Tom, a 29-year-old management consultant, has a large basket of career options. By virtue of his experience, skills and financial situation, he could realistically be any one of the following: a high-powered professional-services partner, an actor, an entrepreneur, a venture investor, or a professional hockey player.
His career-decision tree features a diverse set of branches, each offering its own distinct mix of financial and non-financial rewards.
He is young, healthy and unattached. He has been taught all his life to carefully weigh alternatives and choose the path with the highest expected utility.
But as this career Superman soars high above the professional world, his kryptonite is becoming painfully obvious. With so many options in tow, there is one thing he can’t do: make a concrete decision.
That keeps him in a permanent state of stress and anxiety.
Tom represents an expanding class of smart, ambitious professionals who have created so many options for themselves that they find it virtually impossible to do a single thing.
Many of us intuitively believe in the value of options, especially when it comes to something as important as careers.
Economists explain that rational individuals assign value to leaving doors open, even when there is little likelihood of ever walking through them.
Many parents stress to their sons and daughters the importance of education as a way to increase professional options. Blue-chip companies tout infinite prospects to potential employees.
But once branchy decision trees have grown to a certain point, does having more branches do the owners any good?
While writing Passion & Purpose with John Coleman and Oliver Segovia, I had the privilege of interviewing dozens of high-performing individuals about their career options and decisions.
Everyone in my sample was in their late 20s or early 30s, had attended top-tier schools, and had worked for several years at reputable companies.
Financially content, they rated intellectual stimulation as their number one reason for choosing a job, and they moved between different positions and countries frequently to find the right fit.
The most striking thing was a common reason underpinning their restlessness: the desire to defer.
Convincing themselves that they had yet to find their true calling, these individuals relentlessly pursued careers that increased their future options.
They were betting that the pain of creating more options would pay off in the pleasure of a better life down the road.
These potential superstars belong to what is now referred to as the “hesitation generation”, an expanding class of talented individuals who are inadvertently training themselves to be perennially indecisive.
Even as this group grows, its members continue to reassure each other of the need for versatility and flexibility in a rapidly changing world.
But these professionals’ relentless accumulation of options may have inadvertently harmed their careers and well-being, owing to three realities they may not have been aware of.
One fact is that generating options can quickly become an end in itself.
Instead of accepting that the value of creating more options has diminishing returns, many of these individuals toiled away at roles in professional-services firms, corporations and the public sector with a large (and understandable) focus on increasing the career options they could leverage once they moved on.
But by their second or third job, many had fallen into the dangerous habit of making decisions solely to increase the number of options available to them.
This strategy made it increasingly difficult for them to pursue their passions and create any real value.
The second reality is that more options make it harder to choose. Rather than closing the very doors they had dedicated their lives to prying open, many find it easier to simply defer making career decisions altogether.
Deferring a decision means you haven’t made one. Thus, some of the most talented individuals in the world find themselves stuck in an unending holding pattern.
Thirdly, the choice you make is unsatisfying. Ironically, those with more options tended to feel less satisfied with the path they were currently pursuing.
As Barry Schwartz predicts in The Paradox of Choice, these individuals are faced with a feeling of learned helplessness caused by a seemingly infinite list of choices.
The ever-increasing use of social media compounds these feelings by making it easier than ever to compare one’s life choices with those of others, which only leaves one to endlessly second-guess the decisions they have made.
In the end, we all have to choose: either to dedicate our energy to building a large but ultimately meaningless set of potential paths, or to move forward on our convictions with gusto. Those who pick the latter have the opportunity to break important new career ground.
Daniel Gulati, a technology entrepreneur based in New York, is a co-author of a new book titled Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders – The New York Times Syndicate