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Why "keeping your options open" can totally hose you.




"I'm keeping my options open."

I'm a recruiter and a career coach. I hear this phrase with ridiculous frequency. I not only despise it (for some unexplainable, very likely irrational reason), I also feel strongly that, when you take this approach with your job search, career or LIFE?

You can completely hose yourself.

Shocking, I know. Because we are culturally conditioned to believe the OPTIONS are precisely what give us FREEDOM.

And that FREEDOM is a key element of HAPPINESS.

And HAPPINESS? Well that's one of of our primary life goals, right?


The problem, however, lies in the notion that keeping ones options open usually translates into not committing to any particular at all. And when you commit to no particular path one of two things will, invariably, happen:

  1. You will do nothing.  And while you mitigate the risk of picking incorrectly when you do nothing, you also all but eliminate your shot at marked growth and success. (Two things, by the way, that are known to contribute significantly to HAPPINESS.)

  2. You will just bumble along without deliberateness. This is sort of the aimless stepsister of doing nothing. The danger of this one is that bumbling can fool you into thinking you're taking deliberate steps, and picking options. Unfortunately, if you bumble along long enough? You may well find your grey-haired self contemplating your epitaph one day ... and wondering why you never chose a definitive, loud and clear, this-is-how-the-world-is-going-to-remember-me-dammit path.


And let's not even get going on the topic of how challenging it is to properly market yourself when you're steadfastly "keeping your options open."

No, not even I, the magical fairy of resume writing, can craft a killer resume for you when you're simultaneously pursuing a project management job...and a nursing career... or thinking about maybe becoming a full-time guitar teacher ... or...

I'm a firm believer that those who realize the most success in their careers and lives are those who pick a damned option, make a plan around that option, and make a take-no-prisoners sprint at it.

Sure, give yourself a timeframe. Say, "I'm going to give this option my full attention for 60-, 90-, 365-days, whatever. And definitely make an appointment with yourself at that 60-, 90-, 365-day mark to evaluate how things are going.

But pick something. Stop diluting your efforts and your potential for huge, gratifying leaps by continually "keeping your options open."

Choose thoughtfully, absolutely. Choose well (this goes for relationships, too, by the way). But for the love of God ...

Chose. Something.

Very few things in life are irreversible. So go experiment. Play. Learn. Commit.

You may just be astounded by how far you go when you shut down a few of those options.

How about you? I'd love to hear from anyone who has picked an option ... even when it was a terrifying, uncertain choice ... and had it pay off big time. Please share your stories in the comment section below.

photo by: Flickr.com Creative Commons (Tobias Sieben)

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Reader Comments (4)

The interesting thing about making and sticking with a choice is that sometimes the result isn't immediate. I think this is what happens with a lot of people in the unemployed world. Or...maybe it's just me. Assuming it's not just me, "we" (the unemployed) find or make a choice ("okay, THIS is the type of job I'm going to try to get"), but regardless of how hard we try, we can't get that a job in that field. After enough failures, it's easy to throw your hands in the air and give up, at that point "keeping our options open" so we can get ANY job to bring ANY money in.

As someone who can't seem to get into the field I want, I find myself going back and forth between "keeping my options open" and keeping focused on what I actually want to do. So not "keeping your options open" isn't THAT easy.

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Corbett

Thanks so much for weighing in, Matt. I think the core point is that you can really dilute the efficacy of your pursuit (and I see this often with those I counsel) if you try to chase after several things all at once -- When you try to be "all things to all people," you end up being so-so at best at everything. And so, by not choosing a direction, many people end up just sort of flailing around without getting any real traction.

I completely "get" how the lack of immediate results can be frustrating (or worse, near impossible if you're about to run out of $$). It took more than a year for me to realized marked income results with JobJenny.com, in spite of the fact I was pouring many many hours of time and energy into every week.

I'm not suggesting, either, that you shouldn't change your direction ever. But I do believe giving one option your concerted effort and attention for XX amount of time tends to pay off more than trying to chase after 10 different paths at once, and just hoping one will stick.

Thanks so much for the note. And please let me know if I can be of direct support as you navigate your own search.

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJenny

How wide is too wide to cast your net? I agree that it's definitely not helpful to you or anybody else trying to help you if you say "Yeah, I'm open to being a nurse...or a building constructor...or an accountant...or a landscaper...or an NBA basketball player." That shows lack of focus, and nobody else is going to focus it for you, either. Then it's like you said, you're not honing in on anything specific, and you'll be only marginally good at any of it.

Running out of $$ is what usually gets (forces?) me to open up to any job possibilities (gotta love those 0's in your bank account...and not in a good way!). While I try to focus on what I want, family and friends encourage me to "take anything you can get at this point!" Then the guilt sets in, that you're unemployed and not bringing in any money to support your family because you're trying to keep your focus instead of "keep your options open."

I guess that's the main "gripe" (if you want to call it that) that I had about your post; the fact that there are so many factors that can push or force someone to lose focus and open up to anything. It's not just "I can't find a job and I want one!" Sometimes, yes, that's the case. Other times, there's more to it than that.

I appreciate your offer of direct support. I've been following your blog for a while (and I have your great eBook), however, and I know that you deal with clients looking for people much more experienced than I am. I'm a new(ish) college graduate looking for entry-level IT work. Maybe if you could point me towards a recruiter that had more focus on that area? You can find more information about me on LinkedIn; I left a comment on your pdxMindShare link to this blog post.

August 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Corbett

While I can't answer definitively "how wide is too wide," I can suggest that, if you have your sights set on a relatively specific role, industry or career path, it's much easier to allocate your energy and time and get traction toward that, as opposed if you're trying to allocate energy and time across 4-5 different things.

Now, I say that in recognition of what you reference above - Most of us need to have some sort of consistent income to keep the roof over our heads and everyone in the family fed. So sometimes, it's not the world's most simple answer on how to best proceed.

One thing you may consider, assuming you have your sights set on "the ideal job" but are finding the path a little lengthier than you're able to endure? Find a j-o-b job -- something that maybe comes easy to you and/or doesn't require all of your time. In doing so, you can have a consistent income and still have time and energy for activities that can lead you to the job you truly want. Again, that's not "keeping your options open" per se; that's a deliberate, strategic move designed to keep you moving toward the option you want.

As for a local (Portland) IT-oriented recruiter? Definitely introduce yourself to the folks at Edgelink. Very respected technology firm here in town.

August 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJenny

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