How to Choose a Career While Avoiding the Paradox of Choice

Choosing a SchoolYou're looking for some guidance on how to choose a career that's right for you. That means you need to decide where to go to school, and what to study once you get there. And the sheer number of options can be overwhelming.

We've all been there—afraid to make the wrong decision or afraid that we'll be missing out on something better after we've made our choice. This so-called paradox of choice is one of the prices we pay for living in a society that gives us so many different options.

But when it comes to deciding on a college or career path, having a lot of options can feel absolutely paralyzing. After all, you're probably thinking, "This is a major moment in my life, so I'd better get it right." You want to make the perfect choice even though every option seems to come with both compelling benefits and trade-offs.

So, how can you make a satisfying decision about how to choose a career, and select the post-secondary training that can get you there?

Understand the Problem

Most of us who've grown up in a Western nation like the U.S. have the deeply held belief that having more choices is always better. We think it goes hand-in-hand with being a free individual in the pursuit of happiness. In fact, it would never occur to most of us to think any other way. In our minds, choice equals freedom—a very good thing. And how could we ever have too much of that?

Well, as it turns out, the more options you have, the less satisfied you are likely to be with the one you eventually decide upon. It's a phenomenon known as the paradox of choice. Barry Schwartz, a social sciences professor at Swarthmore College, was one of the first people to research it.

It's not that all choice is bad. On the contrary, having a very limited number of options is certainly better than having none at all. The problem occurs when you start feeling overwhelmed by too many possible alternatives. Trying to think through more than a handful of options can be, as Schwartz puts it, "a recipe for paralysis and misery."

"You don't even need to be considering every possibility to be driven crazy," Schwartz says. "People look at schools, and they think that everything hinges on coming up with the right answer." But that can be an elusive goal.

"It's extremely unlikely that there is one option that's going to be the best in every way," Schwartz says. "So trade-offs have to be made, and these are extremely painful to contemplate. You end up with this big list of things you're giving up. It makes the thing you do end up choosing not so attractive."

In his popular TED Talk, Schwartz makes it clear that the paradox of choice can impact our lives at every level—from trying to choose a simple salad dressing to figuring out whether to start a family. Watch his talk below:

Embrace the Solution

A small shift in your mindset is often all it takes to overcome the paradox of choice. It can be as simple as accepting that perfection is frequently an impossible target to hit. If you aim for it, you're likely to end up at least somewhat disappointed.

"Good enough is almost always good enough," Schwartz says. "You don't need to find the best. There's virtually no difference between the best and any number of alternatives that are almost as good as the best. If you're looking for a 'good enough' school or a 'good enough' set of courses to study, then choosing becomes a lot less onerous."

So, as weird as it sounds, you might end up happier by lowering your expectations a little. Give yourself fewer options. Aim for good enough.

And pay attention to how different schools structure their programs. Do they remove some of your burden of choice by having a slate of courses already laid out for you? Will your courses all relate to each other and to the career you're pursuing?

That is often one of the keys to feeling satisfied with your education. In fact, that's what sets a lot of trade schools and vocational colleges apart. They understand that students are more likely to stay motivated and fulfilled when they don't have to make a lot of extra choices about which classes to take or whether they all make sense together. Students can focus on learning skills for a new career, not on stressing over piecing together their own program curriculums.

Narrow Your Options Right Now

Getting a tailored list of training options is easy. Start by searching for the schools near you. Just put your zip code into the convenient school finder on this page. You can narrow down your search so that you'll be presented with a selection of colleges, trade schools, or universities that offer the program you're interested in. It's a simple and straight-forward way to make a positive choice with a lasting impact.