Overcoming Career Inertia

Overcoming Career Inertia

Two years ago I entered the most significant week of my life.

A friend and I had just entered the Red Bull Basement University challenge. We had to develop an innovative product for University students and stood the chance to win mentorship and micro-funding to kickstart our idea. We tried to program a drone to fly autonomously and run basic facial recognition software.

Looking back, it was ridiculous to think that the two of us, with no significant programming experience, could pull this off. We had 6 days to build, which happened to fall in the week leading up to my final law exams.

Up until that point, I'd blindly followed the legal path, without ever questioning why I was on it. I was an A student with opportunities lined up for the following year. I remember sitting at my desk with a civil procedure textbook at one hand, and a drone at the other. One made me feel exhilarated and and optimistic about the future, and the other made me feel absolutely nothing.

We didn't win, but it was the most important week of my life because it revealed an alternative path to me. I realised that I didn't have to follow the path I was on simply because I'd been on it for so long. It was the week that I decided to leave the law and pursue a career as a software engineer.

I remember telling myself that I was insane for even thinking about making a change at such a late stage. I remember being told that I was silly to throw away all the effort I'd put in.

I'd spent 5 years laying the tracks for a career in law. Now it was time to ride them out and collect the prestige and rewards that came with it, and I decided not to.

Two years down the line and it's the best decision I've ever made. The term I use to think about this reluctance to make career changes is career inertia. I think a lot of people would be far happier, and produce far better work, if they overcame it.


What is career inertia?

Career inertia: A tendency to avoid a change in industry or role.

Overcoming career inertia and pivoting your career is hard. It's hard because it's accompanied by uncertainty and risk. It manifests itself as questions and doubts about the decision you're making. It tells you that you're being ridiculous for even thinking about making a change. It wants to force you to do the same thing you've been doing, to carry on, even if you don't like it.

Some of the questions I was asking myself:

  • "What if this doesn't work and I end up wasting the next 3 years of my life?"
  • "I'm pretty good at this (law) and can make a great career out of it, why would you change and do something you're not even sure you're good at?"
  • "A lot of accomplished people around you seem very uncertain of this decision, are you sure it's the right one?"
  • "You've put in so much effort up until this point, are you going to turn your back on all of it and start again?"

I suspect that these questions, or some derivative of them, make their way into the head of anybody considering a life-changing decision. Lots of people get caught up in these questions and never actually get past them. The uncertainty and the risk is too much to overcome, and they settle for the path they're on, convincing themselves that it's not so bad. The change they're considering becomes "something I'll do in 5 years, when I finish X."

Career Risk Is Necessary

Things in life are rarely as risky as they seem. Most people are too risk-averse, so most advice is biased towards conservative paths. The issue is that without taking risk, you can't exploit any opportunities. You can live a quiet and reasonably happy life, but you are unlikely to create something new, and you are unlikely to make your mark on the world. You're unlikely to figure out what you're really good at, and how good you really can be.

Stability is an innate human instinct. You need to deliberately counterbalance it. Taking risks and being uncomfortable is a muscle you have to train.  If you're ambitious about your career and want to achieve specific goals, you won't get there by random accident. You need to be deliberate, you need keep checking the path you're following.

Just because you have a law degree, or whatever else you worked extremely hard for, doesn’t mean that you're obligated to use it. We hold on to the old competencies and our hard-earned status roles far longer than we should. Sometimes the only way to discover what we actually want to be to is to do something new, and the path to something new requires leaving something else behind.

We tend to pick careers fairly randomly, without really thinking hard about what we like and what we're good at. We do this around the age of 18, with an incomplete understanding of ourselves and the world. My view of the world, and the role I want to play in it, has changed so radically since I was 18 that I struggle to identify with my 18 year old self at all now. How does it make sense to pursue a career I chose when I had wildly different views and ambitions? It's a shortcut to unhappiness and mediocre work.

Great Work Requires Obsession

I enjoy trying to identify great work and the ingredients that go into it. I read about people that have done great work, and technology so insanely great that it became a household name. The more you read along these lines, the more patterns and commonalities begin to emerge.

Great work appears to be a combination of many things, and the most important is obsession. People that do great work are so intensely interested in what they're doing that the world outside appears to stop. Unless you know what you want to commit yourself to, it's nearly impossible to generate the kind of obsession needed to do great work.  

Put simply: you'll never do your best work unless you figure out what you truly like and immerse yourself in it. That rarely happens by following the path you picked at random when you were 18. If you want to find what you like and what you're good at, you're going to have to take some risks to overcome the inertia that's guiding your career. You can't follow the path you're on just because inertia makes it an easy ride.

A glimpse through the history books shows that the people that did word-changing work were seldomly working on the things people told them to. Newton couldn't have developed the theory of gravity, the laws of motion (which became the basis for physics), and calculus, if he followed the norms of the time and became a farmer like his father. Imagine Ada Lovelace followed the standard path for a woman in 19th-century England instead of laying the foundations for computing today.

The world advances in leaps and bounds that rarely come from people pursuing the traditional paths laid out in front of them. People that change the world tend to create their own way through it.

Find something to be obsessed with. Find something that fascinates you, something that you can't stop thinking about. If you're pursuing something because people told you to, and in the background exists the thing you're obsessed with, you're going to die with wasted potential. You're going to die thinking that you could have done more, that you could have made a bigger difference, that you wasted your potential. And it will be true.

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