaining the ability to buy a nice house, and so on.
And as shown above, when people are in “gain” situations, they are less likely to take risks. They want the sure thing rather than the less certain outcome that might actually produce a larger “reward” (like greater happiness or better overall quality of life). Consequently, that means that these risk-averse students may be more likely to choose the safer career path of becoming a nurse or an accountant or an engineer instead of choosing the riskier, but possibly more rewarding, career path of being a writer or opening a brewery or becoming a musician. (By the way, please note that I am just using these as examples. I am NOT suggesting that a career in nursing or accounting or engineering cannot be incredibly rewarding for many people.)
I can certainly understand this. From the time we are young, we are repeatedly told to make “smart” choices—which, in essence, means making safe choices.
But I think there’s something else that gets lost when we focus solely on making choices for gain.
We forget about the possible losses.
When we chose the safe option, we risk not being true to ourselves. We risk living a life that decreases our psychological well-being. We risk not giving our very best to others. And—as a dad to two very cool little boys, this one means a lot to me—we risk teaching our kids that “settling” is okay.
When it comes right down to it, aren’t these losses?
Aren’t these potentially really big losses?
According to Bronnie Ware, who worked as a palliative care nurse for many years and who interviewed people while they were on their deathbeds, the single biggest regret that people had before they died was not living a life true to themselves.
If that’s true—and if we can take away any advice from elderly people who have already “played the game”—then maybe we should spend a little more time thinking about the losses that will come if we make certain career choices rather than focusing solely on the gains. Maybe doing that will be enough to get us to consider the “risky” choice—the one that has the possibility of producing the best possible outcome, even if it is a little less safe.
In fact, when we frame it this way, maybe the “safe” choice isn’t always that safe.
And maybe the “risky” choice isn’t always that risky.
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