Ideal First Month
by William S. Frank, President/CEO of CareerLab®
“The republic is a dream.
Nothing happens unless first a dream.”
—Carl Sandburg, in “Washington Monument by Night”
“Dream lofty dreams, and as you dream, so shall you become. Your Vision is the promise of what you shall one day be; your Ideal is the prophecy of what you shall at last unveil.”
—James Allen, in As a Man Thinketh
“Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
that cannot fly.
—Langston Hughes, “Dreams”
When people are getting a sharp focus on their career, we discuss their likes and dislikes on previous jobs and consider results of the Birkman Method, a written career assessment. Next we create a Career Blueprint, a high-resolution digital photo of their perfect work and life situation.
Then I have them write their “Ideal First Month on the New Job.” This is a superb exercise for exploring, clarifying, and getting a sharper focus on your future.
Most jobs, especially challenging assignments, contain huge variety and vary drastically from week to week. That’s why we do the “Ideal First Month.” The first week you might be off to a trade show in Atlanta, the second week back in the office entertaining customers, the third week at home preparing budgets, and so on. Sometimes the job is so complex, it’s helpful to write an ideal three months, or six months.
Start with day one when the alarm goes off. What time does it ring? Where do you live, what do you see when you wake up? What do you have for breakfast? What car do you drive—or do you walk or take public transit? How far is the office from home? What does your office building look like? Or do you work at home?
As you write, include a lot of detail. In fact, overkill on detail. Include the color, texture, sights and smells of the surroundings. Describe the people you see. What are they wearing? What are their ages, educations, and personalities?
What does your physical work space look like? Describe it exactly—or better yet, sketch it. Draw in your computer, filing cabinets, or other paraphernalia—and be generous with yourself—make it exactly perfect, make it fun. Tear pictures from magazines to help visualize. Don’t make your environment too sparse; spend a lot of money on it.
Look at your activities and describe what you’re doing. Are you reading, writing, leading seminars, fighting with people, or crunching numbers on the computer. How much time are you alone? In meetings? Working one-to-one?
Don’t be practical, logical, or reasonable. This is called “The Ideal First Month,” not the month I can barely stomach. There are times to be realistic, but this is not one of them. This is the time to be imaginative, creative, and expansive—even outrageous. Especially outrageously positive.
This is the job where everything goes your way, where doors open instead of close, where you can have it exactly how you want it—just like Burger king. (OK, that dates me.) There are no restrictions and no limitations, except those you impose yourself; so don’t impose any.
Don’t limit yourself by age, education (especially lack of a certain degree), sex, race, geography, or any other factor. In this exercise, there are no limits—everything is possible. That’s why it’s called “The Ideal First Month”—because it’s absolutely perfect and can’t be improved.
My guess is that you’ll have trouble making it fun and perfect. Most people do. Most of us are accustomed to “reality,” and “worst case scenarios.” Well, scratch that. This is the ultimate “Best Case Scenario.” This is your future life. It’s worth spending time on; it’s worth making it happy.
How long should the written exercise be: five, ten, or fifteen pages? There’s no proper length, just the length that’s right for you. I prefer to see it longer and more detailed, but a one-page summary would do, if it were extremely well focused.
One person completing this exercise wrote, “The first day on the new job I get up in the morning, I do what I do, and I go home. The second day, I get up in the morning, I do what I do, and I go home.” Obviously, not much help.
The heart of the exercise is “The Six File Folders.”
The first day on the job your new boss comes in, hands you six file folders, and says, “Susan, these are the major disasters, problems, and challenges I want you to tackle in the next year. No one else can handle this; that’s why we hired you.”
The exercise is to describe what’s in the file folders—the projects, problems, and wildly exciting challenges that get your blood boiling—clearly, precisely, and in great detail, as before.
A second person completing the exercise showed me his File Folders, and they were surprisingly dead and lifeless. I said, “These are really boring, not exciting at all. This sounds like a terrible new job, not the slightest bit interesting. Are you excited about these folders?”
“No,” he said, “not the least bit.” “Then why did you write them,” I asked. “There’s no point in describing a job you don’t want. Throw these away and start over. Put some fun into it. This isn’t a life sentence, you know . . . it’s supposed to be fun.” I gave him an example of a file folder that might fit me:
“As a consultant, I get on a plane and fly to all the major metropolitan centers in the country to interview key senior executives in leading-edge entrepreneurial companies about the reasons for their personal success. I go into their homes and meet their families. I shadow them for a week, participate in all their perks, and eavesdrop on their confrontational, stress-filled meetings. I fly on their corporate jets.
Then I return to my laptop and write a feature article on my impressions of their success. Google, my new client, pays $187,000 for the story (they can afford it), and they give me pats on the back and more far-out assignments. Naturally, all accommodations along the way are first class, expenses aren’t questioned, and my invoices are paid within 7 working days.”
Now that’s fun! That’s an example of a file folder that means something. It contains excitement and adventure, and some clue to what makes me tick, and while not all of it is attainable, perhaps parts of it would be.
Important note: the six (6) file folders don’t have to be related to one another in any way. They can be contradictory or incompatible. They don’t have to be achievable; they don’t have to make sense. The only criterion is that they be wildly-fun. Fun for you, maybe not for anyone else. As I’ve said, this is all about you.
There are two parts to the career transition process: 1) The What, and 2) The How. What do I want to do, and how am I going to do it? Candidates often mix the two together. That’s not helpful. This is the fun, imaginative, creative part. The how-do-we-make-it-happen part comes later. And that’s where we adjust the vision to reality.
In my example above, I may not be flying on the corporate jet anytime soon. That’s okay. But interviewing top executives about their success, that would be a hoot. (Actually, I do it now, every day.) And I could do that from a spare bedroom in my basement. In this phase, don’t get hung up on how you’re going to get there. Just enjoy the journey of what’s fun. For you. No one else.
A banker named Terry completed this exercise at a difficult time in his career. He had been thrown into the job market after a layoff, there were no openings in his field, and he had sunk part of his life savings into the wrong business venture.
Terry completed the Ideal First Month on the New Job exercise, and as a result, he clearly saw what he wanted to do and realized it was already possible. Several months earlier he had turned down a challenging job offer, declining because of geography. The exercise caused him to reconsider, because his File Folders matched the job description perfectly. Terry re-approached the employer, and was hired overnight during a time when there were “no jobs for bankers.”
This isn’t any coincidence. As Earl Nightengale taught us, “We become what we think about.” Your mind is a tool you can program. The important lesson is to program it with the results and outcomes you actually want.
If you’re having trouble getting started, a passage from John Caples might help. Caples was a pioneer in the advertising industry, especially in the idea of testing ads to be sure they work. A few paragraphs from his classic Tested Advertising Methods are worth the price of the book. Remember, he’s talking about shaping words to sell stuff, but his advice about powerful writing is spot-on:
“Get excited! Get worked up! . . . Remember that enthusiasm is contagious as measles. It spreads from speaker to listener, from author to reader.
“Then start to write. Write fast. Write furiously. Write as if you had to catch a plane. Write as if you had to put all your thoughts on paper in the next five minutes or lose them forever. . .
“One more word about enthusiastic copy: everybody knows that you can tame a wild horse and make the animal useful. But it is impossible to put life into a dead horse. The same is true of advertising copy (and Ideal First Month copy). An advertisement (or Ideal First Month) that has been pounded out in the white heat of enthusiasm can be tamed and made effective. But it is impossible to put life into dead copy.”
Likewise, it’s impossible to put life into a half-baked “Ideal First Month.” That is, it’s hard to create a truly stellar career from a lukewarm vision of the future.
Still not happy with your output? You might approach the exercise differently, as suggested by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way an international bestseller on creativity.
Take a sheet of paper, not a software program. Part of the results are in the writing-by-hand. Begin listing everything you want in the new job, one thought at a time. List each thought inside a small circle on the paper, and let the circles overlap randomly.
Continue drawing circles and filling them with thoughts until your mind suddenly feels like taking off and writing a narrative. Don’t judge or plan the narrative, simply record whatever comes out. Write with great passion as fast as you can. Sooner or later you’ll get a sense of completion. Write until you feel finished, then stop and take time to reflect on your work. You’ll be pleased and surprised at the outcome.