Skip navigation
Careers Café

Defying rational choice


It seems that, when it comes to making choices, choosing what’s “good enough” is more useful than seeking what’s rationally the best option. According to one group of researchers (PDF), now old-fashioned theories of rational choice rely on the myth that people are rational choosers [who] go through life with all their options arrayed before them, as if on a buffet table. They have complete information about the costs and benefits associated with each option. They compare the options with one another on a single scale of preference, or value, or utility. And after making the comparisons, people choose so as to maximize their preferences, or values, or utilities.

Researchers Barry Schwartz et al go on to question whether rational choice is possible, and whether pursuing rational choice is even beneficial. As you’ve probably already guessed, they argue that pursuing the best option instead of settling for what’s good enough is detrimental to happiness.

Depending on how you look at it, the concept of rational career choice is either intuitive or – heck, why not – completely counter-intuitive. On the intuitive side, we talk about career “fit” all the time, we use vocational assessments that imply a best fit, and we discuss the pursuit of happiness as one of the reasons for devoting time and effort to career exploration.

Some elements of rational choice, applied to careers, fit right into the problematic area that Dr. Schwartz and his colleagues explore. According to their article, the more choice one has, the greater the potential for dissatisfaction with that choice, thanks to a perfectly rational awareness that the odds of selecting the absolute best option are low. That’s a bit of a bummer for those exploring career options, since there are at least 13,000 different job titles out there.

Granted, Dr. Schwartz et al are talking about consumer choice. But it’s hard not to think of career choice when the article contrasts the ideal of “complete information that characterizes rational choice theory” with the unlikelihood of ever actually having complete information.

Where do you go from having too many options and incomplete information? Somewhere that feels good enough. The article proposes “satisficing” – choosing an option that meets “a threshold of acceptability” and then ceasing to worry about the choice.

Getting into something that’s good enough for now isn’t necessarily a bad idea, nor is leaving aside the concern that somewhere, out there, “the” job is waiting to be discovered. But I like Rich Feller’s suggestion at a recent talk to treat each job as a paid internship, in which you assess what you can learn from it that will be useful in the work you do next.

When it comes to your “threshold of acceptability” for work, you’ll probably be evaluating your options based on several criteria – level of interest, location, chance for advancement, compatibility with your values, pay and benefits, the kinds of impacts you can have through your work… It could well be that the “best” next option for you isn’t the job that passes all of your criteria, but one that really does well at the ones that matter most. It could be that you’ve narrowed things down to a few criteria that really do need to be met. (If you have access to it, CareerStorm Navigator offers some good prompts to work through the criteria that matter to you, and their relative importance.)

However you choose to choose, remain open to the possibility that work will bring you into contact with other options, and that you can move through your career without necessarily having complete information – but with enough to make a workable choice.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published.