Career choices

career-choiceEver wondered why you do what you do?

Maybe back in your youth you thought carefully, analyzed the options, took stock and then embarked on a career path clearly chosen. Later you were probably equally thoughtful about if and when to veer off the path. Such conscious thought may even extend to immediate issues of when to push for promotion [or not] and when to change jobs [or not].

Equally likely is that the career chose you. There was no need for any fancy analysis or second-guessing, your vocation beckoned and you responded like a moth to a light.

Today I was struck by an observation that suggests that whether we think of ourselves as pragmatic or instinctual, more subtle forces may be at play to explain what we do.

Complex systems are more than the sum of their parts. In all systems there are properties that emerge simply because of complexity.  Add flour, salt, yeast, water and some energy in the right sequence and a loaf of bread emerges. This much is intuitive and we easily relate to the idea that there really is “more than the sum of the parts”.

In human systems that are crazily complex, there is a school of thought that the most important emergent property is an inertia that resists innovation and change. Put people together in an organization and very soon there is resistance to new ideas that you would not see if you just talked to people one on one. The collective personality shuns change and protects the conventional wisdom far more than individuals do.

This emergent property has far reaching implications for human society as our numbers grow, resources deplete and organizations get bigger and more complex.  It also means something to why we do what we do. I suspect that many a career is chosen through our degree of attraction or aversion to this inertia. It explains why so many professions are populated by people who fit the stereotype for that career — no need to be smarmy here with examples of lawyers, accountants, bureaucrats and the like for you know what I mean.

What is interesting is the relatively small proportion of career options for those with an aversion to this inertia. It is strong in entrepreneurs, the self-employed and maybe some branches of the arts.

The majority of us are at work in an organization. We even join organizations in our spare time to play, worship and give back. There is clearly something about that inertia that is soothing and makes us feel safe. At some level we recognize the emergent property and quite like it.

And maybe our grumpy gripes about these organizations that we spend all our time involved, together with our chirping about those that govern the societies in which we live, are actually our aversion response. Unable to cope with the relative insecurity of risky careers we go to work for an organization then satisfy our concerns that inertia might have a downside by complaining much of the time.

At the heart of this is that we instinctively know that the growing complexity and the inertia that goes with it will back us into a corner. We will loose the nimble problem solving abilities that made us so successful as a species as resistance to change erodes our ability to adapt.

Facing our growing pile of environmental issues without this skill will be far more troublesome that how to select a career.

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