by William S. Frank, President/CEO of CareerLab®

“From their errors and mistakes,
the wise and good learn wisdom for the future.”

This is an exercise to help you get a clear direction if you’re confused about your career path. Designing a new job or career is much like designing a custom home. If you hired an architect to design your dreamhouse, they might ask you to remember previous homes and comment on things you liked or disliked about them. If you enjoyed having a sun porch, a walkout basement, and an oversize pantry, you could design those features into your new place. If you disliked a musty basement and too-small closets, you could avoid those items in the new plan.

You may design your next job or career the same way. Think about your past jobs, write down your likes and dislikes about each of them. Then design a new path that incorporates your likes and avoids your dislikes. In my own case, I like writing, publishing, and one-on-one consulting. I want to include them in any future job. I’m less fond of interpreting financials and spreadsheets. I’ll minimize my exposure to them in the future by having financial experts around.

The president of a wireless company hired me to help him resurrect his career after a job loss. He literally said, “Where’s my excitement? I need you to help me find my excitement.” His recent employment had beaten him down, and we needed to rekindle the flame.

I said to him, and I’ll say to you, “Your excitement is hiding right here in this exercise.” (He found his excitement, by the way, and became president of another technology company.)

I live by the motto, “It’s hard to beat the truth.” There’s no point pretending I’m a great speechmaker if I dread going onstage. No doubt there’s always room for growth and improvement, and so-called “stretch assignments.” But for purposes of this exercise, we look at what’s true now, what’s really true, not what’s imaginary.

So stick to the unvarnished truth, warts and all. The truth will set you free.

Dig deep. Nothing is too silly to include. “Disliked the rattle of the air conditioner outside my office window” is a helpful entry. Interestingly, you can be great at something and still dislike it; and conversely, you can be a novice or stumbler and love an activity.

The exercise should reveal not just likes and dislikes, but things you love doing or experiencing, and things you’re passionate about. Passion has become an increasingly important word in the world of work.

    • One client, a major account manager for a media company, loved being on the road three days per week, and disliked being cooped up in an office. Heavy travel was a requirement for her happiness.
    • Another candidate in the technology world was easily bored. He was quick-minded and could learn any job in a few months. After that, tedium set in and he began looking for a new employer. He changed jobs every year or two, sometimes more often. His resume looked like Swiss cheese, but his skills were in such high demand employers didn’t care. He too was excited by travel, and it took us several months to find a career position that fit him perfectly. The key to success was remembering that he thrived on change and variety, where most people are buried by it.

How to Begin
Divide your work experience into short 3-5 year segments—by job title, by boss, by location, by projects, or by any other convenient method. Reason: It’s easier to remember short, specific time frames than the entire past at once. Include volunteer work experience, and even hobby or sporting interests, if you’re considering them as career directions.

Create a separate document or spreadsheet for each of these time frames, and divide the page into two columns. On the left side of the page, write down all the things you liked or loved about the job. On the right side, itemize the things you disliked or hated about the job—and be as specific and detailed as possible. It’s not too helpful to say, for example, “I disliked the people.” That’s much too general. It’s more useful to say, “I disliked outside sales people who were pushy and rude.”

Things to Think About
Use the categories below to guide your thoughts. Since every job involves most of these items, try to include notes and comments about each:

    • Boss/Top Management
    • The Company
    • The Industry
    • Products/Services
    • Organizational Structure
    • Political Climate
    • Culture
    • Compensation/Benefits/Rewards
    • Duties and Responsibilities
    • Geography
    • People
    • Peers
    • Employees
    • Customers
    • Vendors/Consultants
    • Physical Space
    • Facilities
    • Tools and Equipment
    • Stress Level
    • Tasks/Projects/Activities
    • Travel

Think through each time frame carefully. Where were you? What were your big challenges? Your big successes? Your major failures or disappointments? How were you and your boss getting along? How did you feel about the organization? Were you proud and happy to be working there?

This isn’t a 15-minute exercise where you drain your brain once and for all. It’s a “refrigerator exercise.” You tape it to the refrigerator and make notes from time to time as you walk by. This is a “think piece.” You mull it over in your mind for several days, or even several weeks. In general, it’s better to make long detailed lists rather than short generic ones. The more data you have, the easier you’ll see trends and patterns.

Early in my career I used this “Likes and Dislikes” exercise to predict a candidate’s success in landing the right job fast. Clients who brought in detailed, lengthy, well-thought-out assignments did best. Those who didn’t take it seriously, who scratched out a dozen or so likes and dislikes on the back of an envelope, did poorly. That still holds true today. Drill into this assignment and dig deep. You’ll be rewarded with great results.

Here are a few examples of what others have written:

Liked about boss:

    • Affirmed and encouraged me
    • Recognized performance
    • Fostered teamwork
    • Objectively critiqued and coached areas for growth
    • Like working for someone who is focused and prioritizes effectively, versus someone who continually changes priority from one thing to another—or making everything the same high priority.

Disliked about boss:

    • micromanaged every little detail
    • constant criticisms of minutiae
    • disliked reporting to two bosses at the same time

Liked about the work itself:

    • Huge variety
    • Being the key decision maker in the department
    • Making high-pressure formal presentations to board of directors

Disliked about the work:

    • Less able to know what was going on in an ever larger, more complex company
    • Lack of time and funding to improve systems as volume and complexity grew
    • Not having a back-up to co-create, generate new ideas

Finishing the Exercise

    1. Review your lists and look for patterns. You might say, “I see I’ve always liked working on projects alone with no outside supervision. Therefore, I want to limit my people interaction in the future.” Or you could observe the opposite about yourself: “I’ve never liked working on projects alone; I do best in a team-oriented environment.”
    2. Look at the extremes. Circle or highlight items that were passions or loves in one color; and circle or highlight intense dislikes, or hates, in another color. See what stands out.
    3. Make extra copies of your lists and distribute them to a few trusted family members, friends, or business acquaintances. Discuss your preferences with others to see what insights they have. Those who know us well often see connections we miss.
    4. Begin to decide what you want in your next job—and what you don’t want in the future. Begin to determine what you must have—these are the absolute essentials— then think about what would be fun, but perhaps frivolous. A window view of the ocean? Three weeks of paid vacation? The ability to work from home one day (or more) per week.

People often object that this exercise is too idealistic. After all, we can’t always have everything we want. I agree that we must pay attention to reality, but at the same time, it’s important to dream a little too. As the poet Carl Sandburg said, “Nothing happens unless first a dream.” So why not dream big?

You may not see all your likes in your next work assignment; but chances are, if you have your priorities firmly in mind, you’ll find the 95%-98% good fit. In my book, that’s perfection. Next step: go to the part two of this three-part series, the career blueprint.

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