Finding the perfect fit in your career choice has gained an almost magical aura, whether you find it straight after university, or decide to seek it out much later in life. It's like that moment when Goldilocks finds the porridge that's 'just right', or when Cinderella's foot fits perfectly into the golden slipper. Quite aside from their objectionable characters, we don't want to be like Cinderella's ugly sisters, who try to force themselves into a slipper that won't fit. As the original Grimm Brothers' version of the tale goes, one sister cuts off her toe and the other cuts off a piece of her heel in to try to make the golden slipper fit. Tellingly, when we're in the wrong career, it can also feel that we've sacrificed too much. We either just get on with it while being aware of this compromise, or we decide it's not worth it and determine to find something better.

The allegory of Cinderella is instructive. It's about finding and instating a hidden value in its "rightful place". It's also, as the ugly sisters' comeuppance suggests, about drawing a line on what compromises are worth it, and which ones might be a step too far.

Unlike fairy tales, finding the right career path requires that we "get real" and get proactive. While fairy tales have predictable endings, finding our own golden slipper requires that we actively extract ourselves from the expected storyline. John Krumboltz, a prominent career theorist, proposes that career choice often boils down to the non-choice of following the path of least resistance. When this happens, often people will:

  • Be directed by their peers, family, spouse, or school/university into a career path that they recommend;
  • Take a permanent role in a company where they had worked previously as an intern or in a temp role;
  • Follow friends or relations into the same company.

This, together with the underdevelopment of career resources in schools and in wider society, leaves individuals ill-equipped to find a career that truly suits them. Really "choosing" your career involves a careful and patient examination of oneself, which is something that society often doesn't give you the time to do. Just consider the volley of examinations that students are now subjected to. When preparing to leave university, you're often keen and/or feeling pressured to launch your working life. It's all too easy to get swept up by the most popular career options, or for prospective employers to charm you.

Further bias against actually choosing your career path comes from natural human bias against "effortful decisions". A recent UCL study finds that we tend to perceive anything challenging as less appealing. What does this suggest about career choice? Essentially, to do it properly you need to overcome an in-built prejudice towards:

  • Keeping things as they are;
  • Doing what your peers are doing; and
  • Doing what is conventional or encounters the least resistance.

So, how can you find your golden slipper? Actively get off the conveyor belt of 'what-you-are-supposed-to-do-and-what-everybody-else-is-doing'. Look around. See what else is out there. Unfortunately this partially involves stepping away from the crowd, as well as others' expectations of you. Both actions tend to be more difficult the younger you are - which is precisely when it might help the most to make good career choices.

But then again, what fairy tale hero or heroine didn't first endure trials and hardship?

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