Adaptable Decision Making

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Sticking doggedly to a goal and eventually reaching the glorious shining heights of fame, wealth or success is the stuff of motivational speakers and self-help books. But is it still true today? 

Millennials get a bad rap for not sticking with anything: jumping from job to job; going on endless Tinder dates; and, generally being serial quitters. But maybe this isn’t such a bad approach when it comes to some decisions.

Unlike the ‘pick and stick’ approach which we explore in episode 3 of How to Choose, sometimes it makes more sense to ‘select and adapt’ which at first blush can seem a bit like being indecisive or not committing. However, for some decisions, it really does pay to keep your options open, and just make small changes.

There are many famous examples of people who may never have reached their potential if they hadn’t been flexible and kept their career options open.

Harry Styles was a baker.

Stephen King was a janitor.

Ellen DeGeneres was a paralegal.

Pope Francis was a bouncer.

Whoopi Goldberg was a makeup artist at a funeral home.

Walt Disney was a newspaper editor.

Most people don’t just fall into these other career paths, they do them as a hobby, or as a side hustle, and eventually this becomes a new path, after many slow incremental steps. Keeping our options open and trying lots of things can actually make us more successful, as shown by several recent studies. Such as research that athletes from small towns were more likely to become professionals, possibly due to their environment being less competitive. Also, they were more likely to try lots of different sports, rather than an intense focus on just one from an early age. 

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s book Superfreakonomics highlighted research which discovered that girls who play high-school sports are more likely to attend college and land a solid job, especially in some of the high-skill fields traditionally dominated by men. David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World also argues for diversifying, as modern work demands knowledge transfer: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains. Having a broad experience and trying many different things may be the ticket to success in the modern workplace.

There are many career paths that still require a fairly clear pathway, such as becoming a surgeon or an astronaut. But even in these more prescriptive careers, there is likely a benefit to having other specialties and interests. Range highlights research that nationally recognised scientists are much more likely than their less successful peers to be musicians, sculptors, painters and writers. And Nobel laureates are 22 times more likely to also be an amateur actor, dancer or other type of performer.

So how can you take this ‘select and adapt’ approach in your own life? Think of it as making incremental steps in the general direction you want to go. Rather than signing up for a two year gym membership, go month to month, until you’ve proven to yourself that committing long term is the right financial decision. If you’re unsure what to study at university, do a broad range of prerequisite subjects in year 12 to keep your options open. Your hobbies and side hustle might not be a distraction from your 9-5, it may end up becoming your 9-5! Start broad before narrowing yourself or you might find you regret your decision later.

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