We often face choices where it's hard to know which is right, especially if we can’t see very far down the path. Understanding the level of commitment required for a path can help you explore career options at minimal cost.
In life, oftentimes the most important thing to do is to get just started. Projects get delayed because of analysis paralysis. Careers get put on hold because of uncertainty as to where to start, or lack of confidence or clarity in the path forward. Starting down the path can help you reduce uncertainty, but there is a cost. Understanding that cost is key to help you decide if and when to go down it. It comes down to how committed you need to be to the path and equally important, how much commitment that path requires from you.
Let’s start with a job. A college student taking a summer internship isn’t a big commitment. I sometimes advise my students who are struggling to decide between two very different jobs to take the one that seems less interesting. They may find they like it more than they thought. If they do find that it’s not right for them, it only costs them a few weeks one summer. Contract work is also fairly flexible, typically lasting weeks to months. While most jobs these days are at-will, meaning either side can end it at any time, you don’t want to be seen as changing jobs every six months (unless you’re a direct freelancer). When you take a job you’re generally “committing” for a few years, unlike consulting, or an internship.
What about some new business idea you have? Taking money from investors commits you. You have legally and morally promised to put your energy into giving them a good return. Investing tens of thousands of your own dollars commits you. If you rent a storefront you’re stuck in that lease. On the other hand, if there’s a way to invest maybe a few hundred dollars into a venture, it’s easier to walk away if you change your mind. This is one reason so many people start online businesses, there’s little overhead: no rent, no need to staff a store from 9am to 7pm every day, no insurance overhead, etc. The lower costs and overall lower commitment (not having to work the store daily) give you some flexibility to try it out, and, equally importantly, to walk away anytime. You can drop an online store easier than getting out of a lease.
Ideally you would start the venture with a limited investment of time and money and test the market. You’d see if customers like your product or service, or if it needs to be adjusted. You can also try out different marketing techniques and other ideas. It’s cheaper to change the name on a website than to change the name on a storefront. This path has a lower level of commitment, making it easier to change paths or abandon it altogether.
Within a company the same applies to a project. Sometimes you’re just not sure which direction to go in. To avoid analysis paralysis, you can start down a path with low commitment. This may mean sketching out ideas or building prototypes. Once you begin to make a serious investment, it’s harder to get off that path. The investment could be purchasing inventory, capital expenditures, partnerships, or other contracts that you can’t easily get out of.
One other point to consider is adjacent paths. Maybe you did buy a lot of inventory, but that inventory can be used in three different ways. Suppose you could build one of five product lines, but this inventory would be necessary for four of them. Now you haven’t committed to a single path, but to a set of paths, and you can settle on a final path later when you have more information. It’s similar to management training programs at a company where you rotate through groups for a year before settling in a role. You have committed to a company (forsaking others), but not yet a specific job at that company.
When faced with multiple options or uncertainty about a particular path it can help to consider the level of commitment. It can be hard to choose among many options or to begin down a path where you can’t see very far ahead. By understanding the level of commitment required for the path, both the cost of being on that path and the ability to go back or two switch, you can begin to explore an option without feeling locked in.
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