You’re unusually lucky if you know exactly what you want to do in life — or feel like your current job is perfect for you. Most people need a little guidance to hit their sweet spot, whether the question is how to translate a new degree into a great position, how to quit a job and start over; how to change roles or get promoted; or whether and when to go back to school for a graduate degree.
If you’re in need of help, you’re not alone. Only 49% of Americans surveyed in a recent Pew study said they are “very satisfied” with their current job — and a sizable 30% said theirs is “just a job to get them by.” A 2017 Gallup survey had similar results, finding that 2 in 3 Americans either have no real emotional connection to their work or are actively disengaged and resent their job.
Simply put, many people seem to struggle with the same question: How do you figure out the job — and career path — that will fit your skills well but also actually make you happy?
Mic consulted with career experts and reviewed research to find you the answers. The goal: to make sure your next job isn’t just another “job,” but your next step toward a rewarding and meaningful career — one that will leave you excited and motivated every day. Here are five simple steps to get you there.
1. Take a beat — and look inward
Whether you are just starting out or are a few years into your career, it is easy to get distracted by the more superficial pros and cons of your job options. New graduates might choose the wrong job for them because they are blinded by an enticing salary or focus more on getting a position than vetting it. Mid-career workers might have gotten themselves trapped or pigeonholed into a field (or role) that doesn’t bring them joy.
“We often end up stumbling into our jobs and trying to make what we have work,” said career coach Rita Friedman, “and it can be easy to go with the flow, but it’s not necessarily satisfying.”
No matter your exact predicament, finding a job you’ll love more will require a deep breath and step back, so you can take a more bird’s eye view of your choices. You must know what you’re looking for first — and that means introspection: “I think the first step is really giving yourself the time and space to focus on your career,” Friedman said.
To find the ideal job match for your personality, she recommends, set aside dedicated blocks of time to “clarify what you know about yourself and explore some possibilities.” If you’re not sure where to start, Forbes suggests asking yourself from key questions that will give you insight into your personality like: “If I could chose one friend to trade jobs with, I’d trade with __ because __,” or “The thing I most love about my current job is __ because __,” or “If my job allowed me to, I would do more __ because __.” Career Builder also suggests specific questions to ask yourself, including why you’re starting a job search and where you want to ultimately be in your career.
Colorado State University psychology professor Bryan Dik has written that you should think about past jobs or courses where you’ve excelled; the University of California, Berkeley career site recommends using “clusters” set out by the Department of Education to identify job titles and areas of interest — and offers a creative prompt to get you thinking:
“Imagine that you had 3 separate lifetimes to live — what would you do with your time? Write about your vision. Don’t limit yourself to occupational titles or career fields... provide detailed descriptions of what you’d like to be doing, where you’d like to live, who you’d like to spend time with, and what special skills, training or interests you would hope to explore and develop.”
As you research careers and interests, build organized lists of roles, with columns for how well they match you on different dimensions (like your gifts, values and passions), and try taking notes over time about the job hunt process — plus any insights you realize about yourself along the way. “You might be surprised at how useful they are,” Friedman said.
Still having a hard time pinpointing your own strengths and weaknesses? Tap friends and loved ones to help you better understand yourself. “You turn to your friends if you need help choosing a paint color or finding the best hip surgeon, so why not enlist their aid with your career reinvention?” Nancy Collamer wrote in Second Act Careers. She recommends throwing an “idea party” where you get your friends together to help you brainstorm a new direction for your career. (You supply the wine as a thank you!)
2. Zoom in on your “motivated” skills
Once you have a good general idea of what you’re looking for, it’s time to start narrowing down your best options and thinking about how to maximize results. Maybe you feel pretty sure you want to work with animals, for example: But what particular role would be best?
“Pinpoint what you’re looking to do,” Vicki Salemi, a career expert for Monster.com, said in an email. “When you pursue new opportunities, you are most likely looking to get out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself rather than doing the same ol’, unless you’re currently looking for a lateral move.” If you want something new and different, you’d likely get bored very quickly with a new job similar to the one you’ve already got.
To figure out how to truly improve your happiness, Friedman recommends that you focus on what is called your “motivated skills,” the activities you are good at doing but also enjoy. To help you identify these sweet spot talents, consider the kinds of problems you like to solve and find most rewarding.
Another way to identify motivated skills: Make a list of good experiences, both work-related and non-work-related, that you have had in the past five years. Perhaps you planned an amazing vacation — or you learned to cook a new food. CareerKey suggests focusing on situations you feel most proud of, ranking those accomplishments, then breaking down what skills you used to achieve it. Then rank those skills by which you enjoyed using the most: Maybe you love documenting your sojourns on Instagram or YouTube with photography or video skills — or you particularly enjoy the planning aspects of travel or cooking? Those are your “motivated skills.”
You can even use job ads to help you identify your motivated skills. Friedman suggests focusing on keywords instead of job titles: “As you find jobs that sound especially appealing to you, make note of the language they’re using and incorporate that into your own search.” A job ad that sounds especially interesting may list skills like “work with numbers,” or “train staff members” or “inform executives of company performance.” If these parts of a job description sound awesome to you, write down the key words — train, inform, work with numbers — that correspond to the skills the ad is asking for. You’re excited about these skills for a reason: They’re your motivated skills.
Not sure where to start? There are actually tests you can take to find out what jobs might be a good fit for your personality.
3. Reflect on ideal environments to thrive
It’s not just what you do that will dictate whether a job is a good fit for you; the corporate culture and workplace customs — aka where you work — will also matter a lot. Friedman recommends considering whether you’d prefer a larger or a smaller workplace. She also suggests considering whether you work better on your own or as part of a team; whether you’re more comfortable moving around or sitting at a desk all day and whether you’d prefer work that is project-based or ongoing initiatives.
There are five key types of corporate culture, according to Philadelphia University Online:
• Conventional culture: Rigid hierarchies, low tolerance for risk
• Entrepreneurial culture: Innovation, risk-taking are prized
• Team-based or social culture: Collaboration encouraged, employers invest in employees
• Talent-based culture: Rigorous hiring processes
• Horizontal culture: Everyone is encouraged to share ideas
To determine which of these cultures is the right fit, consider both a situation where you were productive and a situation where you were unproductive, The Muse recommends. Ask yourself questions about each situation, like whether you worked independently or on a team, whether you had a pressing deadline and whether you were doing hands-on work with the product or working with people. This will give you insight into your ideal work environment.
You can also think about when you’ve felt the happiest and most fulfilled in past career situations, as the Guardian suggests. Did you like working for a small mom-and-pop company where everyone had lunch together or do you prefer a big company where you have lots of talented professionals to bounce ideas off of? Do you prefer being told what to do, which might point to a more hierarchical culture being a good fit, or do you like to work collaboratively on a team to get stuff done?
Next, get pickier with your job search efforts. “Sometimes job listings can reflect a corporate culture,” Salemi said. “More conservative companies may have straightforward, no nonsense listings whereas startups or companies with more casual cultures may have more fun with their job descriptions, making them punchier.”
A company’s written communications, social media outreach and information from past and current employees can all give you insight into a company’s culture, as ZipRecruiter points out.
4. Be the “chooser” — not the “chosen”
If you don’t want to get stuck in a toxic job, it’s vital to critically evaluate any possible opportunities — ideally before you apply and definitely before you accept a position. “You are interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you and the same applies to job ads. You’re looking for the best fit to suit your career,” Salemi said.
She recommends evaluating job ads with the same critical eye that an employer would use to evaluate your resume. “Look at the responsibilities. Do they seem exciting, challenging, realistic? Does it seem over your head and too much of a stretch? Good — that means you should go for it.”
You also want to be on the lookout for whether the job description seems like it could be too much for one person to handle and for whether the core job functions are within your wheelhouse. “Responsibilities tend to be listed in descending order with the most important and time consuming responsibilities from top to bottom, not unlike your resume,” Salemi said. “Focus on the bulk of what’s being offered.”
Some job ads may use vague terms like “leading a team,” while others will have specific details about responsibilities, like “creating weekly reports,” per the Balance. Pay close attention to those details about the job title and role, said Salemi, because you don’t want to waste time going through an interview process only to find out the job is a bad fit.
Review the ad to guess at what you’ll be doing on a daily and weekly basis. If you’re going to be making a weekly presentation to the boss, consider whether this will stress you out or give you a chance you’re excited about. Likewise, if an ad specifies “data analysis” as core to the job, and looking at numbers makes your head hurt, the position may not be right for you.
5. Don’t dawdle: Dive in
All of this said, don’t be afraid to apply to a job that sounds like it would be a good, but challenging, fit for you. “Let the employer decide whether or not you’re a fit once you apply. Too often people dismiss their skills thinking they’re not ready and instead play it too safe,” Salemi said. After all, at a certain point, too much introspection can start to hurt you. If a job might make you happy, don’t hesitate to apply: “If you squander time wondering whether or not it’s a fit, you may lose your shot at the job,” she said.
An influx of resumes generally come in as soon as a job is posted and employers tend to review those first to get potential candidates in as quickly as possible. “You may get into the next batch or the next — or not. If the hiring manager wants to make a fast decision and sees three stellar candidates in the first round, they may make a decision immediately. “
If there’s a company you would be particularly excited about working for, consider cold-calling a person who would be in a position to hire you.
Be sure you’re always networking — particularly in certain industries — even if your career is going well, because you never know when a professional contact could help you find a perfect job. And once you nab the job? Get your ducks in a row before you leave your current position.
For more advice, check out Mic’s 17 secrets to the perfect career.
Sign up for the Payoff — your weekly crash course on how to live your best financial life. Additionally, for all your burning money questions, check out Mic’s credit, savings, career, investing and health care hubs for more information — that pays off.