Updated on 08.07.08

The Status Quo Bias and Switching Jobs or Careers

Trent Hamm

After my article a few weeks ago on how the status quo bias costs you money, a reader I’ll call Jeff made a very astute observation: the status quo bias often keeps people from making the best career decisions.

Let’s back up a second, though. What is the status quo bias? From the earlier article:

Most people are familiar with the status quo bias. In simpler terms, it simply means that people prefer things to stay relatively the same. We talk to the same people, follow the same path to work, go through the same daily routine, and so forth. We enjoy little changes – like reading a different book, going on a different trip in the summer, or watching a different movie – but radical changes? Not so much.

Let’s roll back the clock about a year. I was burning the candle at both ends keeping up with a burgeoning writing career and a full-time job that often spilled out into the evenings and weekends. Between the two, I was burning myself out and I knew that I had to buckle down and choose one or the other. I even more or less knew that I was going to choose the writing.

Yet I put myself through many months of utterly exhausting misery while I “made up my mind.” Why did I do this? It turns out that the status quo bias was really the culprit.

The real problem was that I was so used to the routine of my old job that I had a hard time seeing my life without it. The routine of getting up in the morning, heading into the office, getting there about 7:30, seeing the same people at the office every day, going home at about 4:30 or so, and getting up the next day and repeating it had been done so many times, I could scarcely imagine my life without that routine. Add into that the routine of the twice-monthly paycheck and the “five days on, two days off” routine of the standard workweek and breaking away from all of those molds at once seemed almost overwhelming to me.

It felt safer to keep things relatively the same, even though it was wearing me down. Even though I knew the choice I would eventually take – and I also knew that the current state of affairs was untenable over the long term – I held onto the status quo as long as I possibly could.

Even more amazing, I repeatedly tried to justify reasons to stay with my current job. I did like it, for the most part, but there were aspects that I didn’t like, mostly bureaucracy and my tendency to burden myself (or be burdened) with responsibilities out of my area of expertise. Because of that, I kept telling myself I would be foolish to give it up, and more than once I began drafting posts saying I was going to stop with The Simple Dollar, only to talk myself out of it.

This leads straight back to Jeff’s observation that the status quo bias often keeps people from making the best career decisions. Clearly, the status quo bias was at work when I was making my career choice, and it took a lot of time and a lot of positive encouragement from my wife for me to finally make that career change.

Hopefully, you’re one of the lucky ones, the people who read this article and thought that the decision and change was quite easy. For the rest of us, though, the status quo bias can be quite a challenge. Here are five things that really helped me overcome it and make a strong but challenging career choice for myself.

First, share the whole situation with someone you trust and whose opinion you respect. Quite often, that person can see from the outside that the new path is really the right one for you to follow and will often become your cheerleader and motivator, encouraging you to make the switch. For me, this was my wonderful wife, who supports me in so many ways – without her encouragement, I would have never made the switch.

Second, focus on the positives of the career change. When you’re trying to stick with the status quo, it’s very easy to look at the negatives of the change you’re considering. For me, I kept looking at the risks – the loss of regular and dependable income, the uncertainty as to what opportunities the future might hold down that path, and so on. Instead, look strongly at the positives – which for me included a flexible schedule that left me a lot more time with my kids and the opportunity to do something I deeply, deeply enjoy (write).

Third, be realistic about the balance of positives and negatives of your current job. It was easy for me to paint my old job as glowing during that time. I would think very positively of all of the aspects that I liked and tried very hard to not think about the negative aspects. One exercise that helped me was making myself list ten things I liked about my current job, as well as ten things I didn’t like. Doing that helped me see that just like any job, it’s a mix of things I liked and things I didn’t.

Fourth, have a nice fat emergency fund to make the leap less scary. Once I began to see that there was a real conflict going on between my two career paths, I started tightening the screws on an emergency fund, saving my nickels and dimes for a rainy day. Even then, I knew that whichever path I chose, I would be helped by having cash in hand. Obvious for the new job, but even if I chose to stay with the old one, the emergency fund would help out with making some bigger purchases easier (like an inevitable car purchase I would have had to make if I were to continue commuting).

Finally, try a dry run at your new job. At one point, I took a full week off from my old job and “pretended” I was engaged at my writing career. I went through an entire week and discovered that this was actually a path I could see myself following. It made the idea seem more real, more tangible, more possible.

All of these tactics helped me overcome the “status quo” that was my earlier job and move on to my new career as a writer. Without these tactics, I likely would have stayed in my old job – and I might have regretted not taking the leap for the rest of my life. Don’t let the status quo bias influence your career choices – step back and take a serious look at things and you might find that change is the right path for you.

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  1. clint says:

    I have found that if you keep doing what you have always done you will keep getting what you have always got.

    If you want to get out of debt you have to make some sometimes hard changes…like cutting up the credit cards and paying yourself (your debt) first)

    By making these “small and simple changes” you can have (great things come to pass)

    By doing things differently you get differant outcomes.

    Changes make your world change. Most of the time for the better.

    Clint Lawton


  2. Trent,
    Your story is such a good reminder of why maintaining a low ‘burn rate’ is the key to being able to do what you love to do (as a full time job). What you are doing today may be something you don’t enjoy 3 years from now, and the biggest trap I’ve seen myself and others fall into is the escalation of our spend/burn rate because we blindly think we’ll be at the same job, or a better paying one for the foreseeable future. What has made me really resent my situation is that fact I feel ‘stuck’ in my job because of the burn rate my wife and I have built up over the past few years. I’m in the exact same predicament as you, and I too have discovered a new passion that I wish I could do full time, but don’t yet see the way to monetize it to the point where it will be paying the bills at our current burn rate. So we’ve started to do what you did, and save save save, see how little we can get by on.

  3. writer dad says:

    That’s exactly where my wife and I are now. We know it’s time to pull the plug on what we’re doing so that we can effectively move to something else, but it’s hard to up and do it.

  4. ktg says:

    Hmmm…funny. The same arguments can be made for the status quo of relationships/marriage.

  5. Matt R. @ YFNCG.com says:

    Great article! I am slowly moving toward a career change from working ‘for the man’ to working for myself, and I know eventually I’m going to have to flip the switch between the two. It’s a scary thought, but also an exciting one.

    Two of your tips I’m actively working on now are sharing the experience (I’ve created a blog to share the experience with the WORLD) and creating an emergency fund (once that’s complete, I think I’ll finally have the guts to make the switch).

    Your blog has been a big motivator for me, I love to know the details of someone who made the kind of career change you’ve made. I’ll be sure to keep you updated on my progress as well!

  6. I think that this bias, to some extent, kept my husband in his warehouse job for so long. He’s now in IT, which is a much better fit for him. It was a little scary to leave the familiarity of a job he’d worked for 15 years. I’m really glad he did, though…he’s enjoying his work more now and it’s made our finances more manageable.

  7. Jaymo says:

    Another good post Trent. Preach it brother.

  8. Ian says:

    I’ve been considering a career change. Currently I’m a database programmer, but I’ve been considering getting into teaching or coaching (high school level). Fortunately, those are activities for which I can volunteer first, and see if it’s for me. It will be sort of a dry run for me this fall because I’ll be a volunteer football coach for a local HS.
    One of the reasons I visit this site is so that I can my finances in order so that I can handle the HUGE pay cut that would come with such a career change.

  9. junkCafe says:

    Consider the risk of not making a move. I made my jump to the world of IT consulting based on developments at my former employer along with a desire to broaden my experience. More than 1.5 years later I’m glad I made the change. The downside to status quo bias is that it can put one in a state of complacency and unprepared to handle the occasional shock.

  10. Shanel Yang says:

    I also resisted leaving my day job (lawyer) for way too long. For me it was fear of the loss of prestige or of people thinking I was just couldn’t cut it as a lawyer. It took me 10 years to prove to myself that I absolutely could cut it and probably continue cutting it for the rest of my working life. That scared me worse than whatever my old friends and colleagues might think of me! So, I finally left and I am happier than I ever imagined possible! And, though almost none of my old friends and colleagues kept in touch with me, but I think it’s more out of jealousy and fear that they’re the ones making the big mistake by staying in careers they hate rather than thinking that somehow I’m a loser for “quitting.” : )

  11. Madelaine says:

    It’s like the Aimee Mann song “Momentum”:

    And I know life is getting shorter
    I can’t bring myself to set the scene
    Even when it’s approaching torture
    I’ve got my routine

    But I can’t confront the doubts I have
    I can’t admit that maybe the past was bad
    And so, for the sake of momentum
    I’m condemning the future to death
    So it can match the past.

  12. Jeff says:

    I am a 28 year veteran (burned out) public school teacher who almost retired last year, but at the last minute I decided to go “one more year.” I’m using this coming school year to explore the options I know I have but have been too afraid to face. It has been just easier to stay in a bad situation rather than to leap into the unknown. Thank you for giving me a little courage to do what I know I must.

  13. mike c says:

    What is the worst that could happen? I think it is important to be realistic about what you are losing, if anything, by switching careers. Most people (me) tend to be risk averse, even though there may not be that much risk in a career switch. The truth is that in most cases you can always go back to your previous career, even sometimes to the same job, if you leave in good terms.

    There is this company in a different town that I have been considering for the last few years. I know people working there, and I know that if I worked there I would be making significantly more money. Some part of me has always wanted to work there, but I have always talked me out of it because I did not want to move; I really like the city I live in, and it is always hard to get used to a new place, and meet new people and make new friends; and I did not want to give up my current job. My biggest fear is to move to the new town, get in the new job, and find out that I am having trouble to meet people, I do not like the job, or I do not like the town.

    But then… what is the worst that can happen?
    If after a couple of years I do not like life in the new town, I can always come back. I can always find another job like the one I have. If things go really well, I will be making much more money than now. If they don’t, I will still make some money and then come back to this town and a similar job.

    So I have decided to give it a try. I am currently talking to this company, and if things go well I will be moving out of this town in a couple of months. Wish me luck!!!

  14. Kelly says:

    What kicked me over the edge into finally quitting my job was respect. “R E S P E C T” just one of those little things that I *absolutely* must have in any significant relationship- employment included. I’d been wanting and thinking about quitting for a little while already, but when you finally let yourself think about quitting, it’s like a little disease- at least it was for me! And a month later I was gone. It has been one of the best decisions I ever made, and yes it took a lot of courage and support from not just me, but my dear husband- it’s scary making sure you can still pay the mortgage and take care of your kid(s), but with your own will power and the support of an amazing spouse/partner- You Can Do It! As Trent said, an emergency fund is a must! But thanks to some extra savings and my fabulous husband, I’m now a stay at home mom, looking to create a “second act” and pursue my passions.

  15. Meg says:

    A friend of mine is 29, works mostly from home, makes only $30,000 a year and has only gotten 3% raises for the last 3 years, and has recently heard that she might be laid off by the end of the year. STILL she feels so “comfortable” at her job that she hasn’t even begun looking for another one.

  16. junkCafe says:

    Madelaine – Nice to weave in lyric to this discussion! While we’re waxing poetic, how about Langston Hughes “A Dream Deferred”.

    Shanel – Isn’t a great feeling to go your own way on your terms with no regrets?

    Mike C – Best of luck on your endeavors. Go for it!

    We are all living to dream or dreaming to live. To all those who are living a dream, welcome to the brighter side of life.

  17. Nathan says:

    A lot of our friends would accuse us of having a “status quo bias,” but in reality, we’re doing the things we need to be doing to reach the goals we’ve set.

    At some point, almost everything shifts to a “maintenance program.” You’ve lost the weight, maintain it. You’ve lost the debt, just maintain it.

    I see way too much desire for constant change. Some friends of ours move to Nashville looking for a better life, didn’t find it. Thinking it would be better where they were, they moved back. Now they want to move back to Nashville!

    The grass may always be greener on the other side, but you still have to mow it! Set your goals, make your plan – then stick to it. If that plan requires a change, then make it, but if you’re always changing the plan, you’ll never get anywhere.

  18. Laurie says:

    It took my husband two years (and a life threatening miscarriage – there’s nothing like thinking you almost left your 2 year old motherless to get you thinking about priorities!) to talk me into staying home with my son. This despite the fact that we had no debt besides the mortgage, he earned a great salary and I was working myself into continual exhaustion and sickness (9 doctors visits in 12 months the last year I worked)!

    I just couldn’t see myself or others’ reactions to me as a stay at home mother after years of schooling at a top university and being a “career woman” at the top of my game. Boy was I a snot.

    When I quit work we did away with the status quo in a big way! My husband was a professor and without my work schedule we were able to live in Peru for a semester in 2006 and Italy in 2007. My kids at very young ages have been all over Europe and South America. We’re able to homeschool and my now 6 year old frequently embarrasses me by telling total strangers about how he learned World History last year in the museums of Venice, Florence and Rome. (His favorite story to tell is about how the statue of David is naked – he is a 6 yr old boy! :)

    I should note that this wasn’t because we had loads of money (we don’t!) but was because my husband was working overseas and our expenses were being paid by the university.

    Because I made this jump my husband has been able to now take a very high pressure (but potentially very lucrative) job with a start up – that he likely wouldn’t have gotten without the international travel we did. We now have the opportunity to live in Manhattan for the next three months followed by a month at home for Christmas and then our choice of living in Vienna or New Zealand for the next 3 – 6 months. And we don’t have to pay for any it.

    Scary? Not comfortable? Difficult traveling with two kids? Absolutely. I’m an introvert. I’m rarely in my comfort zone. But we’ve had experiences and made memories that wouldn’t trade for the world.

    I’m actually more terrified of taking my kids to Manhattan than I was of taking them to South America. But we’re going. And I’m already planning activities that are outside my comfort zone and theirs. And it will pay off.

    (If anyone has a 2 br furnished apt in Manhattan, I’m looking for one to rent!) :)

    I can’t encourage people enough to listen to their inner voices – and ignore illogical fear. Being comfortable is really not enough in life when we have so many opportunities – especially as Americans. Our living apparently involved world travel. Figure out what really living means for you and yours – and ignore people who tell you it can’t be done b/c they are too comfortable and want you to be that way too.

  19. Ariana says:

    What a coincidence. I was considereing switching jobs for a long time. If it weren’t for my student loans debt, I would just quit and study for the CPA exam.

  20. Dave says:

    Trent, you rock. I can’t even begin to describe how much this post coincides with what’s going on in my ‘professional’ life right now. And, while I still have a ways to go until I’m financially stable enough to leave my part-time job and work on my new venture (I don’t have the necessary capitol to make my new venture work quite yet) you’ve at least inspired me to think about it more and actually move forward and make progress!

  21. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Madelaine, you’re my new favorite commenter. I’ve confessed before that “Bachelor #2” is my favorite album of all time.

  22. Dano says:

    This post is my life. I am only 24, but every day I struggle with what I do professionally and daydream about my passions and life spent pursuing them. I hope that I can overcome the status quo bias and pursue my heart. Thanks, Trent.

  23. gr8whyte says:

    This post is really about how big changes in our lives, especially financial ones, can be scary. One coping mechanism is procrastination (status quo bias, comfort zone, etc.) and I excel at it. Considering early retirement isn’t any different than considering a new career. Luckily, when my place of employment was privatized, the amount of time available for soul-searching was limited. I bailed but would have happily and mindlessly continued working on at the same job/career had the place not been privatized. It sort of saved my life.

  24. Todd A says:

    Even if the status change is less severe, say just from one job to another one with better opportunities, this bias can be tough. And, I believe that most large employers depend (in some degree) upon their workers’ complacency. If you don’t think so, consider why people can often earn more upon changing to a different employer in the same field. It seems like a short-sighted practice to me.

  25. Ryan says:

    I have a question for the mailbag…

    I really appreciate the work you do for this website. Very enjoyable and I visit virtually (ha! an unintentional pun!) every day. My question is, do you make more money if I pay your advertisers a visit, i.e. if I click the link to their website? Just curious. I’d like to help you succeed as much as possible. Keep up the good work!

  26. Shevy says:

    A couple of thoughts…
    I’ve always been one of the people constrained by the status quo, staying in less than optimal situations because I preferred “security”, so I definitely have a lot to think about.

    I really like the idea of a dry run wherever possible. I read once about a family that did that with a move they were considering and ended up deciding to stay in the city. It turned out that the suburbs weren’t really “their thing”. And all it cost them to find out was 2 months rent.

    But I would disagree with Meg. Her friend gets to work from home most of the time and makes $30k? That is not a bad deal at all. It could be the equivalent of about twice as much money for working at an office, depending on things such as child care, commuting costs, clothing and food (not to mention the increase she would see in taxation if she made more). I can understand why her friend may be quite content to ride that train for as long as possible. If the job does end, I’m sure she’ll be motivated to look for something else quickly. If not, she’s happy and has lots more time for her family.

  27. getagrip says:

    The reality is the status quo can be a lot more than just you and your career. Many times it can be your extended family (why would you want to move away from us?) or children (you just *can’t* make me move now, I’ve just got a year of high school left), or even a spouse (I like our life, why don’t you?). It would be nice if all these elements supported our decisions a hundred percent, but they often won’t, and they often will violently oppose things that upset their worlds.

  28. Arlene says:

    This article couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Right after hanging up the phone from a teary conversation with one of my principle motivators, I clicked on this article. I’ve been unhappy with my profession since I really entered it 11 years ago. I’ve worked with a career counselor off and on for 7 years. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I know what I want the next step to be, and I’m seriously suffering from the status quo bias.

    The situation is further complicated by the fact that I’m a physician with my own practice. There is a perception in our society that being a doctor is the epitome of success. Being a doctor with your own practice is seen as even more so. So, when I talk about being unhappy and that I want to do something else, and that practicing medicine is not a good fit for me, lots of people just do not understand and they’re not very supportive. They look at how much time and money and sacrifice it takes to get to my position and they think I’m crazy for wanting to “throw it all away”. I look at all the time, money and sacrifice that went into it and think that I don’t want to waste anymore of my precious time and money or sacrifice anything else for something that I really don’t want to do and that doesn’t feed me.

    But, as much as I dislike it, there is definitely a pull to stick with the familiar. I’m going to assume this article was a “sign” and this is one I’m going to save. Thanks!

  29. George says:

    Stuck in the status quo, yes I am.

    The number one reason is security. From my perspective, the odds of success are 1-in-4 for people making the jump.

    3 coworkers who’ve attempted to make a jump in the past 10 years have ended up returning, with a subsequent loss of seniority and pay. And that lower entry return was better financially for these individuals than the new career they jumped to.

    Most recently, 1 coworker, with his wife, bought a health club franchise and they’re raking in the dough (rumour is $100k/yr and increasing steadily) now with something he truly loves. He continues to hold the day job, however, because of the health insurance benefits and the extra salary ($70-80k/yr).

    Dismal odds of success mean that I am extra cautious in any attempt to buck the status quo.

    Two other tales of coworkers:

    A manager jumped ship to start her own cosmetics/clothing business when a management shakeup meant she would probably lose her support network at the office. She failed with that venture, but found another management job about a year later with an outside firm. Family was dual income, so not much at risk.

    Junior coworker had an amicable divorce in the past few months, so he was looking for a fresh start. He searched for and found a position in another city that would enable him to continue caring for his daughter half time.

  30. Jesse says:

    Id say its probably a solid 50% fear, 50% comfort with the familiar for most people.

    For myself I can honestly say most of my huge life shakeups have come as a result of something I could not control (being laid off for instance). I would guess thats the way it is for most people, for better or worse.

  31. Lee Hall says:

    It’s easy to get suckered into a status quo life. But is that really a life that you can look back on and say, “I am glad I work at IBM for 25 years.” Aside from an emergency fund, you shouldn’t need other excuses. Change is what makes life great. Think back about your greatest work accomplishments in your life. Were they when you took a risk with your career or were they when you worn your office chair to a pulp? While some choices you make may not end up being the right ones, regret is the most expensive item on life’s menu (figuratively speaking).

  32. Bridgette says:

    I can’t believe that someone has finally written an article on this subject. I grew up in the same city: when to school, got married, got a divorce and I’m still living in the same city after 43 years. Working at the same job (only job I had) for 22 years. I live only 5 miles from work and you can’t bet that, with the high price of gas. The only thing that bothers me is that everyday I do the same thing over and over again, get up, go to work and come home. I would love to get married again and move away but I’m so comfortable where I’m at. Thanks for the article. I will add this site as one of my favorites.

  33. Tyler F says:

    Your suggestion, “try a dry run at your new job” by taking a week off from work, is so obvious yet it hadn’t occurred to me to try it. It’s perfect. While I’m not ready to make the leap just yet (S/O is in school and nearly financially dependent), that is exactly what I need to do before I make the leap. Excellent advice. Keep these posts about “challenging the status quo” and working for yourself coming.

    Also, your Aimee Mann suggestion many many posts ago is what turned me on to the album. It’s fantastic. Any other music suggestions? I too am a loyal subscriber to emusic.

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