The Hidden Benefits of Shiny Object Syndrome

February 14, 2021

Magpies are considered one of the world’s smartest creature.

Not only can they imitate human speech, but they can also work in teams, play games and even make tools.

Although associated with an attraction to all things shiny, magpies are actually unsettled by shiny objects.

The same, however, can’t be said of human beings.

Part of living in a globalised, interconnected society means you probably face more choices on a daily basis than your ancestors faced in a lifetime.

What to eat, what city to live in, what career to choose – the list is infinite.

But then there’s the paradox of choice. The more choices we have, the more confused we’re likely feel.

And even when we do commit to a path, or see a way forward, we let shiny objects derail our attention.

‘Shiny object syndrome’ is the tendency to follow an idea without first weighing its potential, and as a result, getting distracted from your current pursuit.

Chances are, if you’re in a career rut, this sounds familiar.

I’ve been there myself.

At one point I was starting more side projects than I could juggle, seemingly at random. This partly reflected the ‘paradox of choice’ issue, but that wasn’t the whole story.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my choice of shiny objects was far from random.

In this article, you’ll learn how to repackage shiny object syndrome to your advantage like I did.

Shiny object syndrome isn’t always about commitment

There’s something we need to get out the way first.

Look, sometimes shiny object syndrome is a matter of commitment.

Every pursuit involves a ‘Dip’ – once the easy wins have been had, the time always comes for real, challenging work to begin.

I don’t know you personally, so I can’t advise in this article whether that road is worth heading down.

All I can say is that shiny object syndrome has a habit of showing up right when you need to step up your game. It’s ultimately your decision whether you want to play that game.

That said, shiny object syndrome isn’t always about a lack of commitment. And yet conventional wisdom will usually bring ‘dedication’ and ‘focus’ into the equation.

People around you may be implying that you need more discipline, or even hinting at something defective in your tendency to flit from one idea, project or hobby to the next.

This often misses the deeper issue.

Beneath conscious awareness, your brain is constantly evaluating your everyday experience.

According to Perceptual Control Theory, when things get out of whack, your nervous system is sure to let you know all about it.

For instance, we have a range of acceptable values for ‘body temperature’. You don’t get to decide the range, but if your body becomes too cold, your brain will let you know. And you’ll suddenly get the urge to put a jumper on.

In the same way, we each have our own range of acceptable values for more abstract things like happiness and fulfilment.

Let’s say you’re in a career rut. You dread Monday mornings, and the road ahead isn’t particularly enticing. You may not consciously appreciate that something needs to change, but your intuition knows all about it.

So it starts spitting out all kinds of potential solutions. It’s doing its best to bring balance to the system that is your life.

And that’s where shiny object syndrome comes in.

You might not realise it, but your attraction to shiny objects could be telling you something remarkably simple – that you’re unhappy!

In this context, it becomes a normal and perhaps necessary stage on the path to greater satisfaction – not a sign that you lack commitment/focus.

It becomes a sign that your deeper intelligence is awake. And it’s working hard to test out hypotheses, simulate solutions and scope out promising detours.

Harnessing the power of shiny object syndrome

Throughout my journey as a medical student and doctor, I suffered from intense shiny object syndrome.

And for the longest time, I thought there was just something wrong with me. I believed I wanted to be a psychiatrist, or general practitioner – but why couldn’t I just keep my eyes on the road ahead?

Not satisfied, I had a deep hunger for shiny objects.

Here’s an overview of my weird and wonderful adventures with shiny object syndrome over the years:

  • 2014: started a YouTube film review channel. After buying some fancy equipment, this fizzled out after 2 months.
  • 2015: created a blog called FreeTimeHacks.com on how to have more work-life balance. Stopped after a grand total of 2 articles.
  • 2016: decided my destiny was to become the next Steven King. Still awaiting ‘household name’ status.
  • 2017: considered launching a home food business selling vegan deli meats. Gave up after spending several weeks researching.
  • 2018: got obsessed with becoming a journalist/health writer. Also started another blog, this time on psychology and personal development.
  • 2019: signed up for a postgrad philosophy master’s. After doing well in the first module, I felt continuing wasn’t right for me.

To those around me, it looked as though I didn’t have much self-control or discipline.

But after gaining clarity on the primary issue – that I wasn’t happy in medicine – I now look over the list with a knowing smile.

Why? Because each shiny object contained a kernel of truth. Truth about who I am, what I value and what I’m really here to do:

  • My fantasy of being a novelist and experiments with blogging/journalism speak to my love of writing, storytelling and understanding people.
  • The food business idea reflected my spirit of enterprise and need for creative expression.
  • My foray into philosophy was motivated by a love of abstract ideas and getting to the bottom of things.

Each time you’re pulled to a shiny object, there’s a priceless lesson hidden beneath, waiting to be unpacked.

If you’re struggling with shiny object syndrome in your professional life, you might be wandering where to begin. To help cut through the internal noise, I’m proposing three guidelines:

Guideline #1: Get honest, Get clear

It has to start here.

Whether you do it alone or with help, this can be the most painful step.

Go back to the beginning. Why did you start down your current path? Has something fundamental changed within you? Have you learned something?

Is there a way through, or are you fundamentally unhappy? In which case, what might need to change?

Guideline #2: Recognise the positive

If your shiny object syndrome reflects something deeper than lack of focus, allow yourself to feel confused. Let go of guilt for a minute.

In fact, take it a step further – recognise the positive.

People with Shiny Object Syndrome are, by their very nature, open-minded and creative. They’re loaded with ideas and enthusiasm. This can be a huge strength when leveraged, because they recognise possibility and opportunity where others may shy away.

Furthermore, if you constantly entertain or initiate new ideas, you’re probably proactive and have a good baseline level of confidence in your ability.

Guideline #3: Unpack the themes

Get curious and really think about the broader themes behind each endeavour. Even your hobbies might be telling you something important.

This applies to your life moving forward, as well.

Become a scientist. Treat each week as a small experiment. Which activities are fulfilling? Why? Whether or not certain activities/projects are taking off successfully, each one can teach you what your purpose might really be.

Have fun and make your current best guess based on reflection. Then rinse and repeat.

It’s Your Turn

Without bearing in mind these guidelines, you risk never making much progress in any one direction. The result can be a continuous sense of dissatisfaction with your career.

With too many irons in the fire, and your attention pulled in many directions, your energy will be compromised. I know this from experience. Not only will you fold when hitting rough patches, but your personal life will suffer too.

On the flip side, if you’re known to bounce chaotically between hobbies, projects or jobs, then you’ve got a great opportunity in front of you. A path which fills you with purpose and lights you up may be right under your nose.

All it takes is mining your past failings and dead-end decisions for valuable insights. If you do so, your next move might just end up being one you stick with, through thick and thin.

Thanks for reading,

Oli