We underestimate our own potential to evolve.
I know that I’ve made that mistake.
As a graduate student in psychology, I was certain I knew my path. At that early juncture, my interests centered solely on the development of selection tests. (Focusing on topics such as motivation or aligning work with strengths, never occurred to me.) As most of us do, I surmised that with the passage of time, I would remain relatively constant as an individual — and that satisfaction with that career direction would remain.
However, time has a way of changing us.
In fact, that original career trajectory, is far from how I would define myself today. Truth be told — we all evolve — and in many cases, it is difficult to detect the changes as they are occurring. They overtake us somehow.
Does this impact work and career? Of course.
A series of studies conducted by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert (See the TED Talk below), have explored the process of how we view personal change over time and its impact upon our lives. Their research revealed that we tend to underestimate changes in both our core personality traits (represented by the “Big 5”: conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability, openness to experience and extroversion) and our core values (measured by the Schwartz Value Inventory) over the decades of our lives. The magnitude of the illusion seems to decrease as we age, but it remains present.
We make decisions concerning what will bring us fulfillment in the future, based upon our current state. However, we underestimate how we might change over time. Essentially, we are forced to draw inferences from the past — something Gilbert aptly names, “The End of History Illusion”. We make decisions in life, as if that history has ended. So, as that carefully designed future takes shape — there is a real possibility that it may no longer align with who we have actually become.
We imagine that our history ends today. When, ultimately, our own “history” continues to evolve and shift.
The challenge to apply this dynamic work and career are clear. If we don’t consider or anticipate change — even expect it — we may not be prepared deal with what comes next.
Can we predict exactly how we will change with the twists and turns of life? No, that’s not likely.
However, we can look for the subtle changes that might affect us:
- Listen intently. Not to others around you — to your inner voice. If you have the distinct feeling that your work is not bringing the fulfillment it once did, pause and reflect on that realization. Explore how you arrived at this impasse.
- Embrace it. People change — it is a fact of life. You are allowed to evolve, as well. A role that brought you happiness at 25, may not suit you at 35. One that was perfectly aligned with your goals before having a child, may no longer suffice. Life and experiences will change the essence of how we might derive energy from our work. This is completely normal.
- Respond. Ignoring a seismic shift in career aspirations, will not stop the dynamic from progressing. You do possess free will. Take a moment to determine what may need to change to accommodate your evolution. Start with a list of work life elements that currently bring you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction — then compare with what you would have chosen 5 or 10 years ago. What changes do you see?
As the researchers observed: “History, it seems is always ending today”.
So instead, strive to embrace your ever-changing work life. A long and healthy career may center on our respect for how we might change over time.
How has your history evolved? How did you respond?
Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She is the Director of Thought Leadership at Kilberry Leadership Advisors, Toronto.