The oppression of choice

Jan 03, 2019
In a world where we’ve never had more choice, are we really better off? 

By Neil Hughes

I have written in the past about Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. This book is one of those seminal reads that has so many applications to various business contexts, and no more so than to the myriad of choices that will face you after you qualify as a Chartered Accountant.

At the heart of it, Schwartz explores the glaring paradox of living in a free society. He contends that although we have more choices than ever (in life and career paths!), we’ve never been less happy or satisfied. He uses this concept to explain a number of feelings that are typical of our current world, such as the feeling of being connected (via technology) but less able to connect with people (or at least experience it in the same way as we did pre-technology) and the rise of a general feeling of dissatisfaction, depression and anxiety which he sees as, in part, a result of increased choice. 

Schwartz makes the argument that with more choice, we are more likely to either be paralyzed (by too much choice) or disappointed (as we will always think that we didn’t make the best possible choice). In the world of recruitment, this is a very common dynamic, experienced by both employers and employees.

The illusion of choice

When you’re deciding on what you want to do after your training contract, you have a choice. Setting aside any specifics on the volume of availability in the market, the fact is that roles are more ‘accessible’ these days due to technology. You can go onto LinkedIn and find hundreds of financial accountant roles in a few clicks, which makes the perception of choice much larger when it comes to trying to decide between different roles. When looking for a role 15 years ago, you may have only seen one job listed in the paper, but now you’ll find many more online and advertised across multiple channels, recruiters and organisations.

The paralysis of choice

All of this choice in our careers, as Schwartz would tell us, can lead to paralysis. Faced with high levels of choice, decisions become a lot more difficult to make. We become fixated on either the fear of making the wrong decision or on the lure of finding the ‘perfect’ job.

Moreover, as suggested above, the presence of choice is an illusion, not actually an indicator of a better outcome and quality decision. More doesn’t equal less. With so much choice, the risk is that your initial expectation of an outcome may become heightened to such a degree that only ‘perfect’ becomes the right answer. You could spend months waiting for something better to come along in the market; because you’ve seen so many options already – blocking any forward momentum in your career and ending up with another busy season behind you and nothing to show for it.

Making choice work for you

Time and clarity are your secret weapons when it comes to dealing with choice. If you set yourself a certain time window in which to make a decision, with clearly defined parameters of what you’re hoping to secure, you’ll be in a better place. After all, let’s face it, what else does choice really give you? More of the same? A great place to start when deciding what to do post-qualification is figuring out what you definitely don’t want to do and see what’s left. It at least narrows the field a bit.

Remember that “perfect” should never be your metric. It is not a realistic output. When looking for a role, once your ‘must haves’ are met, pick the best one within your time window, otherwise you risk delaying and losing opportunities that won’t come up again.

The right team

Here’s the final kicker – you will likely move (internally or externally) two to three times in your first five years PQE. Getting onto a good team surrounded by the right people will be the most important thing in your first step after qualifying. Experience tells us that the rest tends to take care of itself…

So, is ‘choice’ more inhibiting than empowering? Maybe. You have to prepare yourself because you have plenty of choices coming down the road.