Free Will, Choice, and Discovery on the Career Voyage

By Eric Anderson

John Krumboltz wrote that “Each individual has a choice of what is satisfying” (Krumboltz, 2009). This sounds right, but based on my experience, I think the statement reveals a common misconception.  I believe that we have no control over what is satisfying to us, even though it intuitively seems that we do.  Free Will is more limited than we imagine.  And paradoxically, that limitation can be liberating.  

One way that we unconsciously focus on Free Will in our work with clients is through the power and control contained in the words “choose” and “choice”.  We use these words all the time.  For years, I taught a course called “Choosing a Major”, and I currently encourage my clients (primarily college students) to use our “How to Choose a Major and a Career” booklet.  “Choosing” makes sense to us and to our clients, perhaps in part because we believe in Free Will and “freedom of choice” in an environment and culture where no one can tell us what we must choose.  We dislike limits.  When talking about career and job options, clients often tell me, “I don’t want to limit my options.”  

But maybe it is time to limit our obsession with “choice”.  In addition to research demonstrating that we’re happier when our choices are limited (Tugend, 2010), the reality is that there are parts of our lives that we can’t control; there are parts that we really can’t “choose”.  

Here’s something simple you can do that might help illustrate this idea.  Start by folding your arms, like this:  

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When you fold your arms like this, one of your hands is always tucked inside the other arm.  Make a mental note of which one it is for you.  

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Next, unfold your arms and place them in your lap, or let them hang at your side.
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Then REFOLD your arms with the OTHER hand tucked in.

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For most people, this is a different experience.  This new way feels awkward, odd, and uncomfortable – it’s not a good fit.  And the way you folded your arms the first time felt a certain way too – normal, natural, and you did it without thinking – it was a good fit. If I invite you to fold your arms either way (now that you’re aware of the alternatives) and if you indeed fold your arms -- that’s what it feels like to “choose”.  

You choose lots of things: pizza toppings, friends, hobbies, careers, smartphone apps.  But – and I think this is important – you either like something or you don’t.  You choose and control your actions, but not your feelings.  

You can choose to eat a chocolate chip cookie or a butterscotch oatmeal cookie (or neither), but…
You are not free to choose which kind of cookie you like better.

You can choose to spend time with (or even commit to) someone who doesn’t really appeal to you, but…
You are not free to choose who you fall in love with.

You can choose to play golf even if you don’t enjoy it, but…
You are not free to choose which activities interest you.

You can choose a career that you don’t like, for security or status or because it’s easy, or some other reason, but…
You are not free to choose which career appeals to you more.

You can choose to do something that you like less, but you can’t choose to like it more than you do.  

You are not free to choose which feels better, which feels more natural, or which feels like a good fit.  Instead of choice, these are acts of discovery, like when you discovered your preferred way of folding your arms.

Choosing is an act of control, of judging, of believing that we know the right way, or that we are making the right decision.  Discovery is an act of exploratory mystery.  There’s nothing wrong with making choices, but there might be something wrong when we emphasize choice to clients without emphasizing discovery to them.  Here’s why:  The words “choose” and “choice” carry with them a subliminal negativity.  I often hear my students say that they don’t want to choose the “wrong” major or choose the “wrong” career, or make the “wrong” choice.  And that is revealing.  Since clients are often afraid of making a wrong choice, they reveal that choosing is, at least sometimes, about fear.

On the other hand, interestingly, clients don’t say that they’re afraid of making the wrong discovery about their fit with a major or a career. When they discover the “right fit” they’re uncovering something that simply “is”, so saying that it’s right or wrong makes no sense. The arm-folding exercise has helped my clients become aware of this limitation to Free Will choice, and has resulted, perhaps paradoxically, in their feeling free to respond authentically.

In our clients’ life journeys, discovering “the right fit” is an authentic response to who they are.  This “right fit” is what we sometimes refer to as their calling, or vocation.  They have no control (no choice and no Free Will) over their callings.  The only way they can find their callings is by discovering or uncovering them.  
It’s also important to remember that self-discovery is about continued exploration.  If clients (especially my younger students) choose their direction and then never consider other options, or if they judge their choices to be the right decisions and then never re-evaluate, they limit themselves.  But if clients keep trying new experiences (keep on folding their arms in new ways, so to speak) then they open themselves to discovering changes in their callings that emerge as they grow and develop.  

We don’t think much about the difference between choosing and discovering (and their relationship to Free Will), but we should.  When we encourage clients to begin their occupational voyages with discoveries before they make a Free Will choice, we improve their chances of finding the right fit.  
Clients’ belief in unequivocal Free Will confines them.  Here’s how we can set them free:
1.    Listen for clues that they are ready to work on this.
“I have so many possibilities to choose from!”
“I want to know which will be the best choice.”
“How do I figure out the right major/career for me?”

2.    Show them the arm-folding exercise.  It’s important to provide a personal, visceral experience.

3.    Illustrate the everyday life examples of things we like, but cannot choose to like (food, love, hobbies).

4.    Explain that similar to the arm-folding example, “fit” is something that they cannot choose. They either like something or they don’t.

The only way to discover “fit” is through experience, by trying out some possibilities.  And there are no “wrong” discoveries.  Clients must take risks, try things, and pay attention to their reactions.  They must pay attention to reactions that are beyond their control.

We can teach clients that choice is not “all that”.  By embracing the discovery of what is intrinsically “us”, and is beyond our Free Will to choose, we can free clients from their anxiety, fear, and perceived responsibility of “choosing” things that are outside of the domain of Free Will.  

Helping clients remain awake and aware in all areas of their lives will lead them to uncover and discover the mystery of “fit” and the liberation of discovering their callings and vocations as they continue the process of becoming more completely who they are.

Gazzaniga, Michael S. Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.  (Author’s Note: This book informed much of my thinking on Free Will.)

Krumboltz, J. D. (2009). The Happenstance Learning Theory. Journal of Career Assessment, 17, 135-154.

Tegund, A. (2010, February 26). Too Many Choices: A problem that can paralyze. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/27/your-money/27shortcuts.html?_r=0

Eric Anderson 2014Eric Anderson is the Director of Career Development at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, and has over 23 years of experience in career development.  His articles and conference presentations include “A Practical 'Happenstance' or 'Voyage' Exercise” (2014), “Stop Saying Career “Path”!” (2013) and “The future is actually behind us: why chaos and happenstance theories are counterintuitive” (2012). Eric can be reached at eanderson@capital.edu, and you can find some of his other work at www.capital.edu/careerdevelopment.

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Norman Amundson   on Sunday 02/01/2015 at 04:33 PM

Eric, I always love these short "thought" pieces that you put together. The discovery of "calling" and "fit" are a much better way of discussing the career voyage. Thanks for this!

Dr Margaret New   on Sunday 02/01/2015 at 05:22 PM

I am a John Krumboltz devotee so I loved that you referenced him - I will try your exercises. Thank you.
Margaret "Maggie" New

Estelle Sanzenbacher   on Monday 02/02/2015 at 09:51 AM

This is a great article and I think in this hurried world it is a great reminder that it is a discovery and not a quick choice.

Beth Brown   on Monday 02/02/2015 at 10:18 AM

Shifting to the idea and term of "discovering" opened up a whole new concept for me to engage existing an potential students. Thank you.

Irene Hillman   on Monday 02/02/2015 at 01:13 PM

Your article really left an impact on me. There is power in words and you helped me recognize the nature of "choice". I will think twice about verbiage for our career development center as a result. As you say, limitation in this case is quite liberating and will help students recognize that choice doesn't have to be hard!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.