The Career Avoidance Gene

The Career Avoidance Gene

Most American working men and women would be horrified to think that the outcome of their careers—their success or lack of it in the workplace—is the product of a genetic predisposition over which they have little or no control. After all, this is the U.S. of A., a place founded on and dedicated to the notion that we make our own fortunes.

Yes, of course, CEOs and the organizations they manage determine our employment situation at any point in time. Just look at the 100,000+ people they laid off last week. That terrible situation doesn’t change the fact, however, that in this country, more than any other on earth, we believe the direction and content of our careers are governed not by our family lineage or our social class, but by the decisions we make or don’t.

Which leads me to the recently reported results of a study conducted by researchers at the University of Konstanz in Germany. They’ve found what they think causes otherwise clear-thinking human beings to procrastinate.

Putting decisions or actions off and off and off is almost always a formula for disaster, yet countless people do it. Why? The research findings seem to suggest that our decisions don’t actually matter all that much. Instead, we appear to be the victims of a genetic predisposition, one that forces us to flounder in the face of abstractions. Said another way, we humans are much more likely to start and complete a task when it is presented in concrete terms. If we are assigned the same task but it is described as an abstraction, most of us—56% of the study participants, in fact—will be unable to get it done.

What does that have to do with careers?

Everything. It explains why so many people procrastinate about taking charge of their careers. They know they should. They know they can. But, they don’t. They see the activity involved—the tasks of career self-management—as abstractions. And, as the procrastination study reveals—that’s a paralysis pump for most human beings. It’s also the reason I call this predisposition to put off healthy career habits the “career avoidance gene.” Many, maybe even most of us, have this trait within us, and without some form of preventative medicine, it can and does harm our ability to find and hang onto a job.

If you have any doubt about that, talk to the millions of long term unemployed in this country. They’ve been out of work so long they given up on looking. Or, talk to those who now find it takes six, eight, ten months or more to find a new job and when they do, it’s at a lower salary and with less opportunity for advancement than the position they had previously.

How can you counteract the career avoidance gene? How can you get past the abstractions of career self-management and get started on the tasks of building a healthy career?

Think about your career’s health the way you think about your physical health. We all know there are certain steps we should take to maintain a healthy body. We know we should eat the right foods. Exercise regularly. Get enough sleep. We may not do all of these things, and we may not even do one of them all of the time, but if we do some of them and we do them some of the time, we know that we’ll be physically more healthy than if we don’t do anything at all.

The same is true with your career. There are specific tasks you can perform to maintain its health, whatever the state of the economy. In fact, there’s nothing abstract at all about building a healthy career. As I describe in my book, Work Strong: Your Personal Career Fitness System, these activities range from expanding your contacts in the workplace by regularly using online as well as real world professional networking resources to pacing your career momentum by taking every vacation day to which you are entitled without once turning on your Blackberry.

I call these tasks a “Career Fitness regimen” because like a physical fitness regimen, they enhance the health of your career. In fact, they address all aspects of your career and give it the strength, endurance and reach you need to achieve lasting and meaningful success. They’re also the way you control the risk associated with the career avoidance gene.

Thanks for reading,
Peter