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3 Steps to Zero In on Your Ultimate Job


My job situation was growing more desperate every day. I was in the middle of the famous lack-of-job, baby-on-the-way, student-loans-are-due trifecta. I openly professed my desire and willingness to do anything.

Absolutely anything.

It did not matter what the job was. I would take it. I would have washed cars, baked dog biscuits, stalked indebted credit defaulters on their home phones during dinner. You name it.

Then a retired soldier turned Harvard Business School graduate and consultant advised me to straighten up.

“It's not about doing anything,” he said. “It's about figuring out exactly what you want to do. That's step one, and if you don't do that, you're never going to make it to step two.”

Well, no wonder I didn't have a job.

To get me started, he told me to visualize a bullseye. Imagine a dream job in the middle. Jobs I wouldn't mind having in the ring around that. And in the outer ring visualize jobs I am never going to touch.

I had to admit: There were jobs I was not going to do. I was not actually going to be a neuroscientist (no degree in it), or a statistician (can't do math), a radio deejay, or the guy who comes around and picks up our recycling (the thought of trying to put that truck in reverse makes me want to cut my license in half). I'll never be a mechanic, an electrician, or a cable guy. These are things I will never do successfully or of my own volition, so I put them on the outer edge of the bullseye.

And as soon as I started figuring out what I would not do, digging into what I really wanted to do was suddenly easy.

Step One: Identify Worst Nightmare Job

Maybe you share my fear of driving large, waste-management style trucks. Maybe you hate writing, hate sales, hate answering phones. Say so. Write these things down on the outer edges of your bullseye. Putting them there doesn't mean you'll never do it, but it does mean you own up to the fact that you would rather not. 

When you are done with your basic list of things you do not want to do, what do you notice? Do you see any similarities between these jobs? Think about it. I know I do not want to do anything technical or in sales, and looking at job listings with that in mind simplifies what jobs I focus on. Sure, if I absolutely have to, I bet I can learn to drive that truck. But until worse comes to worst, I can dream about my dream job -- and so should you.

Step Two: These Jobs We'll Call 'Acceptable'

Finding an "acceptable" job is like finding a dress to wear to a co-worker's wedding. It is not going to be your favorite, and it is not going to be the one you talk about in 20 years. You will look fine in it and it will do. That’s an acceptable job.

Acceptable jobs capitalize on your skills, but they will not grow you. They interest you enough to get through the day, and they pay enough to justify the work you do. They will never make you giddy with delight to get up and hit the cubicle, but they will bolster your resume, help you gain some new skills, and connect you with people who can help you develop.

Some parts of a military spouse life call for an acceptable job. Sometimes your finances require them. Some duty stations require them. If you are living in a “hellhole” duty station or you are looking for a mom job that fits with your kid’s schedule, you may be happy to take an acceptable job.  But these aren’t your dream job.

Step Three: This is it -- the Dream Big Job

Lawyer? Painter? Principal? President? You have a Big Dream job in your head. It might not be realistic at all, but that is not the goal of the exercise. The goal of the exercise is the "When I grow up ..." answer you spouted 80 times when you were a kid, reimagined and reinvisioned for who you actually are today.

You have to identify your dream job even if, like becoming a tenured professor at Harvard, it's not likely to coincide with your life as a military spouse. Why? Because once you know what your dream job is, you know what jobs you can look for in your real life as a military spouse with real bills and real demands on your time that at least get you close.

Maybe you want to be an attorney. A good job for right now while you work toward that? Paralegal. Staff assistant at law firm. Administrator at a non-profit that works within the field. Those are all real jobs that help you get toward your goal. They are the jobs you write in just around the center of your bullseye. They aren’t the dream job, but they are close. They are the jobs that could be dream jobs in real life, and they are the place where you should focus your attention in your job search.

That way, the next time someone asks you want you want to do, you aren’t forced to say “anything.” Instead, you can show them that you have done the hard work of thinking it through and can answer honestly. “Ideally, I would do ____, but for now, I’m willing to look for jobs that come close.”

Try our bulleye exercise and tell us how it went for you. What are your never-evers? Your OK-I'll-take-its? The job you could do if you could do anything? Figuring out when and how your career will come together is one thing. Figuring out what it is you want to do is the most important step of all.

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