Why Do We Care What Others Think About Our Work Choices?

You may be surprised to read this, but I am often in conversations with people struggling to make sense of work. Yup, a real shocker. I’m a career coach. And I have a reputation for counseling people about their professional options. It often happens on flights, trains or even at the grocery store. I’m a particular sucker for delving in when somebody says their job situation is “fine.” 

Why do we care what others thinkI happened to share a recent interaction with a friend on LinkedIn and was surprised by the tens of thousands of people with whom it resonated. This isn’t a humblebrag, either.

In brief, she reached out via email to update me about her life. We met when I was on an advising trip on the east coast and I was immediately struck by her intelligence and good humor. However, the note she sent began by apologizing for not having made progress on having an “exciting or impressive” job now. 

She continued telling me that over the course of interviewing she realized that nothing was more meaningful to her now than being a caretaker to her children. That's a great realization, and awesome if you are in a position financially to make it work. Furthermore, she decided to invest in herself and take writing classes to pursue a goal of writing a book. 

To me this is not the stuff of apology, but of celebration. She had decided based on her criteria, a dream to write a book and an opportunity to grow. She could have easily said that she had decided to continue as a stay-at-home parent and invest in writing the novel. 

So, why apologize? She thought somehow others, including me, might have found her decision disappointing. 

She’s not as unusual as I wish she were, and I hope you don’t fall into the trap of worrying too much about what other people think in your job reflection. 

Many of us struggle with not measuring up to what we think our parents, friends, family, classmates, and former colleagues expect of us professionally. That space inside our head of how we’ve disappointed others can be crowded. And remember, most people are actually preoccupied with when that package from Amazon was due to arrive, or if today or tomorrow is the two-for-one taco special.

Yup, too busy with their own lives to give that much attention to yours. 

And what of the ones who might be paying attention to what you are doing? Those who truly care about you are persuadable when you share with them the thoughtful rationale of why any given choice is right for you, now. In my experience, most people love it when someone has decided based on their current goals. Yup, that squarely places responsibility on YOU to do the work of figuring out the why. I’m never going to absolve you of that. 

Now, what about those frenemies out there? If you’ve ample proof to designate someone that status Why, WHY, WHY do you care what they think? These are not your supporters. These are people who may make more of an effort to fake niceness based on titular success but aren’t important in your overall life and therefore should be purged from the list of people who you consider. 

I understand in a very personal way this phenomenon. I also care too much what other people think. That’s why I can tell people I’m coaching that it doesn’t matter. Because I get it. Those thoughts come and go. The point is to let them go. Not hold on and feed them. 

It is smart to regularly question yourself about your goals in your personal and professional life. Then take the actions that will make them achievable. If you have found yourself recently “right-sizing” from Head Justice of the Supreme Court to owner of the highest volume Ben & Jerry’s in Worcester who spends weekends at scrabble tournaments, more power to you. As long as you can make that case to yourself, and the people whose opinion about work matters most to you. Sometimes we choose ice-cream and regional gaming trips over law school and the quest for history. And sometimes, that’s the right choice.

It would be great if all of us could be less judgmental of others’ career choices, too. 

The measure of our work and life is not in impressing others with your role or title.  

Rather, it is about choosing the life and work that would be most fulfilling to you and making it happen. I would rather you be the happiest scooper of Rocky Road always aiming to get your X on the triple letter score, than a burnt-out judge. 

Never apologize because your fulfilling work & life don't meet the standards that you presume others have in mind for you. Spend the energy on figuring out what you want, and let’s pursue it. 

Russ Finkelstein is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor.  A career coach, social entrepreneur and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and his new book, "Let's Sort Out Your Career Mess, Together..." is forthcoming in 2021. 

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