We like to say things like “stay true to yourself”. The reality is, we overestimate our capacity to be completely honest with ourselves. There’s a reason why diaries, meditation, and psychotherapy exist. We need to break through walls and walls before we can truly reach in to our “inner voice”. I have always believed that one of the people hardest to get to know is myself.
An example of these walls is our ability to list out reasons (note that this is different from the ability to reason). I experienced this when I went through recruiting in my sophomore and junior year in college. With a bit of preparation, it’s not too difficult to “reason out” why you are applying for a certain job. A few days of diligent reading in theory of persuasion further equip you to convince the interviewer that you are THE person for the job. The question is, is it the company for you?
There’s danger in being good at persuasion. Sometimes, you unconsciously persuade yourself as well. When your beliefs and behavior oppose each other, you are motivated to reduce the dissonance through changes in behavior or changes in beliefs. This means that as beliefs can affect behavior, behavior can also affect beliefs. Social psychologist Leon Festinger called this Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. I like to call it “internalizing the external”.
In this case, perhaps it’s not entirely about the choices you are making. Perhaps listing reasons is not the best way of evaluating whether you are making the right choice. We need to be cautious of our reasons, one of the most common I have heard is: “This is a great job. I’ll learn a lot from it, it’s a great stepping stone to success”. There’s an infinite amount of things we can learn, you can practically “learn something” everywhere, that’s why we embrace the term “lifelong education”. The truth is, we can’t learn everything, and the key is choosing what to learn. Choice implies priorities, and the best way to evaluate your current choice is to think about what you have forgo. Economists call this opportunity cost. If your opportunity cost is higher than the value of your choice, then you are by definition not being rational. To give a concrete example, if your utmost passion is making important films, or starting your own company, it doesn’t matter if you can list out hundreds of reasons why you should be an investment banker or a consultant, you are forgoing your first choice.
Life is obviously not that simple. Sometimes, we have to forgo our first choice in the short term for constraints such as financial security or lack of industry knowledge. But the key here is to be conscious of the fact that it is your second choice, and that you should avoid internalizing it to be your best choice, no matter what you tell your interviewers or your friends. Don’t compromise. No matter how compelling your status quo is, you are not living up your potential if your are forgoing something you are most driven to do.