How often do we take a critical look at where we are professionally and ask ourselves if the job we are doing is the one we really want? Art Markman, Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, maintains that we should be reflecting on our working lives at least once a year. Despite the fact that a full-time job will take up around 70,000 hours over our lifetimes, we rarely take this time to reflect. Yet this is exactly what we should be doing to ensure we are happy with our jobs. Markman has written a book on this very topic - “Bring Your Brain to Work. Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do It Well, and Advance you Career” where he explains how cognitive science - the group of disciplines that aim to show how the brain works - can really help us to better understand ourselves and those around us. Of course, it will also help us take those three steps listed in the title of the book: get a job, do it well and advance your career by applying simple yet effective psychological stratagems. To find out more, we spoke with the author himself.
Who should read your book?
Anyone who wants to try and take a different approach to their career. People who are just taking their first steps into the world of work will learn how cognitive science can give them a different perspective when applying for jobs. It gives advice on how both employees and leaders can be more productive over the whole of their working life. It’s for anyone who wants to feel more positive about their career - the chapters dedicated to finding a new job provide lots of fresh information on the topic.
Is it true that people don’t question themselves enough because they are too busy or because they prefer to avoid answering difficult questions? Or perhaps for both reasons?
The modern workplace doesn’t allow much time for reflection. In many companies, the annual performance reviews leave little space for self-analysis. As a result, people are not encouraged to take a closer look at which aspects of their career give them the greatest satisfaction. It’s a pity that we don’t encourage people to reflect more deeply on how satisfied they are with their jobs - especially if you think that over our careers, each one of us will spend around 70,000 hours at work.
What are the most important questions we should be asking ourselves?
One key question is about our basic values. We are usually more satisfied with a job that allows us to express deeply held values. Some people appreciate the opportunity to serve their communities. Others enjoy the traditions of the company where they are working. Still others appreciate success and progress. Our values can also change over time, so people should assess whether a job that previously satisfied them still reflects their priorities today.
A second key question is how we feel about the mission of the organisation we are working for. A good deal of research suggests that people feel better about their job when they believe that it is an expression of something greater than simply a series of tasks. This greater purpose allows people to see their job more like a ‘calling’ rather than just a source of income.
We should also be asking ourselves if our roles give us the chance to build on our knowledge and skills. For many people the challenge of learning something new is a very exciting part of their professional life.
Be more aware of how you feel in the morning and at the end of your working week. If you don’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning and you can’t wait for the weekend, then you are probably not on a career path that meets your needs.
How do we know if we are in the right job?
Your career needs to align with your basic values for you to feel good about it. You probably feel good about your career path when the job you are doing suits your underlying personality. If you are the kind of person who needs a lot of social interaction, for instance, then you might find it difficult to feel at ease in a job where you spend most of the day alone. By the same token, if you enjoy being creative at work then you might struggle to feel engaged in repetitive tasks for the whole day.
Be more aware of how you feel in the morning and at the end of your working week. If you don’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning and you can’t wait for the weekend, then you are probably not on a career path that meets your needs. With the amount of time you spend at work during your lifetime, it’s well worth trying to gain satisfaction from what you do.
What’s the best way to analyse your weaknesses and ambitions and then to act on them?
Start off by looking for the sources of the systematic failures in your life. What goals did you really want to reach at work but failed to do so? Those systematic failures are a sign that you could lack certain skills or that you were not able to focus your work on those goals.
It is not always easy to identify what you need to improve to make sure you reach your goals. So, it’s really important to find yourself mentors who can help you to recognise which skills you need to improve and suggest how you can overcome your weaknesses. The best way to find a mentor is to look for people in your organisation or in your community who have achieved success as you define it, get in touch with them and ask for their help.
How can cognitive science help us to reach our goals?
One of the things that cognitive science teaches us is ‘imposter syndrome’. This happens when you convince yourself that you are not qualified for the role you have been hired for. When people suffer from imposter syndrome, they are reluctant to face up to their weaknesses because they think that if others notice those weaknesses, then this would mean that they are not fit for the job. Unfortunately, if we don’t face up to our weaknesses then we are unlikely to be able to fill the gaps in our knowledge and improve performance.
One of the main reasons why imposter syndrome occurs is that we judge others based on their behaviour only, simply because we cannot know what they are thinking and feeling. As we do not see other people’s insecurities, it’s easy for each one of us to come to the conclusion that we are the only ones to have doubts. Once we realise that everyone needs to acquire new skills to carry out our jobs, then it will become easier to admit to our weaknesses and ask for help.
The illusion of control often leads us to overestimate our chances when applying for a job.
What three key pieces of advice would you give to someone looking to improve their working life?
One important tip is to set aside time every week to learn something new. Don’t limit yourself to finding out those things that can help you in your job today, but go beyond and learn things that do not appear to be related to your current job. The most creative people have a very broad knowledge base and they know how to draw on it to solve problems. You never know when something you’ve learnt can help you solve a problem at work.
Secondly, take the time to improve your social skills. Even if your job is highly technical, many of the most difficult problems you will have to deal with at work arise from conflict between people. The better our collaboration with others and the greater our ability to form a team to overcome tough problems, then the higher are our chances of success.
Thirdly, if there’s something you need at work, ask for it. People so often assume that their superiors know exactly what their direct reports need to be successful. However, your wishes and needs are not always obvious for the rest of the world to see. If there is something you need to do your job better, then ask for it. The worst that can happen is that your boss says he can’t help you right now.
How can we deal with external factors – age, a tough job market, qualifications – if we want to change jobs?
There’s a lot of chance involved. You always need to apply for a far larger number of jobs than you think because employers often advertise jobs for which they already have someone in mind, but they still have to run an interview process. The illusion of control often leads us to overestimate our chances when applying for a job.
Another key factor in getting a new job is that it is often easier when you know someone in the company you are applying to. If you have lost your job or are not getting any younger, then you need to stay in touch with the working world and keep those personal contacts. It’s tempting to imagine that you can apply for jobs while you sit at home and find things to keep yourself busy. But it is much more useful if you volunteer at a government, civil or charitable organisation. These voluntary roles will bring you into contact with a lot of people and some of them could be looking to hire.
What’s more, be bold when you think of the skills you bring to the workplace. We so often focus more on hard skills. But if you have other key soft or organisation skills, then look for jobs where you can apply your experience and knowledge. You could find yourself contributing to an organisation in many ways, not just by doing jobs similar to those you’ve held in the past.
Is this advice also applicable to students?
There’s always been a lot of pressure for university students to focus mainly on technical or business skills. As a result, students shy away from humanistic studies, social and cognitive sciences. However, after 10 years, Arts graduates earn as much (and sometimes even more) than Finance graduates. This is because humanistic studies, social and cognitive sciences provide students with a perspective on how individuals, groups and cultures function. To be successful, students should build on their technical and business skills by seeking to understand people better.
Remember that everybody has a brain, yet very few people know how the brain works. The more you learn about how you and other people think, the better you will be at dealing with the complex problems that are part of any professional career.