Career development and job search are founded on uncovering individual skills, competencies, strengths, capabilities, interests and likes.
This discovery can involve introspective “personal archaeology,” often enabled by standardized career and personality assessment tools.
However, social science research suggests that it is difficult to “know” preference – career and otherwise – in order to map this “supply” to the “demand” in available career roles.
More than 60 years ago, acclaimed Oxford University philosopher Gilbert Ryle foreshadowed the philosophical and cognitive problems entailed in “knowing one’s own mind.”
Ryle considered how people acquire attitudes, traits, and their dispositions to act in The Concept of Mind , an erudite attack on Cartesian dualism of mind and body
Two decades later, Daryl Bem of Cornell University substituted laboratory research for Ryle’s philosophical reasoning, and demonstrated that people may not know what they like or their skills until they observe their behavior in studies of “self-perception theory.”
Bem found that people draw inferences about who they are and they “become what they do,” particularly when people are not certain of what they think or feel, and when they believe that they freely chose to behave as they did.
Bruce Hood of University of Bristol expanded the self-perception argument to posit that “the self” is an illusion, so it is difficult to “know” what the “self” likes, values, and prefers.
However, behaviors can be shaped and constrained by external social standards: People learn to become themselves by interacting with others, according to Charles Horton Cooley, who coined the term “the looking glass self” more than a century ago.
Charles Horton Cooley
Therefore, people may choose a career acceptable to parents or social observers who attribute “respect” and “prestige.”
Hood showed that the fluid process of constructing the self is a created narrative which is experienced as “a cohesive, integrated character.”
Since the “self” is constructed, it changes over time, and people significantly and consistently underestimate how much they will change in the future.
This finding has important implications for anyone seeking to distill values, strengths, and preference a job search “elevator speech,” “value proposition,” and “pitch.”
Introspection, therefore, offers limited career insight and guidance: People need to see how they respond, then infer attitudes and preferences for career and other life choices.
This argues for taking exploratory action to “try on” choices, such as in “realistic job previews” found in internships and other on-the-job experiences.
The challenge to career development and decision-making doesn’t end there.
Even if it’s possible to infer preferences from one’s behavior, those inferences are likely to change – a lot – over time.
This means that today’s career may not change in synchrony with one’s personal changes.
Daniel T. Gilbert and Jordi Quoidbach of Harvard collaborated with Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia demonstrated this shift in in personalities, values, and preferences over decades of life – and people’s underestimate of these changes – and called it the “end of history illusion.”
They surveyed more than 19,000 people ages 18 to 68 and found that young people, middle-aged people, and older people all believed they had changed a lot in the past decade but would change relatively little in the future decade.
The researchers reported that the typical 20-year-old woman participant’s predictions for her next decade were not nearly as radical as the typical 30-year-old woman’s recollection of how much she had changed in her 20s, with this trend holding for volunteers into their 60s.
They found that participants were able to accurately recall personality changes that correlated well expected results, based on independent research charting of personality trait shifts with age.
Gilbert, Quoidbach and Wilson conducted lab studies that found people tend to overpay for future opportunities to indulge their current preferences due to this “end of history” illusion.
This trend may have significant consequences when choices involve potential life partners, long-term financial commitments, and career choices.
These researchers suggest that people underestimate future changes because people may be threatened by the idea that current values and preferences are transitory.
They speculate that such a realization may lead people to doubt many decisions, and experience decision-slowing due to anxiety.
An alternate explanation is that the mental energy required to imagine future changes exceed the effort of recalling the past, so “people may confuse the difficulty of imagining personal change with the unlikelihood of change itself.”
Dan McAdams of Northwestern University seconded this view and added, “The end-of-history effect may represent a failure in personal imagination,” based on his observations of how people construct stories about their past and future lives in Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative (The Narrative Study of Lives).
He noticed that many people tell complex, dynamic stories about the past but then make vague, prosaic projections of a future similar to the present.
These findings suggest that introspection and standardized assessment instruments may have more value when coupled with observing one’s actual behavior and reflected impressions from others.
Additionally, it is wise to:
- Anticipate the value of changing, expanding, or modifying one’s job role over time
- Develop a wide array of transferrable skills, applicable across a variety of domains to increase the breadth of options for later preferences.
- How do you uncover or infer your career strengths and preferences?
- How do you monitor a possible “end of history” illusion when making career plans?