Want to Make A Change, But Not Sure What To Do Next?
It's time to start narrowing your options.
Welcome to One Thing Better. Each week, the editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine (that's me) shares one way to level up — and build a career or company you love.
Today’s one thing: Wanting something new.
That one thing, better: Actually choosing something new.
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You need a change. But you’re not sure what.
Maybe you’re unhappy at work. Or something in your life feels off.
So you have a plan: You’ll be open-minded! All options on the table! New career? New city? New life? Sky’s the limit!
And yet… now you’re unable to make a change at all. Because where do you even begin?
To which I say: Hoooooold up. Maybe being open-minded is overrated.
Before you figure out what should change, you need to figure out what shouldn’t change.
Meet someone who’s feeling this hard.
“I'm underemployed and stuck,” a woman named Melissa told me.
She loves nature and working with her hands, so she got a job on a farm. But she totally hates it. She feels under-utilized and under-appreciated.
It’s gotten her thinking: Maybe she was wrong. Maybe farming sucks. Maybe working in nature sucks! Maybe she should quit and do… something else.
“Maybe learn a skilled trade like iron working,” she said. “Or I guess I can start a business myself. And I have a goal of owning my own farm.”
But she doesn’t know which decision is right. So she’s still working that job she hates.
“What should I do?” she asked.
I said she’s created a problem for herself:
You really can have too much choice.
In theory, we like choice. Who doesn’t want more options?
But Columbia Business School professor Sheena S. Iyengar has a great phrase to consider: choice overload. It is a real thing — and potentially paralyzing.
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In one famous study, Iyengar’s research assistants posed as employees of a fancy jelly company, and set up a sampling table at an upscale grocery store on two Saturdays. Every hour, they alternated how many jellies were available to sample. One hour, they offered 6 flavors of jelly. The next, they offered 24 flavors.
All the while, they tracked how customers reacted.
The results: The 24 jellies attracted more people — 60% of shoppers stopped to taste them, compared to only 40% who stopped for the smaller amount of jellies.
But when it came to actually buying jelly, things were different. Of the people who stopped for a sample, only 3% bought anything from larger group of jellies. However, 30% of people bought from the smaller group.
What happened? People had so many choices that they simply could not choose. The choices became noise, and they had no way to filter it.
Many other studies have confirmed this — but usually, these studies are about products and marketing.
And yet... what if we also do this to ourselves? What if we give ourselves too much choice?
Let’s narrow things down.
Melissa says she’s open to anything. But what if that’s her big problem?
“You have conceptually opened yourself up to changing every single factor in your life,” I told her on my podcast Help Wanted. “As a result, it’s impossible to figure out what to do.”
After all, Melissa’s real problem isn’t this farm job. It’s that she doesn’t know what work will make her happy. That is what she needs to solve for — and you can’t troubleshoot a problem by changing every factor all at once. Nobody fixes a computer by replacing every part simultaneously! You must change one thing, run a test, and then change another.
So let’s do that for ourselves — which means treating ourselves like a troubleshooting project.
To do this, you need to ask yourself what’s fixed and what’s variable.
FIXED QUESTION: What will you keep the same?
Not sure? Start by keeping the stuff you’d miss the most. Melissa, for example, loves where she lives. She also loves the outdoors. Great! They’re keepers.
VARIABLE QUESTION: What can change, given your new limitations?
When I asked Melissa that, her mind shifted. Instead of thinking about endless, abstract options, she started focusing on outdoor jobs within driving distance of her home. And it reminded her of things she overlooked — a watercress farm that just posted a job, and a forestry position she’d once considered.
Awesome. Every new option can now be treated as its own experiment. She can, for example, pursue a job at the watercress farm — and if she doesn’t like it, she can find another outdoorsy job nearby.
Less literally is now more.
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Do you see what happened? When we limit our options, we allow ourselves to evaluate those options more realistically.
Does this mean we’ve limited our options forever? No! Because that’s not how experiments work.
With Melissa, for example, one of two things will happen:
Option 1: She’ll find something she loves.
Success! She can now pursue that path, until it’s time to make another change.
Option 2: She’ll exhaust all her options.
There are infinite jobs in the world. But there’s a limited number of outdoorsy jobs within driving distance of her home. So it’s possible that she’ll either try and hate them all, or decide she’s had enough.
Either way, that isn’t failure. It’s just a potential outcome in a troubleshooting experiment.
And there’s a natural solution: She can now create another variable.
Melissa said she wanted to work in the outdoors, and wanted to stay where she lives. One of those would now change. She can pick. If she’s giving up on the outdoors, she can start looking at a whole new set of local jobs. If she’s giving up on location, she can now look for outdoorsy jobs in a wide range of places.
Either way, she retains the most important element — and that’s the ability to focus.
Here is the great paradox of our lives:
If you’re too open-minded, you won’t explore the options you’re supposedly open to. You’ll be too overwhelmed to start.
I’ve heard this problem so many times, in so many ways. People are willing to do anything to be happier, but they do nothing instead. It’s because change is both exhilarating and terrifying — and sometimes, when we desire change the most, we’re unable to see the change we really need.
We can’t explore too many options at once. It’s too much noise. Too much chaos. So tell yourself this: I am willing to explore beyond my boundaries. I am willing to push myself. That is good. I’ll be stronger because of it. But it won’t happen all at once. It’ll happen in steps. And right now, what I really need is to take that first step. Which means I need to stop gazing into a vast unknown future, and look down at where my feet are going. Where can I step first? What is within reach?
Then go there. The next step will come next.
That’s how to do one thing better.
P.S. Miss last week’s newsletter? It was about how to stay focused when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Read it!
P.P.S. You can hear my conversation with Melissa (that I wrote about above). It happened on my podcast Help Wanted. Listen!
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