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Decision making for living and life

03rd April 2019

compass in persons hand, showing directionOn Saturday morning, I was drinking coffee and reading a philosophical book on the ‘meaning of life’ in the bath. All whilst listening to music (clichéd but true) and reflecting on the week just gone.

In many respects, careers work isn’t just the application of labour market information, economics, course searching and psychology. It can also be considered a journey in applied philosophy (meaning of life stuff). I have met many wonderful and interesting students this week, working with them on their career plans; they ranged from being practical, anxious, excited and pragmatic through to risk takers and those who could be considered existentialists. Each provided me with lessons for my careers practice. Foremost in my mind there are many different ways to make decisions. That is, if we provide the space to let them happen…

“Just talking”

One young man, who I saw early in the week, was during a session which I thought had gone horribly wrong. I thought we hadn’t got very far at all, whereas he replied that “just talking” was incredibly helpful. At the start he had said that he didn’t know what he was doing, where he was going; he had some rough ideas but felt lost. As we progressed together on a somewhat rambling session, he had talked himself through his morass to discover that he did know where he was, what he wanted and where he was going.

Midweek, I had a conversation (at the client’s behest) that focused on ‘how to decide on, how to decide’. We explored how much risk to include and how much of a safety net; with the clients’ conclusion that even if they weighed their choices carefully. Even if they used every university league table they could get your hands on. Even if they took subjects which had a good ‘graduate premium’; this would not guarantee them a life of financial gain and contentment. Conversely, if they decided to make decisions based on ‘risk’ these wouldn’t necessarily guarantee a life of disaster nor of success, but would be very ‘interesting’. It was a real ‘chaos in careers’ conversation; as opposed to a ‘straight forward’ discussion with regards what she was going to study at university.

“The idea of chaos”

In contrast, I saw a third student who wanted to know how the ‘systems’ worked for university applications. She had a clear idea of what she wanted to do. And she didn’t relate to the idea of chaos at all. We looked in depth at the differences between various data sources such as the LEO datasets, TEF and traditional National Student Survey league tables. In her words, she wanted to ‘play the system’ to try and ‘win’.

Her focus was similar to the athlete I saw who was intent on his goal. He didn’t want to have a ‘back up option’; in his mind, to consider a backup was preparation to fail. It would therefore only lead to failure. To succeed, he felt that he needed to not have a safety net, he needed the threat of losing everything to put the work in and, in turn, succeed. Every time in his life he had a backup plan, he said, he had coasted, not done the work and failed; he knew what it would take for him.

“Planned happenstance”

Another student took a different path. Instead of the popular search for ‘the one job’ and the idea that we each only have one thing we can do in life which will lead to fulfilment; this student was open to trying pretty much anything via local apprenticeships. Although she was open to any option, she was stuck on a strategy of how to find them. Her session focused on what different approaches she could take to find or create an opening. This spanned from using social media through to work experience as a way in, as well as applying through the usual vacancy websites. It was an approach that owed much to planned happenstance[i].

“Descartes’ Error”

So it went on; different students making choices in different ways, each fuelled by what was meaningful for them and led by their feelings. Within this plethora of different decision making approaches, it is worth pausing to consider the story of Phineas Gage from 1848 from the book Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio. It tells the events of how a renowned railway worker suffered a traumatic injury that destroyed part of his brain. He was left with all of his logic, speech and motor functions intact; but he had lost the centres which governed his emotions. He was left with the ability to work and make what seemed to be informed choices; but these choices led to a path of sorrow.

Damasio continues the book with an exploration of patients he has supported, each of whom have suffered similar trauma (and been left with similar faculties) through disability, illness, injury or disease. Each individual, without their emotional centre, has struggled to make decisions that lead to fulfilment; despite having their logical and cognitive abilities. What is apparent from Damasio’s studies is that our emotions are key to our ability to invest in our lives and make meaningful, purposeful choices; no matter how different they maybe.

“Every time I find the meaning of life, they change it”

Which, brings me back to my bath on Saturday morning and the book I was reading – Every time I find the meaning of life they change it by Daniel Klein. Klein presents many different ways life can be lived and decisions made; most of which contradict and disagree with each other brilliantly. In just the same way each of the students I saw this past week chose to make decisions in different ways, taking approaches which suited them, to create lives which were so very different to each other; the varying philosophies in the book mirrored their thinking. In a world of contrasts and contradictions as career practitioners we need to be open to the different ways decisions can be made and remember the importance of our clients’ emotions in this process.

What this week taught me is the danger of accidently projecting my own decision making processes and feelings on the young people I support. It is important for us as educationalists as well as parents and carers, to be open to helping our young people to be aware and help them make use of all types of different decision making processes and tools (not just the ones we personally favour or which carry more weight in our cultures and communities). Some say the aboriginal people of Australia believe in people having three brains… the gut, heart and head[ii]. Chiropractors and some belief systems also take this view[iii] whereas others take an alternative view,[iv] and are sceptical of such claims[v].

“Logic, feelings or a mixture of the two”

Regardless, the extent to which we listen to our heart, gut or head (metaphorically or physically) and take into consideration psychological biases[vi] or not, is to each our own. Perhaps we have something to learn from each viewpoint regarding how we make our own decisions, as well as relate to others who make decisions in a different way to ourselves. Whether this is decision making within careers or other choices in life!

As career practitioners, we need to do our best to ensure there is space for our clients to make use of, weigh up and develop confidence in their own decision making abilities. Helping them decide which approaches are best for them, whether fuelled by logic, feelings or a mixture of the two by providing a non-judgmental space to consider their choices within.

Written by Chris Targett, Careers Adviser and Area Manager – Information, Advice and Guidance at CXK. 

[i] https://www.careers.govt.nz/resources/career-practice/career-theory-models/krumboltzs-theory/

[ii] https://www.intelligentenergies.com/three-brains-or-one/

[iii] https://spinalresearch.com.au/three-brains-head-heart-gut-sometimes-conflict/

[iv] https://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/brain-cells-in-the-heart/

[v] https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/03/why-the-brain-body-connection-is-more-important-than-we-think/

[vi] https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/avoiding-psychological-bias.htm

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