Career changes

December 4th, 2009

A big part of what I study at that Harvard Business School job of mine is what happens when people switch jobs. My boss and I are interested in what makes people successful — and, as well, what they think makes them successful, and looking at what happens when people move from one organization to another is a good way of doing that. We’ve got an article coming out in the January (or possibly March) issue of Harvard Business Review on the top five mistakes people make when changing jobs.

So I was very interested to see this item in the British Psychological Society’s blog on the differences, culturally, in how people explained why they changed jobs. Workers from the U.S., three European countries, and China were interviewed. The most interesting finding:

Workers in the United States didn’t ever attribute a career transition to an external cause, such as conflict with a boss. Not once. Instead they tended to mention internal factors, such as their desire for a fresh challenge. By contrast, workers in China almost exclusively stressed the role played by external factors. Meanwhile, workers in the the European nations were more of a mix, attributing their career transitions to both internal and external factors.

The researchers said a lot of the transitions reported by the participants, especially in the USA and Europe, were positive. Generally-speaking, people are known to be biased towards attributing positive events to themselves, and so it’s perhaps little wonder that many workers attributed all these positive career transitions to internal causes. “In addition,” the researchers said, “in many cultures ‘being in charge’ of one’s life is positively valued. Conversely, reconstructing crucial career transitions as purely triggered by external circumstances does not convey a great amount of competence.”

I bolded that because I think it’s absolutely huge. I’m dying to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest, Bright Sided, about how America’s near-pathological obsession with optimism (and, hence, the belief that we can or should control our fate) has warped our culture, our economy, our medical system.

We so want to be in control. We so want the narrative of our lives to be about “choosing our choice.” It’s very hard for an American to say, “This bad thing happened. No, it wasn’t a blessing in disguise. No, it wasn’t God closing a door and opening a window. No, it wasn’t a ‘challenge.’ It was a bad thing, and it sucked, and now I have less and can do less than I did before, and if I’m going to make any meaning out of it, well, that’s going to take a long damn time and frankly, there’s other and better things I would have liked to do.”

We can’t say that. Even if we could admit it to ourselves, we can rarely say it. You sure as hell can’t say it in a job interview. You can’t say it to strangers at a cocktail party, either. You can only say it to your closest friends, and even that not too often. It’s like the way we can or cannot talk about chronic illnesses. (Ms. Ehrenreich, not surprisingly, wrote the book after a bout with breast cancer.)

In the “children” chapter of Mind Over Manners, I write about the so-called “mommy wars” between working and stay-at-home mothers. I read up a lot on the issue, and came away more or less convinced that except for a privileged few, neither set are really, truly, choosing, but are rather making the best of a limited set of options:

The repeated talk of “choice” makes women feel entirely responsible for the situations they find themselves in. Is a mother who works full-time really making a “choice” if she dare not even ask for a reduction in hours if her husband is self-employed and she provides the family’s health insurance? Is a stay-at-home mother really making a “choice” if the public schools are so bad that they must be supplemented or replaced by homeschooling, or if child care would cost more than she can earn? If we label the decision to stay home versus to go off to work as a “choice,” it allows us, as a society, to maintain that any negative consequences are a problem for the individual to solve, and don’t require reform of our laws or workplace cultures. I’m not here to offer policy recommendations—only the politeness recommendation that both working and stay-at-home mothers recognize that the other side, like they themselves, are making decisions under severely difficult circumstances.

There’s a career transition in my past that I “brightside” a lot, too. I talk about how fun the job was, but how exhausting, and frame my leaving as a simple “when the contract was up,” and then I start talking about all the cool things I’m doing now. I don’t talk about the fact that “the contract was up” really means “they didn’t offer me the permanent job.” I don’t talk about how I wasn’t even given the courtesy of an interview for that permanent job. I don’t talk about how, on my last day of work, I went home early and cried until nightfall.

Because the contract was up! It was over! I was free to pursue other dreams, and now I’m Miss Conduct! I’m not a loser, I’m a winner!

Sometimes, it is very, very tiring to be an American. Always to be a survivor, never a victim. Always to craft that winning story. Always to feel in control, when science and religion and art and philosophy since time immemorial have converged on the simple fact that we are not.

Or to put it another way, because the language of LOL is true and good:

funny-dog-pictures-lemmunaid-suk


3 Responses to “Career changes”

  1. Molly on December 4, 2009 12:04 pm

    A recurring theme in Torah study (not like, weekly, but often enough that it’s stuck with me) is the idea of control and how little control people of Biblical times had over their lives.

    What people don’t seem to want to confront is that we don’t really have any more control over our lives now. I think we have more understanding of cause and effect, perhaps, and yes, I’m much less likely to get mauled by a rabid camel on my way to the well, but I’m much more likely to get run down by a wayward bus.

    That’s a very concrete example for a very abstract concept, of course. But I think to really accept how little control any of us have may be to stare too long into the abyss, at least for Americans. I’d also like to read the book you mentioned, but I hear there’s this program and book fair tonight with a really cool and witty presenter, and I need to acquire and read that book first.

  2. jl on December 4, 2009 12:16 pm

    For those of us without access to the HBR, will you share your conclusions with us once your article publishes? It sounds very interesting.

  3. Shulamuth on December 5, 2009 2:42 am

    I’m not real fond of Pollyannas myself, but I do believe that the one thing I can control is my attitude about the various sucky things that happen to me. It’s often easier to learn to be happy with what you have than to seek that which you think will make you happy, as it were. Also, I’m who I am now because of what I experienced in the past, so even if it’s sucky going back and changing it would change me, and I kind of like the me I am now.

    I think there is a balance somewhere, that lets people acknowledge the bad but still focus on the good. (I say this as a chronic depressive on disability retirement from a job the depression caused me to do so poorly it was retire or be dumped. Not an internal, growth, reason. Bad, yes, but at least I live in an time and place where at least the acute phases of my depression are controllable by medication, and I worked for someone with fairly decent personnel policies and a good pension plan; for the most part it seems more useful to remember the good bits than the bad ones. Or thinking of myself as someone relatively free to follow my interests, rather than someone unable to hold down my job.)

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