Carel van der Poel

Carel van der Poel has served at FOM, Philips, Dupont, NXP, FEI and TU Delft.

13 September

Can’t decide whether you should stay put or pursue the career opportunity that presented itself? If rational considerations fail, take a cue from an old American TV quiz.

In my professional life, I repeatedly faced choices affecting my personal future. Education, family matters, social life, employers, going abroad, being a researcher or accepting broader responsibilities, health, keeping my current job or changing it – since my 20th birthday, I guesstimate that I had to decide some 20 times which fork in the road to take.

That number will probably be a little lower for most people, but everyone faces these potentially life-changing decisions now and then. How to handle them best? Personally, I draw up a ‘balance sheet’(in fact, three of them), weighing what a choice implies for me, my loved ones and my outer circles. Do not forget to consider what may happen if you refuse to decide anything and make no change at all. After stacking up your pros and cons on the scales, invite trusted eyes from your network to provide a fresh and independent look. But in the end, the decision is yours and yours alone.

I must admit, though, that my balancing acts often didn’t provide me with a clear answer. In those somewhat foggy cases, despite not knowing exactly where it was heading, I often ended up taking the fork in the road anyway. And so I’ve lived at many different places, had a dozen jobs in different roles, each with enough time invested to celebrate successes or learn from mistakes. I’ve been employed at half a dozen companies, went through ups and downs in my financial situation and had some – but not many – frustrating failures as well. Mostly, I was richly rewarded by new experiences, results, people to be proud of and many unexpected new vistas.

My propensity to go for the unknown path is probably just how my personality is wired. However, there’s also a more exact justification for it: the famous Monty Hall problem. Named after the quizmaster in the associated US TV show “Let’s make a deal,” the Monty Hall game faces the winning contestant with three doors. Only one door leads to a grand prize, while the other two will reveal a ‘goat.’

Initially, all three doors are equally likely to hide the grand prize, of course. Once the contestant has picked a door, the quiz master ‘helps’ by opening an extra door, showing a goat. Subsequently, the player is asked whether he wants to stick to his choice or change it to the remaining closed door. I’ll leave it to you to work out the math, but, counter-intuitively, it’s always best to switch doors. This will, in fact, double the chance of winning the grand prize.

As any scientist knows, there’s great value in having doubts. But, when the balance sheets of your arguments don’t provide a clear decision on the path forward, remember Monty Hall: change is best, take the fork.