A checklist for making rational career decisions
Career decisions are high-stakes, but involve a lot of uncertainty. To help you make better decisions, we’ve gathered up the best advice we found on how to assess your career options in the face of high uncertainty, both from business and decision making science.
Here’s a summary of what we’ve found, organized into a checklist you can apply to high stakes decisions. You can use it as part of our how to choose process.
Before you start
- Have you structured the assessment? Rather than making a complete gut judgement, there’s evidence that when making similar decisions (such as giving job interviews) you’ll make a better decision if you explicitly write out your key criteria, and assess based on those.
When assessing each criterion
- Have you looked at relevant statistics, where available? Often going with the ‘base rate’ is better than making an internal judgement. This is called reference class forecasting.
- Have you considered what a credible trustworthy person would say? When we don’t know much else and there’s no hard data on the question, we find this a useful starting point.
- Have you questioned your gut? Your gut is good at making decisions when you’ve made lots of similar decisions before, so it’s probably good at judging something like “would I get on with these people?”, but it’s bad at making novel decisions, like “how much will I earn in this career?” (see more on when to go with your gut).
- Have you asked yourself why you might be wrong? This can help to reduce bias.
- Have you justified your answers to a friend? This can help to reduce bias.
- Have you focused on the future pros and cons of the options, rather than what you’ve done in the past? This can help avoid the sunk cost fallacy.
When combining the factors
- Have you considered the problem from many angles? Rather than basing your decision on one or two strong considerations, it’s often better to consider the issue from many independent perspectives weighted by their robustness and importance. This style of thinking has been supported by various groups and has several names, including ‘cluster thinking’, ‘model combination and adjustment’, ‘many weak arguments’, and ‘fox style’ thinking.
- Have you weighed the evidence by its strength? As you learn more, update away from your prior guess based on the strength of what you learn. See an example here. This is called ‘Bayesian reasoning’, and is widely regarded as best practice for making decisions under high uncertainty. For instance, see Nate Silver’s book The Signal in the Noise.
When making your final assessment
- Look for dominant options. If you’re lucky, you’ll find one option seems better or equal from all perspectives. You can then eliminate the option it dominates.
- Make an overall judgement. If one option doesn’t dominate, you’ll need to make a final overall judgement call.
When your options look very close and it’s hard to choose between them, this can feel somewhat agonizing. One comforting thought in these situations is that even if you choose the wrong option, the difference in how much worse it is, is likely to be slight – which is why it’s a tough call in the first place.