In the early 1950s, a Chicago housewife named Dorothy Martin claimed to be in touch with beings from the planet Clarion. She believed that these aliens communicated through her, causing her hand to write messages over which she had no control. These messages were apparently very persuasive, because Martin developed a following of believers. “Seekers”, they called themselves.
One day, Martin’s hand had some good news and some bad news. The bad news was that the Earth was going to be destroyed on December 21, 1954. The good news was that the Seekers were going to be rescued hours before, by the Clarionets. Martin and the Seekers began preparing for their joyous escape.
Martin’s prediction came to the attention of the psychologist Leon Festinger, and he wondered how the Seekers would react when the big day came and went with no apocalypse. [Spoiler alert: The Earth was not destroyed on December 21, 1954.] The Seekers were secretive and did not seek publicity or new recruits, but Festinger and a few colleagues managed to join the group as they prepared to be taken to Clarion.
Now, you might suppose that when a Seeker woke up on that first winter morning of December 22, 1954, and discovered that he was not on a spaceship racing to another world, but instead was still stuck on plain, non-exploding Earth, he would realize that Martin’s “automatic writing” had been a huge sham, and he would abandon the Seekers as a false religion. But Festinger suspected a different reaction. Festinger had been developing the theory for which he would become best known – a theory called “cognitive dissonance”.
One way to explain this theory is that (1) humans become very uncomfortable when they perceive information from the outside world that conflicts with their internal beliefs, and (2) if they have invested a great deal (of energy, money, faith, etc.) in such beliefs, humans may find it easier to change the outside information than their internal beliefs. Based on this, Festinger predicted that, when the world was not destroyed on December 21, the Seekers – who had given up much to prepare for the event, some even quitting their jobs and selling their property – would find some way to explain the serenity away. Furthermore, Festinger predicted that, in order to bolster their shaken faith, the Seekers would become even more fervent believers, and would start trying to cultivate new recruits. After all, if a Seeker could convince someone from outside the fold to join them, wouldn’t that mean that their beliefs must be pretty sound?
As Festinger explained in his 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails, his prophecies were more successful than Martin’s. On December 21, when it became clear to the Seekers that their interstellar limousine would not be taking them to Clarion, Martin had another attack of automatic writing, through which the aliens explained that, because of the Seekers’ deep faith, God had cancelled the apocalypse. The Earth’s survival was thus converted from proof that the Seekers were just a bunch of misguided losers into proof that the Seekers were Earth’s saviors! Shortly afterwards, the Seekers began to hit the streets with a proselytizing zeal they had never shown before. They had to convince people of the righteousness of their cause, because that would help them convince themselves.
Now, imagine you have followed a certain career path for some time. You have devoted quite a bit of time, money, and opportunity cost to get you to your current position. Perhaps you attended a professional school, like law or medical school, or perhaps you went through a grueling apprenticeship, or simply worked your way slowly up the corporate ladder. Like the Seekers, you have sacrificed a lot in your belief that this work is the work that you love, that you are best suited for. What might happen if you suffer a setback – a professional failure, a poor review, a layoff – that, objectively, ought to lead you to question exactly how suitable this work really is?
Whether it really is the right work for you or not, cognitive dissonance is going to exert pressure on you. You have given up so much to get to where you are now – that must mean that this is the right choice, right? The urge to explain away the setback will be immense. The failed deal was a one-in-a-million accident. The poor review came from some crank who never liked you anyway. The layoff was only due to the bad economy.
The urge to convince other people of your suitability for the work will immediately follow. If you can convince them, it will make it that much easier for you to believe yourself. You might try to ingratiate yourself with other important people in your organization. Or you might try to land a position in the same field, ideally one even more desirable than the one you had occupied before – to prove that you really must be meant for this line of work.
These actions will be driven by your gut – by your desperate belief that the work into which you invested so much time, money, and sweat is really the work you should be doing. And that gut feeling may be there regardless of whether or not that belief is correct or not. You might be right. This might just be a temporary setback. Or you might be wrong. And if you are, that first setback will be followed by a second, and then a third, and then . . .
Faith is a critical component of success, but not all faith is created equal. When your faith is – or should be – called into question by career events, don’t let faith alone determine your next steps. Take your stumble as an opportunity to rationally re-examine what you are doing – dispassionately, and, ideally, with input from other people you trust – so that, whether you ultimately decide to continue on the same path, or to start on a new one, you’ll be acting on a belief that aligns with real life on this still-unexploded Earth.