What else the World Cup can teach us about careers work. Why it’s a good idea not trying to explain too much.


In sport as with career big picture explanations are often redundant. This is the second post I’ve written on the subject of the World Cup. England return from another major tournament under a cloud, if not a thunderstorm, of disappointment. In the build up to the tournament that rhetoric was about how little was expected of a young and inexperienced side in a tough group (. The media waxed lyrically about the freedom of low expectations, it seems we spent so much time saying how we might exceed them that we’re now disappointed.

So who or what is to blame for this? The usual culprits come out round the office water cooler, lack of quality coaching infrastructure (unlike Spain, Germany etc.), lack of opportunity for England players to start Premier League games, lack of excitement at playing for the national side, the length and demanding nature of club football  the incompetence of Roy Hodgson etc. Find an overarching narrative to explain everything and follow it’s path to achieve success.

I have an alternative view. Firstly most teams will come back from the World Cup disappointed, not everyone plans to win the world cup but I reckon that over half the 32 teams will come home below expectations so we must not act like failure at a major tournament is a uniquely English experience. But secondly we need to ask what were the moments that led to failure, what were the turning points? Well if Leighton Baines hadn’t been turned in the build up to Mario Balotelli’s winner for Italy and if Cahill had tracked Suarez’s run for Uruguay’s winner we would have still been in the tournament for the Costa Rica game. Two individual errors, maybe it would have taken more to get out the group but two split second moments made up most of why we exited. Now why were those errors made, is there some fundamental problem with the psyche of our players or do not give them enough exposure at the top level or was it as simple as international football being a high stakes pressurized game where victory and defeat are always decided by very small margins.

Creative Commons Flcikr. Image by https://www.flickr.com/photos/nrkbeta/

Creative Commons, Flickr. Created by https://www.flickr.com/photos/nrkbeta/

Chance, we were unlucky, two tiny moments made all the difference. This is not very attractive as an explanation especially if you’re an England fan I imagine you’re already trying to dismiss it. Given this it may be of interest to note that Daniel Kahneman sees the desire to make sense out of situations without sufficient information a fundamental thinking mistake humans consistently make. Our minds are, according to Kahneman, “machines for jumping to conclusions. We can be very quick to build theories without having enough relevant and robust data to go on. Kahneman has this expression, WYSIATI (what you see is all there is), which explains how we are tempted to believe we have all the data. So the armchair football pundit is very tempted to construct a view of England’s youth coaching practices as compared to Spain’s and construct a cast iron theory of the failing of the national team. But based on what data? The thing is that individual mistakes is obvious but unsatisfying while some big structural problem around the England football is attractive but most of the theories lack any actual data. But we are bad at saying that  a solution lacks data, we are drawn towards the siren rocks of explanation.

Occam’s Razor may be of help here. Occam’s razor claims that when comparing two possible solutions the one with the least presumptions should be prefered. If you compare individual error versus institutional problems the former clearly is built on less presumptions and so is preferable according to Occam’s razor.

Creative Commons, Flickr. Created by https://www.flickr.com/photos/bjornmeansbear/

Creative Commons, Flickr. Created by https://www.flickr.com/photos/bjornmeansbear/

So how might the phenomenon of seeking explanations, especially large big picture explanations, be negatively effecting your career?

Demotivated about performance

Sometimes the explanations we come up with for our lack of progress and success in our careers unnecessarily blame ourselves. I have come away from interviews thinking I’d done well, gone in to a tail spin about my interview skills when I have got the “Thank you for coming in to talk to us but on this occasion…” phone call and then found out later on there was an internal candidate that I was never going to get the job ahead of. We often link failure with performance in an unfair way. We would rather believe that it is our fault than think that there was just someone better than us in a competitive process.

Susceptible to novelty

Creative Commons, Flickr. Created by https://www.flickr.com/photos/dopey/

Creative Commons, Flickr. Created by https://www.flickr.com/photos/dopey/

Another mistake we often fall into is we end up thinking there is something we are missing that is holding our career development back. Again this is a more attractive narrative than the thought we’ve just been a bit unlucky but it makes us susceptible and uncritical in the face of novelty. Would better use of LinkedIn make that much difference? Do we need to start using some new hip social media platform that “everyone else” is on? Would an MBA make that much difference? Doing something new is often good advice but when we start thinking that failure has been brought about by us missing out on some secret that everyone else is doing (notice how we often put those two together despite the contradiction?) we end up uncritically engaging in novelty.

Not taking responsibility

The alternative is to assume that it is actually nothing to do with us and that some great narrative is holding us back. We are tempted to blame everything from the state of the economy, recruitment practices, the graduate labor market through to internationalization, technology and educational policy to explain the failing of our career. Here a big explanation blames something other than us. We are moved away from our own actions to see big scale forces as the driving factor. This leads to despair and inactivity as we feel we can actually do very little.

So what is the takeaway lesson? More than anything do not be fooled by the pull of summarising too much too soon, take your time with coming up with stories and explanations from your past and be prepared to look at these under proper scrutiny.


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