I spent 18 months making a decision; here’s what I learned — The Pac-Man approach.
Like many others, I didn’t know what to do after my graduation. Should I start a company, do post-graduate studies, get a decent job, or shift career. I did fairly well in my studies, so I had many options. I made most of the career decisions by exclusion. I was driven by what’s catchy, even if it didn’t align with my vision … actually, I didn’t have a vision. I had one more decision to make in the midst of my confusion, and — you guessed right — it took me 18 months to take the step.
I received many career development questions that remind me of my younger self. That’s why I decided to write this article, hoping that it provides some clarity on how to make career decisions when you’re hesitant.
I started my first full-time job in 2012 as a software engineer in Egypt. In parallel, I was working part-time in a German company. My financial situation was solid and ahead of my age group. I exceeded expectations, and both companies were quite happy with my performance.
Great, so what’s the problem? The problem is that I had a burning urge to propel my career. Despite my financial success, I was dissatisfied, feeling that I’m letting myself down. My brain played the FOMO game on me. It painted this perfect picture of me who achieved his potential, and I consistently compared myself with this picture. Deep down, I knew that I could go for the big tech companies or start my own business. It was clear that going to Germany will help my career, but I had a perfect life in Egypt, so why travel?
In a desperate attempt to defer the decision, I applied for a master’s degree in Germany, hoping to get rejected and stay in my comfort zone. But my plan backfired, and I was accepted. I tried every trick in the book to help me decide; I asked everyone I trusted, wrote pros/cons, and tried to plan my life for both decisions. Thinking, discussing, and planning for 18 months! This was a clear sign of Analysis Paralysis. The worst part is that the longer it takes, the worse it becomes; it’s a vicious cycle. I finally decided to take a leap of faith and go back to being a student living in a lovely dorm room in Munich.
Fast forward to now, I can confidently say that this step was a net positive to my career growth. I can finally provide some clarity to my younger self:
You have been searching for an advice on what to do. It’s a big decision, isn’t it? Let me tell you that it’s not. Believe in yourself, take the action and undo it if it doesn’t go well.You can’t possibly predict what will happen in the future. I know you’re worried that you may ruin your career with a bad decision, but this is not true. You need to embrace your decisions, and learn from every one you make. If you consistently play it safe, you will stop growing. Take the step and stop overthinking.
The solution to my indecisiveness is in a concept called “2-way-door decisions”. There are 2 types of decisions: reversible and irreversible. Reversible — 2-way-door — decisions should be taken quickly because you can easily undo them. Irreversible — 1-way-door — decisions can take their fair share of time-boxed planning. If you can walk through the door and easily come back, then you should do it. You’ll be surprised that the majority of the decisions in life are reversible. We tend to think that there are right and wrong actions, but we can’t really know that outcome until we go through them. Planning is important, but it’s speculative at best. We can’t predict the future, so we should strike a healthy balance between planning and taking timely actions.
The Pac-Man approach
I find many similarities between life and a video game released in the 1980s called Pac-Man (Japanese: Pakkuman). The game is a maze where a character (Pac-Man) tries to develop its score by collecting points. In this maze, ghosts are going around trying to eat Pac-Man. Drawing the analogy, I sometimes feel like Pac-Man; I don’t really know where to go, how to develop myself, and when the ghosts will come around.
Over the years, I learned an approach in handling the 2-way-door decisions in my life that I call The Pac-Man approach. I recommend following it if you’re not sure what to do: 1/ determine your priorities, 2/ take the action that you think is good for you — based on data, gut feeling or ideally both, 3/ after taking the decision, keep looking out for ghosts or lack of personal development, 4/ if you’re unhappy with your decision, revert it and carry your learnings along.
I get many career questions that remind me of my younger self. People feel like a few bad decisions are going to ruin their careers. This is not true. A couple of years won’t ruin a 40-year long career. On the contrary, you’ll learn a lot about yourself from every decision you make, especially the “bad” ones. This doesn’t mean that you should waste your precious time either. What you should do is consistently measure your growth with every step you take. Keep going as long as you’re growing; stop and reconsider when you stagnate. Over time, you will develop your career vision. You’ll know what you like and dislike. At that point, you should use your newly developed vision as a Northstar to guide your career decisions. It’s as simple as that — be like Pac-Man!