Nearly everyone overlooks this incredibly basic question and yet nearly everyone has to face this it when thinking about their career decision making and their future. This applies to middle school students, those preparing for university, university grads and even mid-career professionals making key decisions about life goals. Is our goal in our career and career preparation to land a job, meaning any job more or less (at least within our field); or is our goal to get to push our careers higher and higher looking for “the” job, the one that pays great, satisfies us, challenges us and fulfills us? Everyone has to answer this question and nearly everyone does, even if they fail to admit it to themselves or anyone else.
Our answer to this question plays a part in effectively every decision that we make around our careers, and by extension in our lives. It affects what careers we choose to pursue, how we pursue them, what education we get, when we get it, which job offers we accept, to which jobs we submit our resume, when we start hunting for the next promotion or change, lateral shift or external opportunity, when we relocate, when we buy a home, if we take a consulting position or standard employment, what certificates we get, what books we read, what communities we participate in, when or if we decide to get married, when or if we decide to have children and how we interact with our colleagues among many, many other things. And yet, with all of these things not just being influenced by this decision, but often being almost solely governed by it, few people really sit down and take the time to evaluate their personal career goals to determine how the decisions that they make and planning that they do will determine what kind of jobs they are likely to be able to pursue. One of the most critical and defining choices of our lives is often given little thought and is treated as being practically a casual, trivial background decision.
People rarely want to talk about questions like this because the harsh reality is that most people, in fact nearly all people, cannot realistically achieve “the” job. Their dream job or a top career position is likely out of their reach – at least while trying to maintain any kind of work/life balance, have a family, rear children or whatever. No one wants to admit that they are the “majority” and are really just looking for “a” job and even fewer want to look at them and point out that this is the case for them. But it is something that we should do (for ourselves, not pointing at others.) We have to determine what matters for us, where our own priorities lie.
To our ears, going after any old job sounds horrible while seeking the pinnacle of the field sounds like a perfect goal, a natural one. This is, to some non-trivial degree, an extension of that problem that we have all been talking about for a generation – the need for the glorification of the trivial, rewarding everyone as if average life events are something special (like having graduation parties for people moving from second to third grade, or awards for attendance because “just showing up” is worth an award?)
Life is not that simple, though, for several reasons. First is statistics. Realistically amazing jobs only make up something like .1% of all available jobs in the world. That means that 99.9% of all workers have to go after less than apex jobs. Even if we broaden the scope to say that “great” jobs represent just 2% of available jobs and 98% of people have to go after more mundane jobs, we still have the same situation: the chances that you are in the .1 – 2% is quite low. Almost certainly, statistically speaking, you are in the 98%. The numbers are not as terribly bad as they may seem because awesome jobs are not necessarily apex jobs, that is just one possibility. The perfect job for you might be based on location, flexibility, benefit to humanity, ability to do rewarding work or compensation. There are many possible factors, the idea of “the” job is not that it is purely about title or salary, but those are reasonable aspects to consider.
The second part is the other prices that need to be paid. Attempting to go after “the” job generally relies on a lot of things such as being a good self starter, thinking outside of the box (career-wise), relocating, working longer hours, studying more, challenging others, self promotion, putting in long hours away from the office to improve faster than others, starting your career sooner, being more aggressive, etc. None of these factors are strictly required, but commonly these and many others will play an important role. Going after the dream job or apex role means taking more risks, pushing harder and setting ourselves apart. It requires, on average, far more work and has a much less defined path from start to finish making it scarier, ambiguous and more risky. High school guidance counselors cannot tell you how to get from point A to point B when talking about “the” job; they lack the knowledge, exposure and resources to help you with that. When going after “the” job you are almost certainly forging your own path. Everyone is unique and everyone’s perfect job is unique and often no one knows what that perfect job is exactly until they arrive at it, often after many years of hard work and seeking it.
These two mindsets change everything that we do. One: we design our careers around optimum performance while accepting high chance of failure. And two: we design our careers around risk mitigation and we hedge our bets sacrificing the potential for big payoffs (salary, position, benefits, whatever) in exchange for a more well defined job and career path with better stability and less chance of finding ourselves floundering or worse, out of work completely and maybe even unemployable.
If you spend a lot of time talking to people about their career goals you will often see these two mindsets at work, under the surface, but essentially no one will verbalize them directly. But if you listen you can hear them being mulled about from time to time. People will talk about priorities such as being able to live in the same house, town or region and their willingness to give up career options in exchange for this. This is an important life decision, and a common one, where most people will choose to control where they live over where and how they work. Another place you hear in the undertone of conversation is when people are contemplating their next career move – do they focus on the potential for opportunity or do they focus on the risks caused by instability and the unknown?
A major area in which these kinds of thoughts are often expressed, in one way or another, is around education and certification. In IT especially we see people often approach their educational choices from a position of risk mitigation, rather than seized opportunity. Very few people look to their education as “the path to this one, specific dream position” but instead generally speak about their education’s “ability to get them more interviews and job offers at more companies.” It’s about a volume of offers, which is all about risk mitigation, rather than about getting the one offer that really matters to them. Each person only needs one job, or at least one job at a time, so increasing the volume of potential jobs is not, realistically, a chance for greater achievement but rather simply a means of decreasing the risk around job loss and unemployment.
This is especially true when people discuss the necessity of certain educational factors for certain types of low paying, more entry level jobs – even people focusing on getting “a” job may often be shocked how often people target rather significant education levels for the express purpose of getting very low paying, low mobility, low reward jobs, but ones that are perceived as being more stable (often those in the public sector.) This is mirrored in many certification processes. Certifications are an extension of education in this way and many people go after common certifications, often in many different areas of study, in order to hedge against job loss in the future or to prepare for a change of direction at their current job or similar. Education and certification are not generally seen as tools for success, but attempts to hedge against failure.
You may recognize this behavior expressed when people talk about creating a resume or CV designed to “get past HR filters.” This makes total sense as a huge percentage (whether this is 5% or 80% does not matter) of jobs in the market place are gate-kept by non-technical human resources staff who may eliminate people based on their own prejudices or misunderstandings before qualified technical resources ever get a chance to evaluate the candidates. So by targeting factors that help us to successfully pass the HR filter we get many more opportunities for a technical hiring manager to review our candidacy.
Of course, nearly everyone recognizes that an HR filtering process like this is horrific and will eliminate incredibly competent people, possibly the best people, right off of the bat. There is no question that this is not even remotely useful for hiring the best potential employees. And yet most everyone still attempts to get past these HR departments in the hopes of being hired by firms that have no interest, even at the most basic level, of hiring great people, but rather are looking mostly to eliminate the worst people. Why do we do this so reliably? Because the goal here is not to get the best possible job, but rather to have as many opportunities as possible to get, more or less, “a” job.
If we were seeking the best possible jobs we would actually be challenged in the opposite direction. Rather than hoping to get past the HR filters, we might be more interested in being intentionally caught and removed by them. When looking for the “perfect” career opportunity we care more about eliminated the “noise” of the interviewing process than we are in increasing the “hits”. It is a completely different thought process. In the “any job” case, we want as many opportunities as we can get so that we have one to take. But in the “the job” case, we want less rewarding jobs (however this is defined for the individual) to filter themselves out of the picture as we would otherwise have them potentially wasting our time or worse, have them appear like a great opportunity that we might accidentally accept when we would not have done so had we known more about them up front.
When going after “a” job we expect people to accept jobs quickly and give them up reluctantly. Those in the opposite position generally do exactly the opposite, giving a lot of thought and time to choosing the next career move but having little concern as to remaining at their last “stepping stone” position.
Somewhat counter-intuitively we may find that those wiling to take job offers more quickly may actually find themselves with fewer useful career opportunities in the long run. The appearance of stability is not always what it seems and the market pressures are not always highly visible. There are a couple of factors at play here. One is that the path to the most common jobs is one that is well trodden and the competition for those jobs can be fierce. So even though perhaps 90% of all jobs would be seen as falling into this category, perhaps 95% of all people are attempting to get those jobs. The approach taken to get “a” job generally results in a lack of market differentiation for the potential worker (and for the job as well) making it difficult to stand out in a field so full of competition.
On the other hand, those that have worked hard to pursue their goals and have taken unique paths may be presented with technically fewer options, but those that they are presented with are usually far better and have a drastically smaller pool of competition vying for those positions. This can mean that actually getting “the” job might be more likely than it would otherwise seem even to the point of being potentially easier than getting “a” job, at least through traditional means and approaches. By taking the path less traveled, for example, the candidate working extremely hard to reach a dream position may find ways to bypass otherwise stringent job requirements, for example, or may simply leverage favorable statistical situations.
Also working in the favor of those seeking “the” job is that they tend to advance in their careers and develop powerful repertoires much more quickly. This alone can be a major factor in mitigating the risk of going this route. Powerful resumes, broad experience and deep skill sets will often allow them to command higher salaries and get into jobs in a variety of categories across more fields. This flexibility from a capability and experience perspective can heavily offset the inherent risks that this path can appear to present.
At the end of the day, we have to evaluate our own needs on a personal level and determine what makes sense for us or for our families. And this is something that everyone, even middle school students, should begin to think about and prepare for. It requires much self reflection and a strong evaluation of our goals and priorities to determine what makes sense for us. Because factors like high school classes and high school age interning and projects, university decisions, and more happen so early in life and are so heavily dependent on this realization of intention we can all benefit greatly by promoting this self evaluation as early on as possible.
And this information, this self evaluation, should be seen as a critical factor in any and all job and career discussions. Understanding what matters to us individually will make our own decisions and the advice from others so much more meaningful and useful. We so often depend on assumptions, often wrong, about whether we are looking for the chance to climb the ladder to a dream job or if we looking for a lifetime of safety and security and few, if any, are willing to outright state what factors are driving their assumptions and how those assumptions drive decisions.
How about you? Are you looking at every career decision as “how does this get me to the best, most amazing position possible” or are you thinking “how will this put me at risk in the future?” What are your priorities. Are you looking for a job; or are you looking for the job.