When Faced with Two Career Choices, Consider Option Three

Making any kind of important life choice is hard. What if you could make decisions easier simply by thinking about them differently?

We humans tend to gravitate toward binary choices. Yes or no. This or that. Now or later. Stay or go. But career coach Rebekah Layton says that trying what she calls “the three doors exercise” can help you get unstuck. Usually, she writes, you’re face with “two perhaps seemingly diametrically opposed options. Usually, neither of those choices feels like the clear right answer — or, in some cases, they both feel like the right answer. While you can certainly employ as many doors as needed to imagine other options, for most people, doors one and two are easy to imagine.”

Going to graduate school or looking for a job. Move to an apartment that’s closer to work and more expensive or stay put with lower rent but a longer commute. Accepting a promotion that doesn’t seem very appealing or staying in the position you love.

You may be forgetting that the official dictionary definition of choice is “an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities.” You may have more choices than you think. Rebekah Layton says “[Your choices] are actually false dichotomies, or if they are truly dichotomous choices, at least one or more other choices aren’t being actively considered.”

Layton suggests that you consider your choices individually to examine the pros and cons of each. What appeals to you about choice #1? What are the downsides, if any? Then do the same for choice #2.

When Layton is coaching someone through this process, she’ll then ask them “What does choice #3 look like?” She can usually see the wheels start turning as her client opens up to the possibility of a third way. What if you could find a company to work for that supports ongoing education and offers tuition reimbursement? Could you ask about the possibility of obtaining your MBA after a year or so on the job?

How long would it take you to break even after the expense of moving, changing your utilities, and paying a higher initial deposit and first month’s rent? What if you could ask to work remotely instead of commuting a couple of days a week? Or most of the time? Could cutting your commuting time and cost by 20 – 50 percent make it more acceptable to stay in your current apartment?

Could you ask your manager of you could assume some of the duties of the new position but keep the job you love? Could you create a hybrid position that combines the most essential functions of the new role while allowing you to use your expertise in your specialty? If it’s just the increase salary that appeals to you, could you negotiate more money in your current role or look for a new job somewhere else that offers more?

Once you accept that there may be more than just two possibilities, you can start to research, explore, or imagine ways you can have the best of both worlds. You may even come upon a new possibility you didn’t know existed.

You might benefit from doing this exercise with a trusted friend or family member, especially someone who doesn’t know much about the details. I say that because you don’t want someone who thinks the same way you do about your situation and your choices. It can be helpful for someone to look at your situation with fresh perspective and ask naïve questions, like “why couldn’t you do that?”

The Decision Education Foundation has a mission to help people and organizations make better, more informed decisions. In the organization’s bog, they cite the pitfalls that block people from finding creative alternatives to consider.   

  • Assuming no alternatives exist
  • Getting bogged down – too many alternatives, too many minor variations
  • Considering alternatives that are not doable
  • Accepting unnecessary limits to alternatives
  • Forgetting the “do nothing” alternative. Don’t forget that you could simply keep things as they are.

Next time you have to make a choice between two options, consider option three instead.

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