Most of us spend a lot of time thinking about where we “should” be in our careers and lives. We squirm inwardly as we scroll through friends’ Instagram feeds full of exotic remote work locations, Tulum restaurants, and beautiful, cheeseboard-laden dinner parties.
Somewhere in this digital envy spiral, we start to beat ourselves up about how we’re not reaching our goals quickly enough. “Why haven’t I started looking for new freelance clients?” “What’s keeping me from finding a new job?”
And that’s about when a feeling starts creeping in—a fear, really—that maybe, just maybe, we can’t accomplish the growth we want. Maybe this is just who we are and what we’re stuck with.
There’s a reason why I’m making gross generalizations here about imposter syndrome, feelings of general inadequacy, peer-to-peer jealousy. That fear that you can’t change, the one that manifests as negative self-talk and unnecessary comparison to others? That isn’t just you. Science says so.
The root of all this is stress. Change—good, bad, ugly, or somewhere in-between—is inherently a stressor, and our bodies and brains are hardwired to protect us from stress.
Part of that has to do with our fear of loss. Lost time, lost money, lost social status. A pivotal 1981 study (PDF) by two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, found that when we’re presented with two options that have similar potential outcomes, but we perceive that one comes with more risk, we default to the “safer” option.
A lot of this has to do with black and white, or all-or-nothing, thinking. Human beings tend to see failure as proof that everything leading up to that moment was also a failure. As a Lifehacker article citing the same 1981 study puts it:
“When we invest ourselves emotionally in anything, it becomes harder to change because we don’t want to lose all the time and effort we already exerted. As a result, we have a hard time letting go of a project we know deep down will fail. We also struggle to end doomed relationships because we’re terrible at accepting the whole thing was for naught. In reality, time isn’t wasted, but our brains like to see the entire time as a loss rather than just a part of the inevitable conclusion.”
In an interview with Forbes, Tamar Chanksy, author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety, puts it like this:
“How we thrive is through routine and predictability. It gives a sense of control. When there are big changes, we are suddenly thrown into a state of uncertainty.”
Let’s pause for a moment on the word “uncertainty”. It’s a feeling that plays more of a roll in our fears than, until recently, we knew or understood.
A 2016 study found that it’s not the potential negative outcomes that stress us out—it’s the inherent ambiguity that lies in not knowing. The less certain we are about what will happen to us, the more miserable we are. In fact, the study found that not knowing what’s coming causes more stress than knowing, absolutely, that something bad is going to happen. When it comes to motivation, uncertainty is the big, nasty culprit behind why we consider staying in a mediocre romantic relationship or at a terrible job forever.
Despite the fact that we’re hardwired to feel stressed and panicked at even the mere thought of change and the unknown, not making changes (re: that horrible job) can and will hurt you. Again, it’s science.
In 2018, the University of Manchester completed a study of 1,000 people who were unemployed at the height of the recession (2009-2010), following their progress for several years. The researchers discovered something interesting: participants who took “poor quality” jobs were less happy than those who remained unemployed. The researchers also found that those who took poor quality jobs had “elevated risks for a range of health problems” courtesy of chronic stress.
You’re stressed if you decide to make changes in your life, you’re stressed if you stay in a job that makes you unhappy. IT’s the epitome of a Catch-22. So what do you do?
Think of it like this: while uncertainty is scary enough to make us hold onto the “certain” elements of our lives much longer than we want or should, by fully giving into uncertainty, we can actually give ourselves a motivational edge.
As an article in The Guardian puts it:
“Action is most needed when consequences are least predictable…If traffic is going well and you’re likely to get to your meeting on time, there’s no need to fret, rush and worry…But if it’s really touch and go, if your odds of making it on time approach 50%, that’s when you’ll try your hardest. And the prompt for that effort is stress.”
Like most things, stress is both a poison and, potentially, an antidote. So how do you use it as the latter? By committing to the changes you’ve been avoiding.
If you’re like most of the world and have read You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero, you may remember her story about buying a car she couldn’t afford, thereby forcing herself to create enough work and opportunity to turn into the person who could afford it.
Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you get anywhere near that daring. But if you take a few “no turning back” steps, you’ll find that uncertainty is your new best friend. Set yourself a target date when you have to quit your terrible job. Put a deposit down on the online course you’ve been considering. Put an email out announcing the launch of your new side business, even if it’s not ready yet. (Spoiler alert: it will never be ready.)
Take one step in the direction of the change you want to make, then let yourself get nervous. It will help because—you guessed it—science says so.
Huh, what? But isn’t self-assessment at the root of growth? Yes—but only to an extent. In fact, most of us do too much of it.
As psychologist Tasha Eurich puts it, “We can spend endless amounts of time in self-reflection but emerge with no more self-insight than when we started.” That’s time you could have spend enacting the change you keep talking about.
Eurich and her team also found that contrary to general consensus, those who spend the most time on self-reflection are more self-involved, more stressed, and generally feel less in control.
So, if you’re feeling like you don’t have control over what’s happening in your career or life, it might be time to do something, anything other than self-assessing.
You may think that surrounding yourself with aspirational images is a great way to keep yourself motivated, but as you might expect, too much of that will work against you. In fact, study after studyshows social media scrolling is making us feel bad, frustrated, forlorn, and generally stressed. (And notstressed in the change-motivating way!)
So, if you’re considering committing to a big change in your life in the next few weeks, go offline for a bit. You were spending too much time scrolling on your iPhone anyway. Use that time instead to update your resume, take one of our Skillcrush courses—in fact, do anything as long as it isn’t a self-criticism spiral.
There’s a reason why making small changes to your diet works better for most people than committing to a month-long, cauliflower-only detox. You don’t need to quit your job today. In fact, unless you have an emergency fund in place, that’s probably a terrible idea. But you can commit to taking a concrete step toward reaching that goal in the next few months. Often, investing some of your hard-earned income into your goals is enough to motivate you. So, reach out to a career counselor, book an appointment, and pay for it in advance. Or sign up for a course to learn the new skills you know will help you make a change. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with the stories of a few Skillcrush alums who made huge career pivots, one small step at a time.
— Kit Warchol
This story originally appeared on Skillcrush.