Finding Your Dream: Using the Process of Elimination

When you don’t know what you want to do in your next job or even as a career, it can seem overwhelming to try to figure it out. You may have a general idea of what you want: Maybe you want to work with animals, or have a job that lets you work any hours from any location. Or maybe you just need a job that pays. It’s all good!

One strategy for figuring out what you want is to figure out what you don’t want, and adjust accordingly. This can be a really good way to approach your job search if you aren’t sure what you want to do, because it advocates momentum, introspection, and positive change. The strategy itself is simple: try a job you think you’ll like, see what you like/don’t like about it, and plan your next move to increase the time you spend on the parts you do like and gets rid of the parts you don’t like.

Of course, every job will have parts you don’t like, that’s the way of the world. But take this example:

You have a job working retail. You don’t love the money (who does love minimum wage?) or the hours (couldn’t you get your schedule more than two weeks in advance?), but you like your coworkers, and you find some joy in helping people go home happy with their purchases (this is a fictional example, bear with me). Thinking about your job, you know you like working with people, but you’d really like a stable schedule, and could do without the uniform and standing 10 hours a day.

So a next, small step would be:

You find a job as a receptionist at a mid-size office. The pay isn’t great, but it’s solid hours, with a Monday-Friday 9-5 schedule, with bank holidays, some vacation and sick leave, and an hour a day for lunch. It’s also at a big enough company where people have room to move up the ranks; in this case, there may be training you can get to find a position in HR, or even Account Management.

Okay, so a receptionist may not seem the most glamorous job, but that too is a stepping stone, in which you’ve a) moved productively toward b) the parts of your last job that interested you. Crucially, there’s room to grow and training provided to get you another step up in the ladder without having to move companies. This is something you’d look for in your interview, when asking about lateral and upward movement in your company, on-the-job training, and cross-training. This is especially important if you’re someone who is thinking about a graduate program — I find that on-the-job training is more valuable than school, but of course, it differs by industry (there will be so, so much more on this topic in future articles!).

Here’s another example:

You’ve been at your company for three years, and have worked your way up from project assistant to project manager. The work and industry don’t interest you, but the job pays well. The hours are long, but you’ve managed to get some cross-training in other departments, especially with design tools like InDesign and Photoshop.

So you find a similar role at a new company (or even within the same company!) as a product manager or design lead, using your artistic and design skills on projects, perhaps managing products you take an interest in. The pay is still good, and though you may still work long hours, you’re more invested in and fulfilled by the creative side to the work you’re doing.

Again, you’ve managed to shed at least one thing you weren’t interested in (the actual day-to-day work you were doing), and traded it for a new unknown (a new industry/product) that you can test going forward. Perhaps you make the move, and find that you really like tinkering in Photoshop and InDesign, but hate having to use them on a daily basis. Or perhaps the new subject matter still isn’t making the overtime worth it. Perfect: You’ve learned new things about yourself and what you want, and can adjust accordingly.

Of course, everything comes with an adjustment period, and though this paints a rosy picture, there may be other setbacks: Maybe the company you joined never delivers on their promised cross-training. Maybe your coworkers are demanding and have more office politics than you were expecting (and let me be clear right now, every office has politics. This is one thing that’ll be very hard to get rid of, unless you’re freelance. And that comes with it’s own set of politics). Maybe you moved across the globe with the company, and you’re having a huge amount of culture shock. Some of these things can be overcome, and some will be deal-breakers for you. It all comes down to identifying ways in which you can increase the time you spend at work on the aspects you enjoy.

The things you may or may not like might not actually be as related to the career as they are to your life and work style. Go back to your lists you made from last time and see if there are things you want out of a dream career that you already know you like, and put them in their own list (of “knowns”). Then put the rest in a “unknown” category, and see what comes out. What’s in there that’s completely aspirational? Can you find things that are achievable in another pivot or two? Hopefully things will start popping out to you, especially if there are things on your “known” list that you’ve had in every job — these are things you’re probably going to want to stick with, as they are probably quite fulfilling to you!

Next week we’ll be going a little more into depth with this, so stay tuned!

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