Dear Irrational (daughter out of the house)

April 7, 2008 BY danariely

Dear Irrational –

Our daughter graduated from college last winter and decided to move back home until she found a job. She is bright and full of potential. However, she is having trouble deciding on what kind of career she should pursue. Her problem is not that nothing interests her, it’s that she is interested in too many things and is having trouble deciding which path she should choose.

While my husband and I love her and are happy that we are able to support her, we are becoming frustrated with her indecisiveness. She has gone on several job interviews but is reluctant to accept any offers for fear that she’ll make the wrong decision.

What advice can you give us that might help her make a decision?

Thank you,

J. H, California


Dear J. H,

This is indeed a serious problem, but it does not end with your daughter’s search for a job. In fact, as the number of options and opportunities we all face increase (and they seem to increase almost every day), we all face situations similar to your daughter’s.

This problem is also known as “the problem of keeping options open.” In general we all want to have many options and opportunities available to us, and this desire is so strong that we often over-invest in keeping options open. Your daughter’s case is a prototypical example of this problem. She does not want to close any doors on her future career, and by keeping all her options open, she ends up spending all her time on searching rather than getting better at one career.

What can you do to help? First, I think we should recognize that selecting a job is a very difficult process and that there is nothing in our formal education that qualifies us to make this decision. With this in mind you should be a bit more forgiving of your daughter and try to help her systematically think about the kind of job that she will find more and less fulfilling.

In terms of adding to her motivation to find a job, I suggest that you get her to take a relatively unpleasant temp job while searching for a permanent position. First, such a job will get her out of the house and into the habit of working. Second, it will make the act of delaying the job decision more costly. Since she will be paying a price (going to a job she doesn’t really like) for every day of delay, the benefits of selecting a job quickly will seem more apparent. Finally, relative to the temp job, other jobs might all of a sudden look more attractive.

Irrationally yours,