When you look for a job or change careers, what you’re really looking for is a way to improve things in your life. But it’s hard to figure out what will really make things better and what will only make things worse.
There are some things we all know: People who are in love are happier, and people who are chronically unemployed are less happy. But most of us aren’t dealing with such clear-cut extremes.
Most of us ask ourselves on a regular basis, “What’s the best kind of work situation for me?” Yes, we’re all unique, but in truth we aren’t as unique as we think we are. So there are some rules we can all live by when looking for work we’ll love.
Liking What You Have
Forget the deep analysis. Our brains are simply not optimized to figure out what we’ll like. Instead, they’re optimized to figure out how to like what we have.
This helps us on an evolutionary basis: We eat what’s available, we take care of whatever kids we get, and so on. It doesn’t help us in a job hunt, where we have to guess what we would like if we had it.
Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, spent his whole career studying this sort of problem and published his findings in “Stumbling on Happiness.” Gilbert concludes that we’re basically unable to know if we’ll like a job until we try it, so self-analysis and market analysis aren’t going to get you very far. Start trying stuff.
You don’t have to quit your job to try things. Try new stuff on the weekend, volunteer for a project part-time, or ask for a temporary appointment to another department, for example. Be creative in how you learn about yourself. A job change doesn’t have to be now or never — it can be a process.
That said, here are some guidelines you can use for deciding what you’re going to try:
• Don’t go to grad school for humanities.
You would have had a better chance surviving on the Titanic than getting a tenure-track professorship in the humanities. The competition for these jobs is fierce, and very few corporate jobs give preference to someone who has a master’s in, say, early American history.
• Don’t be a lawyer.
Suicide is among the leading causes of premature death among lawyers. You can tell yourself you’ll be different, but statistically speaking, you probably won’t be. And while most lawyers don’t kill themselves, this doesn’t bode well for law being your dream career.
• Look for control over your work.
You might think that a manageable workload makes for a good job. But stress doesn’t actually make for a bad job. In fact, some people do very well in high-stress situations. Some even do their best work that way.
What drives people to burn out is when they work very hard but can’t meet their goals. The people most likely to burn out from their jobs, then, are those who are supposed to help children in helpless situations (at hospitals, for example) but can’t stop the pain.
Entrepreneurs, however, are known for working 18-hour days, and frequently love their work because they’re accomplishing something that excites them.
So the most important thing about enjoying your work, according to Alan Krueger, a professor of psychology at Princeton University, is having control over it — when you do it, how you do it, and what you accomplish. “People really like to be able to control the thermostat themselves,” Krueger says.
• Work where you can find a friend.
Take a look at the place you’re thinking of working. Do the people there look happy? Workplaces that promote friendship are more productive, and more fulfilling.
There are a lot of ways to judge whether or not you’ll be likely to make a friend at a new job. But one factor we often forget is architecture. Office space that promotes collaboration and taking a moment to say hi is space that is good for making friends.
• Don’t work with jerks.
Conversations that are insulting have five times the impact on your day than positive conversations. Unfortunately, we have a great memory for the unpleasant. Daniel Gilbert’s research supports this, but Bob Sutton, a professor at Stanford University, specializes in the jerk at work.
Sutton warns that if you work with jerks, you become one. His book gives advice on how to make sure you don’t end up working with these toxic people, and his web site gives you a way to test yourself to see if you’re a jerk yourself. After all, if you’re the jerk, you’re going to have a pretty hard time finding an office without one.
Work Life vs. Life Life
As you search for your new career, collecting advice as you go, remember that the stakes aren’t as high as you might think. A job is not your life.
Your personal life is your life, and your job supports that. The people who are most overwhelmed with career choices are the ones who think a career makes a life. So don’t be afraid to try a lot of options, and don’t be afraid to relax a little.