Career Choice Dismantled

Inspired by providing career coaching these past few weeks for the latest batch of MBAs at INSEAD, I’d like to dedicate this post to the challenges of career choice.  In our modern society, we have great freedom to choose our path, which can create great stress for people who want to make the ‘right’ choices.  The problem is there are no ‘right’ choices.  There are too many variables at stake – too much we don’t know and too much we can’t know.

That being said, although we can’t plan, we can still manage our careers.  There are decisions to be made – and if we want to be satisfied with our professional lives, then the decisions must be made as much by our hearts as our heads.  That requires a good deal of self-awareness, as well as awareness of the possibilities around us. We can’t rely on other people’s advice because it comes from the lens of what they value.  To make a choice that allows you to thrive, you need to understand what you value.

What drives your career choices?

Each person has his/her own constellation of wants and needs when it comes to a career.  Some pieces of the puzzle we know consciously, while others are more intuitive.  So, when I ask people about the factors that influence their career choices, of course I hear many different things.  The broad range of criteria, however, seem to converge around three themes:

Some talk about the money, the perks or prestige; the lifestyle or family considerations, or the network they will gain from the job. I call these ‘external’ drivers for a career.  Although they are the most often cited reasons for choosing between options, our success and fulfilment are usually not driven by these factors that come from outside of us.

Some talk about the nature of the work responsibilities they enjoy having or would like to have. For example, they were trained as engineers but no longer want to be in engineering; they want to learn about financial management or marketing consumer products. They want to be managing people or defining strategy.  I put these in the ‘expertise’ bucket – the skills and knowledge they have or want to build.

Some talk about the goal of being satisfied and happy, being in a job that honours their values and where they can do things that interest them at work. I call these the ‘enthusiasm’ drivers.  Feeling positive and in ‘flow’ in our professional life becomes more and more important over our careers especially for those who focused on jumping through the hoops set by the outside world and realise that something is still missing.

How can you choose a career in which you thrive?

Here is what I have observed over the years, it’s not sustainable to focus on only one or two of the dimensions. Think about the person who is good at his well-paid job but is miserable every day (satisfying expertise and external but not enthusiasm); or the keen entrepreneur who makes a technically brilliant product but can’t drum up demand (satisfying enthusiasm and expertise but not external); or the person who gets the promotion into an exciting new area that is way out of his depth (satisfying enthusiasm and external but not expertise).

‘Thriving’ happens when you honour all three dimensions:

  • Enthusiasm – honour your values at work and do things that interest you
  • Expertise – develop the skills and knowledge that allow you to be really good at what you do
  • External – have enough opportunities and rewards both professionally and personally

It is indeed hard to get all three – and that is probably why many people are not thriving in their professional lives.   The framework is not intended to be a yardstick by which all job postings are measured, rather a way to notice our blind spots and remind us to bring to consciousness a more complete understanding of what brings us balance.

Can you find your Triple-E Spot?

Think about where you stand on each of these dimensions today.  Have you only been building on one or two of the dimensions?   What changes can you make that will bring you closer to the centre?  By identifying the factors that are most important to you across all of the dimensions, it can allow you to make sense of where things aren’t working and where you need to refine and make adjustments.

You can begin by some introspection about what you value in different possibilities for yourself.  Check your assumptions to strip away the things you think you ‘should’ value, and stick with the things that really do make you thrive.  Make small forays to try out the missing dimensions in your life and see what you can learn about yourself and your possibilities.  Finding your ‘triple E’ spot can be elusive and impermanent, but it is the process of searching that can put you on the right path.

I’ll be exploring these career transition topics in the next few posts.  I’d love to hear about how these dimensions have played a role in your career decisions.

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8 thoughts on “Career Choice Dismantled

  1. Abel says:

    Hi Katherine,
    Thank you for this excellent and insightful post. I believe I have been applying this little framework intuitively but seeing it here precisely summarised is a great help. Following my MBA experience, which included good coaching sessions, I decided to operationalise Hermina Ibarra’s book Working Identity which I believe also touches on these themes. The result has been very rewarding. I call it career and life management by design rather than career random path by default. A question I have is whether certain dimensions are overweighted in certain stages of your career. A headhunter once observed that typical successful careers go through 3 phases:
    1. Experience Phase – Stresses building up expertise and knowledge (stresses expertise dimension)
    2. Leadership Phase – stresses leading others which brings status and rewards (stresses expertise and external dimensions)
    3. Freedom Phase – you have become so valuable you can dictate terms and more or less choose what you want to do and not do (stresses all three – Thriving)
    So can we thrive from day one or is there a certain cycle we have to go through before we hit the triple-E sweet spot?

    Looking forward to your next post



    • coachkpk says:

      That’s a great comment Abel, thanks! Yes indeed we go through phases, choosing to emphasize one ‘circle’ over another. The headhunter has summed up well the three phases of the typical path in a business career. (A similar ‘life phase’ discussion is in Nicholas Weiler’s Your Soul at Work:

      Certainly the MBAs struggle with choices that have them jumping through external hoops at a critical stage in their career. The challenge is to choose a path that can eventually lead them back to the centerpoint. I’ve encountered many a middle-aged manager who has developed too much expertise in a field they don’t want to continue but are too ‘successful’ to start all over again. Their choices have created too much divergence between their external and internal drivers. They’ve painted themselves into a corner. This framework is a reminder to be aware of the trade-offs so we can keep vigilant as we move through our career.

      Yes people can thrive from Day 1 – but we usually need to make a few mistakes to learn what we really want. I would say that the people who thrive as leaders, for example, are the people who don’t experience the leadership phase as a trade-off…

  2. Veit Dengler says:

    Abel has a good point; this is also driven by the way we recruit and look for jobs. As candidates, we are quick to look at external factors, and the whole interview/assessment process is around teasing out whether the candidate has the right background, talents and skills. In all my hundreds of interviews, I don’t remember a single candidate asking me in detail about factors which would shape his or her enthusiasm – what culture the company or my team has, how we reward and sanction, what behavior is and is not encouraged etc. I think one step to find the triple E spot (great branding; I will skip all the obvious juvenile similes… ;), is to try to get to it earlier in your career, e.g. by starting to ask the right questions.

    • coachkpk says:

      So true Veit. The company is looking for expertise. The negotiation is over external issues. It is up to the candidate to check in as to whether the enthusiasm factors are being met. They can only ask the right questions if they are self-aware enough to know the desired answers. (Glad you like the ‘branding’ too. :))

  3. tedkaiser says:

    Very useful model Kate – I’ll be applying that to improve my own career management – thanks!!

  4. sandrine says:

    Dear Kate,

    Thanks a lot for this interesting post.
    Je me reconnais également dans ce shéma. Il me semble que ces variables évoluent au cours de notre vie. Car j’étais très probablement plus “external” hier et je deviens de plus en plus “enthusiasm”.
    See you soon

  5. Bill Magill says:


    I love your piece and the diagram. Your spot on I think, we tend to focus on 1 of these 3 elements instead of more holistically. I’ve been guilty of this many times. Why didn’t I have someone like you to give me direction when I was 30???


  6. Hh says:

    Your Triple E framework actually mirrors that of Jim Collins’ “Hedgehog Concept” presented in his book Good to Great. I think it is highly applicable to how companies and individuals maximise their full potential.

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