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Introducing your three selves


Did you know that, according to a particular theory* of motivation, we have three selves:

  • An actual self - who you actually are right now
  • An ideal self - who we believe we could be
  • An "ought" self - who were believe we should be

I've been reading about this theory (in Dan Pink's book on Regret) and it's made me wonder about how this effects our career decisions and motivations. Let me explain.

Your Three Selves

Your actual self

This version of "self" is easy to understand. It's who we are in the here and now, doing the job that we're doing and feeling OK about that. If you are 100% happy with your actual self then it's highly unlikely that you would ever look to change anything about yourself or your career.

But how many of us are truly 100% happy or even want to be? It's an innate human need to learn and grow so that we will always be seeking something a little bit more than what we have now. Which is what motivates us to do something differently.

Your ideal self

This is the self that we could be. That word "could" opens up lots of possibilities and feels kind of aspirational. My ideal self, for example, could be having a bigger impact through helping more people to create a career they love. She could also be fit, healthy and getting bookings as a singer in a band :)

Picture your ideal self for a minute. What sort of career could they be doing?

Your "ought" self

And this is the self that is who we believe other people want us to be - otherwise know as duties, commitments and responsibilities.

Now, this is where we potentially open up the proverbial can of worms in career conversations. How many of us took an early professional route that we thought we "ought" to do?

This feeling of should can come from different places. Perhaps your parents wanted you to be a doctor (family profession?). Perhaps you were good academically so felt that you should become an actuary rather than a musician. Perhaps you want to do good in the world and are therefore obligated to work in the charitable sector. Perhaps your family want to maintain a certain lifestyle.

So what?

Well, there are a couple of interesting points about these could and should selves.

The first thing is that we are more likely to fulfil "should" scenarios. This is probably because of the weight of someone else's expectations, hopes and dreams upon us. So, it's likely that the things you think you should have done are the things that you have done.

The second thing is important. And it's that we are more likely to regret our "could" scenarios as opportunities lost.

So, whilst we may think that the ideal self is exciting and full of possibilities, we are more likely to fulfil the obligations of the ought self.

And I think this is a shame!

What to do now

I am going to assume that you are in the majority of people and have a louder "should" voice than a "could" voice. What I want you to do is to quieten down the "should" voice for a bit and focus on amplifying the "could" voice. Let's picture what sort of career you COULD HAVE.

Here are some questions to get you started in your thinking. I suggest journalling or taking these questions for a lovely creative walk and letting your imagination run wild.

  • What would your 10/10 dream career look like?
  • If money were not object, what career would you have?
  • If you knew that everyone in your life was happy and taken care of, what career would you have?
  • If you woke up tomorrow and a miracle had occurred, what would your career be?
  • If you had the skills and talent to do or be anyone, what would you do or be?

I'd love to hear what "could" possibilities you've come up with. What is one small thing you could do today to move towards the career you "could" have?

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