When I graduated from Brown, I had a very limited conception of jobs, careers, and what I wanted to do. Basically, I figured I should do some kind of thought work that paid well, but I wasn’t sure what.
Here were my original criteria:
1. Intellectual vs. Manual. Does the job require a lot of conceptual work where I ‘used my brain?’
2. Higher pay vs. Lower Pay. Do you get paid a lot? I didn’t have any real numbers in mind, but more money seemed better than less.
This was my original thinking in a nutshell: seek higher-paid thought work. So I went to law school and joined a big law firm. I found that my framework was totally unhelpful when I didn’t enjoy being a corporate lawyer at all.
After that, I started a company (that flopped), and worked at three other start-ups in tech and education. Over time I got a much better sense of the sort of thing that made a job enjoyable for me. I started categorising the variables and came up with these:
3. Changing over Time vs. Repetitive. In some environments, roles shift and change each period depending on what the company’s needs are. On the other hand, many functional roles can become very repetitive if you perform similar tasks over and over again.
4. Broad Development vs. specialisation/Efficiency. Many jobs want you to become excellent at something and continue to do it. On the other end of the spectrum is a role where you’re required to develop new skills because of evolving responsibilities (e.g., a manager at a growing company). Think a swiss army knife (generalist) versus a scalpel (specialist).
5. Managing/teaching others vs. Operating Individually. Some positions involve developing others and taking responsibility for larger groups of people (e.g., becoming the head of a sales department). On the other hand, many of those with specialised skills or creative roles operate independently much of the time (e.g., a lawyer, writer, doctor, artist).
6. Autonomy/Agency vs. Low Discretion. In some jobs, you are able to make choices how best to address a particular problem, and can exert some control over your own environment and schedule. In other roles, your discretion can be quite limited due to detailed hierarchies, policies, and procedures. (e.g., I found that I had relatively limited discretion as a lawyer because my schedule and environment were out of my control and the client makes most big decisions).
7. People/service-oriented vs. Institutions. In some organisations (e.g., a tutoring business), you directly serve people that you may even see face-to-face. In others, as is common in the professional service context, your clients are large organisations that are hard to personalise (e.g., consulting to a large pharmaceutical company).
8. Compensation for Value vs. Compensation for Time. In most established organisations, there are firm compensation and advancement guidelines, generally related to how long you’ve been there. If you create significant value for a company, it may not be reflected in compensation. In other more flexible contexts, it’s possible for an individual to be compensated according to the value he or she adds.
9. Creative vs. Established Process. If a company has done something before, it probably has a set of documentation, rules, and policies to apply, and as an employee you will be expected to follow the process. In other settings, either because of the nature of the activity or because it hasn’t been done before, you may innovate or implement something new (though if you’re smart you’ll often refer to other companies’ best practices).
10. Building/Making Progress vs. Maintaining Position. If a company is growing, then people’s roles often grow and change and opportunities abound. You are much more likely to feel that you are building toward something and making progress with each passing month. If a company is fighting a defensive battle, contracting, or even staying level, opportunities are harder to come by and roles tend to be more stagnant. In a professional service environment, you often work on one engagement or deal after another, with one ending before the next begins.
11. Executing vs. analysing. In many analytical roles, you synthesize a great deal of data to produce a report, build projections, or make a recommendation. The output is the report, projection, or recommendation (e.g., as a consultant you build a report indicating how a company could lower costs). In an executive capacity, your output is the action or activity of the organisation (e.g., opening stores, choosing what goods to sell, allocating resources to different marketing campaigns, etc.).
12. Team-Orientation vs. Individual Metrics. In many professional service environments, the unit of performance is based on the individual (e.g., how many hours an accountant or lawyer worked and billed, how many patients a doctor has seen, etc.). In other companies, the organisation’s performance is measured more collectively because people from different departments are required to work together in order to achieve shared goals.
13. Uncertain Path vs. Predictable Track. In some situations, you can say with some certainty what the path forward is going to look like over the next number of years in terms of career progression. In others, your path forward will vary widely depending on how the company does and your role within it.
14. Sense of Ownership vs. Employee. In some companies, staff feel a sense of ownership over their work and the performance of the company due to the nature of the activity, company size, culture, or compensation mechanisms (e.g., stock ownership). In other environments, employees feel detached from their employer and see individual performance and company performance as largely unrelated.
15. Well-regarded vs. Obscure/Negative. Certain roles and organisations are admired by employees’ families, peers, friends, and the community at large. Others are not as well-regarded or well-known.
16. Long-term vs. Transactional. In some industries and roles it is customary for employees to come and go every couple of years, particularly junior hires. In other environments employees may stay for extended periods of time to build long-term relationships.
17. Positive Impact vs. Neutral/Indeterminate. Some organisations have missions or conduct activities that produce a discernible, positive impact (e.g., developing a new technology that reduces pollution or improves a health care treatment, etc.). Other companies conduct activities that are neutral or unclear in impact.
This is an exceptionally long list of considerations. To make it a little bit handier, here’s a list of Job Traits:
1. Intellectual vs. Manual Thinking
2. Higher pay vs. Lower pay Compensated
3. Changing over Time vs. Repetitive Changing
4. Broad Development vs. specialisation/Efficiency Breadth
5. Managing/teaching others vs. Operating Individually Managing
6. Autonomy/Responsibility vs. Low Discretion Deciding
7. People/service-oriented vs. Institutions People
8. Fee for Value vs. Fee for Time Rewarded
9. Creative vs. Established Process Creating
10. Building/Making Progress vs. Maintaining Progressing
11. Executing vs. analysing Doing
12. Team Orientation vs. Individual Metrics Collaborating
13. Uncertain Path vs. Predictable Track Risk-taking
14. Sense of Ownership vs. Transactional Owning
15. Well-regarded in Community vs. Obscure/Negative Admired
16. Long-term vs. Transactional Committed
17. Positive Impact vs. Neutral/Indeterminate Contributing
I’ve found this more detailed framework much more useful, and I hope others find it helpful as well. It’s unrealistic to expect a job to hit every single note, particularly starting out. And every job has its fair share of trade-offs and need to manage relationships (e.g., even a CEO is beholden to directors, staff, investors/ownership, customers, etc.). But this set of job traits may help identify why particular roles are more or less appealing to you, and it’s useful to have a vision of what kind of role you’d like to move toward.
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