Haunted by the ghosts of compromise



The previous post on Circumscription and Compromise reminded me of a client I saw a while ago for whom compromise was an important issue. (I have changed some of the details to preserve confidentiality.)

Objectively, Martin appeared to have a successful career in television. However, he admitted to being very disappointed with his life. He had started out working on serious social documentaries but had moved into reality television because there were more opportunities available. He was regretting the move because he felt that he had sold out on his principles and was feeling dissatisfied despite his success.

Further exploration revealed that this compromise was built upon on an even earlier career concession. At school he had always wanted to pursue a medical career. He had imagined himself using his specialist knowledge and skills to provide a service to society. Unfortunately, he just missed the grades he needed to get onto a medicine degree. He considered resits but eventually decided to follow a different path. Despite making a success of this new route, the ghost of his career in medicine continued to lurk in the background. Even though he didn’t really know if a medical career would have been as satisfying as he supposed, this alternative future grew in his imagination. The gap between his real career experience and this gleaming illusion took away much of the satisfaction he might have felt.

He was living Plan B for his life. Did this make it more likely that he would compromise on whatever satisfaction he was getting from his media career? Making a difference to the world through documentaries could not approach making a difference through healing, so it was easier to give this away for something less valuable — objective career success.

Is this an example of compromise provoking cognitive dissonance? Having given up on an idealised motivation for his career by not pursuing medicine, Martin tries to make his mental picture of himself more consistent with his actions by downplaying the importance of making a social difference in subsequent decisions. But part of him is not fooled by this mental slight-of-hand and he still has a nagging feeling of disappointment in himself.

  • Can you think of other situations in which an initial compromise has led to another, more damaging, compromise later?
  • How can you explore the possible long-term consequences of compromise with your clients — both the obvious and the unpredictable?

Further reading/listening

Related post: What’s your bias?

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  1. The alternative self « Careers – in Theory

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