The World's Shortest Career Course

Choosing, landing, negotiating, succeeding.

Posted Feb 14, 2020

Nobbler 1, Public Domain
Source: Nobbler 1, Public Domain

"A person who seeks rest finds boredom. A person who seeks work finds rest." —Dylan Thomas

"My experience has been that work is almost the best way to pull oneself out of the depths." —Eleanor Roosevelt

"The very striving and hard work that we so constantly try to avoid is the major building block in the person we are today." —Pope Paul VI

Today, many people disagree with the above perspectives. Work-life balance is today’s mantra. Yet, whether you choose to make work primary or secondary, making the most of your work life is central to the life well-led.

Choosing a career

Often, choosing a career can be easier than many people think. I like this approach:

1.) Which one or two of these six are your best abilities:

  • Wordsmithing, verbally or in writing, in explaining and/or persuading. A few under-the-radar examples of careers using wordsmithing: non-profit fundraising writer, government spokesperson, online training scriptwriter.
  • Emotional intelligence: the ability to infer what will move people to do your bidding and to like you. A few under-the-radar examples: anger management counselor, environmental products manufacturer's rep, child protective services social worker.
  • Data, whether in science, math, engineering, or computers. A few under-the-radar examples: biostatistician, cryptographer, electron microscopist.
  • The aesthetic: the ability to create or select visual or performing art. A few under-the-radar examples: African art importer, busker, video post-production specialist.
  • Entrepreneurial: the ability to identify an unmet need that could generate good income, create a plan for filling it, and see it through to profitability. A few under-the-radar examples: legal process servicer, cloner of a successful business in a new location, food concessionaire at high school games.
  • Hands-on: the ability to design, build, and repair concrete objects. A few under-the-radar examples: custom lighting fixture designer/builder, medical imaging equipment repairer, trade show exhibit builder.

2. Using just your choice(s) from #1 as a filter, scan the career profiles in the Occupational Outlook Handbook and/or my book, Careers for Dummies.

3. Learn about the one or more careers you’ve selected in #2 by Google-searching, considering videos as well as articles.

Landing a good job

The right approach depends on your personality and viability for the target job.

If you’re likely near the top of the stack for an openly advertised job, focus on creating a great application:

  • A customized resume. The most important parts to customize are the headline, highlights or summary, and embedding keywords that are in the ad. Embed those words in the text, not as a separate list.
  • A customized cover letter in which you explain, point-by-point, why you well-meet the few major requirements listed in the ad.
  • A piece of collateral material: a relevant work sample, a plan for what you’d do in the first 30 days, or a few-page white paper that demonstrates current knowledge central to the target job.

Tip: Many online application forms don’t have a space for a cover letter or collateral material. If a form doesn't, append your collateral material to your resume.

If your background is unlikely to put you near the top of the heap, don’t burn much time and emotional energy answering ads. Spend most of your job-search time and energy tapping your existing network or expanding it, for example, by getting involved in your professional association. If you’re assertive, you might email and/or phone people not advertising an on-target job but who have the power to hire you. Find such contacts through your network, LinkedIn, or by doing internet research. Sometimes, key employees are listed on the employer’s website or found by googling the title of the person with power to hire you plus the name of the organization, the word “email” and the headquarter's area code, for example, [“Vice-president, operations” “Ace Widget Co” 510 email.]

You need a 10- and -60 second pitch that makes clear what you’re looking for and why you’d be good at it, for example: “I’ve been an accountant at a mid-sized company and got fine evaluations but was part of a large layoff when the company was acquired.”

You’ll also want to have two or three PAR stories at the ready: a problem you faced, the clever or dogged way you approached it, and the positive result.

Vetting

To ensure you’re happier on the next job than on the previous, you’ll want to ask vetting questions, not just at the end of the interview or when offered the job, but, if allowed, during the interviews. Examples: “Why did the incumbent leave?” “What would you hope I’d accomplish in the first 30 days?” “Bosses and office cultures vary. How would you describe what I’d experience here?”

Negotiating the offer

Many employers like to send the offer in writing, making it seem like it’s cast in stone. Plus, it’s impersonal so employers can low-ball without feeling as guilty. Whether or not the offer comes in writing, ask if you can come in to negotiate terms. That conveys that you’re not desperate. Plus, you can get a sense of the vibe: Do the employees seem engaged and contented rather than bored or harried?

Most candidates focus negotiation on the money. Often, that's a mistake because any extra you'd negotiate would be taxed at your top rate, so you’ll lose roughly half. Plus, the employer gets nothing in exchange. So, if the offer seems low, yes you might make the case for a higher salary, showing comparables plus any above-average value-add, but it's usually wise to focus on non-cash items. Those are not taxable and often yield benefits not just to you but to the employer. Examples: a training budget, a job description adjusted to accentuate your strengths and skirt your weaknesses, and telecommuting, so the employer needn’t give you office space nor have an employee who, because of the commute, starts the workday already stressed.

Rule of thumb: Reject the first offer; accept the second. Any additional you get after the second is often outweighed by unduly heightened expectations for your work performance and increased risk of having the offer pulled: “Well, we don’t want an employee who feels we're underpaying him, so we’re going to go with our #2 candidate. Thanks for your time.”

Succeeding

  • Onboarding. If your boss doesn’t initiate a one-on-one in your first day or two, do so. Ask about and perhaps renegotiate your daily and weekly expectations. Also ask about "unspokens" in the office culture: for example, the actual expected work hours.
  • Hook up with the best. Especially if your boss isn't great, look for an opportunity to do a project with a better employee.
  • Get an early win. Try to get at least one early, visible win, something that would impress boss and coworkers without your seeming to brag. For example, you might send a draft of that report you’re proud of to colleagues “for feedback."
  • At meetings. Try not to dominate nor be quiet. Tactic: On a topic, don’t speak up until a number of others have. Then be a synthesizer, for example, “In light of what David and Mary said, I’m wondering if a good idea would be to X.”
  • Moderately play office politics. Figure out who the power people are and get them to like you: If you sense they like talking shop, talk shop. If they like to talk personally, do so. If they're not much for conversation, just do your job.

Of course, career success cannot be fully explored in a blog post, but this should give you a leg up.

I read this aloud on YouTube.