How Negativity Bias Can Wreck a Career Change

"The brain is like Velcro to negative experiences and Teflon to positive ones." That's how the neuropsychologist Rick Hanson describes negativity bias—a psychological phenomenon where humans tend to pay more attention to bad feedback and forget about good outcomes.

As a result, people usually overestimate the possibility that disaster will strike. This is a great survival strategy (that rock might be a bear, so I won't poke it). But it's an impractical tactic for the modern world of work (my boss might say no, so I won't even ask for that raise).

What does negativity bias have to do with my career change? One of the worst side effects of negativity bias is an unwillingness to take risks. Of course, not all risks are good for your career. But taking (smart) chances can have major payoff—especially in the increasingly volatile and competitive job market. "Tough as it is for cautious people like me to accept, if you don't occasionally take calculated gambles, you won't get ahead as quickly as those who do," writes career coach Alexandra Levit in a piece for The Wall Street Journal.

How can I take good career risks? The smartest career risks are ones with possible upsides that greatly outweigh the possible downsides. In other words, when the reward justifies the gamble.

But to clearly calculate the true riskiness of a situation, you've got to work around your negativity bias. To take the leaps you need for a great career change, try these tactics:

  • Remember that your negativity bias can make you exaggerate risks. Whatever you're planning, there's a good chance that it's actually less perilous than it seems at first glance. 
  • Think about the worst-case failure scenario: Could you survive it? In a post for Tim Ferriss's blog, Ben Casnocha and Reid Hoffman, authors of the book The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career, write: "When the worst case of a given risk means getting fired, losing a little bit of time or money, experiencing some discomfort … it is a risk you should be willing to take. By contrast, if the worst-case scenario is the serious tarnishing of your reputation or something otherwise career-ending, don't accept that risk." 
  • Take a big picture view. While your instinctive reaction to a risk may be "NO!" take a 3,000-foot view to get a true sense of the long-term rewards. In a year or five from now, will this risk potentially put you at an advantage? Perspective can take the edge off your initial response and allow you to make a more clear-headed calculation. 

Remember, even if you fail, making thoughtful gambles teaches you a vital skill: how to evaluate and handle risk. By taking leaps of faith, both small (like volunteering for a project that's outside your comfort zone) and big (like changing careers), you introduce regular unpredictability into your career. And that can increase your immunity to surprise, shock, and change.

Bottom line: to survive and thrive in your career, you've got to get used to taking risks.

Annie Favreau is the managing editor for Inside Jobs—a site that helps career changers and choosers discover strong career options + find the right education to make it happen. Follow her on Twitter @InsideJobs.

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