Today’s job market favors employees. The attitude of most workers is that they should have a job that makes them happy. So it’s no surprise that at any given time 70 percent of the workforce is job hunting, according to the Wall St. Journal.

Everyone is looking for the right position. But what exactly does that mean?

Here is something it’s probably not: Prestigious. People who chase fame and prestige are generally not as happy as other people. If you’re after fame, you are setting goals that are dependent on other peoples’ approval. Conversely, goals about self-acceptance and friendship make you happy because you have more control over them.

You might think you’re different – that you have a legitimate shot at fame. Ninety percent of young workers think they are in the top 10 percent of all workers, according to Business Week. Also, 40 percent think they will become famous. The reality is 1 or 2 percent ever achieve a modicum of fame.

A good rule of thumb when choosing a job to make you happy is to pick one that is based on the following list of attributes.

To test a job to see if it’s good, give the job points for each attribute it has:

1. A short, predictable commute – 1 point
The problem with a long commute is that it is long in a different way each day. Sometimes it’s the rain, sometimes there’s an accident. Sometimes traffic is backed up for no apparent reason. Humans can acclimate themselves to a lot of traumatic stuff – even being a paraplegic, according to Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness. But you cannot acclimate yourself to something that is bad in a different way every day.

2. Workflow you can manage – 1 point
This is not about doing work. This is about managing your personal life, which you cannot do if you have no control over your workflow. You need to be able to predict when things will be difficult and when it’s safe to focus more on your personal life. This is why management consultants are generally happy – they oversee their own schedule. But those who hold client-heavy jobs, such as lawyers or financial analysts, have to jump at a clients’ whim.

3. Clear goals that are challenging – 1 point
Goals that are not challenging result in boredom, not happiness. But challenging work without a clear goal is a bad job waiting to happen because people want to know how they’re doing. But you can’t get feedback from a boss who does not set clear goals to manage your progress.

It is worth noting that the primary cause of workplace burnout is not the amount of time spent working, but whether the work you did can make a difference. For example, nurses on the pediatric burn unit have high turnover because it is exhausting to be taking care of children without being able to stop their suffering. Conversely, entrepreneurs are typically happy because they have so much control over workflow and goals.

4. Two co-workers you’re close friend with – 3 points
If you have two good friends at work, you are almost guaranteed to like your job, according to Tom Rath, the author of Vital Friends. This is, in part, because you can process the bad parts of a job more productively with friends by your side to help you.

So finding a job you like or turning a bad job in to a good job might actually be totally under your control; you can decide you are going to be likable and make friends, or not.

Test results:

0-2 points, probably not a good job

3 points, probably a good job

4 – 6 points, probably a really good job

47 replies
  1. Me 2, the SQL
    Me 2, the SQL says:

    Not to be too picky (that is part of my job though) but where is the actual test mentioned in the column title??
    * * * * * * *
    This is a good question. Such a good question that I decided to edit the post. Thanks for keeping me on my toes.

    -Penelope

  2. Queercents
    Queercents says:

    "You cannot acclimate yourself to something that is bad in a different way every day."

    That explains it. I never really thought about why long commutes make life so miserable. But you're right. It's the variables that you can't control. Predictability is commuter salvation.

    The only way I've survived a decade in Los Angeles is because I work from home. My partner's office is less than 5 minutes from our house. We're spoiled and every time we try to leave town on Friday during rush hour we take note and thank the career gods.

    By the way, LA to San Diego!! We're you insane?

  3. Torbjorn
    Torbjorn says:

    I like those three, succinct points to a good job. When I tell people I have time to take an hour lunch, spend some time doing some of my own research at work, AND nailing down a company project all in one day, they wonder if I really have a job at all. I think that’s just another sign of a good job. Though not every day makes space for those…

    Rock on, you’re really pumpin’ out the posts these days.

  4. Scott
    Scott says:

    As a management consultant who has no control over his workflow and is currently jumping at a client’s every request (but obviously not high enough to have no time to read this blog), I have to disagree with you on the “management consultants have control over their workflow and don’t have to jump at client requests” point.

    * * * * * *
    I should have clarified: In this case “management consultant” refers to the freelance type who work from home and travel to clients and basically work for themselves.

    Management consultants working for larger companies tend to have very difficult lives becuase of incessant travel and little control over the client because.

    On the other hand, if you work for yourself you tend to be able to exert a little more control over how a client uses your time and you can travel less frequently as long as you can support yourself with the amount of travel you do do.

    –Penelope

  5. Torbjorn
    Torbjorn says:

    Scott’s right, there is a lot of jumping at request in all types of consulting, but that doesn’t mean we can’t control our workflow. The only reason we sometimes won’t up and leave at their request is when the client’s too far, and we have to give ourselves a week to plan the visit as it only happens once a month.

    I don’t carry the same responsibility my boss will – he’s known to hop on a charter plane within the day. Remote locations can be a real bi*Ch!

  6. Laura
    Laura says:

    I would also strongly disagree with the point about management consultants. That’s what I do for a living and we basically are at the clients’ mercy. When we have a big project, we’re expected to work 18 hour days to get it done quickly because my bosses have an irritating habit of submitting unrealistically quick project timelines in the proposals when they bid on the projects (and then guess who gets to shoulder the main burden of the workload? Not the big bosses, that’s for sure.)

    And then maybe I’m just weird but I scored 4 on your quiz and am extremely unhappy at work (as are my two friends that scored me 3 points.) So I’m not sure it applies across the board. The thing is, I have clear goals that are challenging to achieve, but I hate the work I do. I’m bored even when I’m busy. My job doesn’t make me feel smart, because it’s not a really great fit for me – it doesn’t use my best skills and it DOES require me to use skills that I am sort of average at. So why aren’t these points addressed in the quiz? Why isn’t there any question about liking the work you do, feeling like you are accomplishing something, feeling proud of the quality of your work or anything like that? What about being treated well and respected by management? Because those are the things that would make me like my job.

    Lastly, one area I didn’t get a point on the quiz is the commute because I have a long-ish commute to work every day. But it’s my favourite part of my work day. I get to sit in my car, sip my coffee uninterrupted by anyone else, listen to whatever music I want and sing along to the radio at the top of my lungs. It generally gets me pumped up and ready to face the workday, and is a good way to unwind at the end of the day before saying hello to my family when I get home. It’s a buffer between stress from work and happiness at home, so that when I walk in the door I’m not complaining bitterly about work-related stuff. I don’t really understand why everyone hates it so much.

  7. Kathryn
    Kathryn says:

    I like the grading scale. Isn’t it funny how assigning different point values really brings home how important something is?

  8. Kathryn
    Kathryn says:

    d’oh! double post!

    Laura, how long is “long-ish”? 20 minutes? And does that consistently carry you through long stretches of fluid traffic?

    I used to commute 30 miles to work each morning back when I was an intern. I admit, it was a great journey in the morning. But that’s because it was across 30 miles of rural interstate at 5:30 AM and I got to see the sun rise in the parking lot. But going home at 2:30 PM was always miserable because the last 3 blocks carried me through the main commercial intersections of the only “big city” for a hundred miles.

    It really was just as Penelope suggests: the consistency of the morning drive allowed me to find a positive way of thinking about it. But the unpredictability of the afternoon drives made it highly unpleasant each day. I ultimately took to stopping at a pet store off the interstate and playing with the birds every afternoon. (You can only get away with that when you’re a 19 year-old girl.)

  9. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    If business leaders thought more creatively, some things would be better for everyone and everyone would have a chance to love their jobs, no matter what the quiz score is.

    Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, India’s best known biotech entrepreneur, reportedly moved her firm’s office hours from 9am-530pm to 730am-4pm, so her employees could avoid rush hour (on Bangalore’s roads, which will make you all love LA’s highways so much more!) each way and also enjoy more family time in the evenings.

    Of course this would not work if *everyone* changed their work hours but leaders of firms need to think more about employees and their concerns – about commutes, about work flexibility and so on.

    My experience as a customer of different banks (the most notorious sector for poor customer service here) in the UK shows that if employees are happy, they make sure customers are happy! Employee, not customer, should be king.

  10. Austin Programmer
    Austin Programmer says:

    Penelope,

    I really enjoy reading your blog. This post made me think of something similar – The Joel Test. It’s a test that Joel Spolsky developed whereby the interviewee can determine if the software development group he’s interviewing is worth his time. There are twelve items, each worth a point, and each things that you can ask in an interview. Obviously the higher the score, the better the development group (generally).

    It would be really handy to have a “company” version of this kind of test.

    Reference: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000043.html

  11. Brian Johnson
    Brian Johnson says:

    The “close friends” issue gets a little cloudy to me for someone at the top of the org chart. While I greatly enjoy being around the employees I’ve hired (or I wouldn’t have hired them), I rarelyt socialize with them on off hours. It seems like the employer/employee relationship precludes the opportunity for a really great personal relationship outside of work hours. Does that make this particular point irrelevant for employers or is the definition of “close friend” a little different when you’re the boss?

  12. Jeff Lancaster
    Jeff Lancaster says:

    Trunk,

    You are truly a non-conformist, but also a correctionist, for this reason you will reap the wrath of those who are on the wrong side of truth. Sigh, – €˜tis the lot of truth-sayers.

    Your last article on the finance.yahoo.com web page regarding the need to become more family oriented is based on correct principles. If people are going to CHOOSE to have a family (spouse and children) then taking care of business at HOME must be the top priority. It may mean a career sacrifice, but that is the risk we take when we CHOOSE the family way. (Yes, I know, we all have to work to support the family, but 80 hour weeks? Then stay single).

    More – €˜Xers who are choosing to live the family life are also choosing to put family first (stay-at-home-mom or dad). The boomers (‘Xers parents) made life extraordinarily painful by putting their careers and other personal interests ahead of the family (80 hour work week, divorce, daycare, etc.). The – €˜Xers are correcting that painful aspect of life and are making the lives of their own children more stable and safe. The old hard-hat feminism is giving way to a more family friendly trend.

    Because you are a non-conformist and a correctionist you will reap the wrath of those who are on the wrong side of truth. You should feel honored.

    Thanks.

    JB Lancaster.

  13. Tiffany Monhollon
    Tiffany Monhollon says:

    Excellent. It’s nice to have a reminder of the things that directly impact your attitude about your job. And I personally agree – the people who surround you are the most important thing.

    To support that, a current poll at our blog has work environment far in the lead for the most important job satisfaction determinant for our readers :)

  14. d
    d says:

    The “close friends” thing isn’t necessarily a good yardstick, as it’s tied (in part) to how long you’ve been at a company.

    I just left a job of 6 years. By the time I left, I’d made four or five very close friends.

    In my new job, I don’t really know anyone well yet. Over time, I’m sure, I’ll make friends. But, for now–and maybe the first year or so–I’ll have to make do without. Hardly ideal, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles…

  15. Laura
    Laura says:

    Kathryn, no it’s 45 minutes each direction in rush hour traffic in a major urban area. I live in a suburb and work in the downtown core.

  16. Karen
    Karen says:

    Re: what makes a perfect job, I think you need to include two more very, very important things: 1) can you live on the salary the job pays? and 2) does the job provide something internally rewarding? By “internally rewarding”, I mean does the job provide an outlet for some or all of your abilities? Do you get satisfaction from the work you do, whether it’s because you personally help a client, close a sale, nail a presentation or because you can close the book on a project and feel pride in what you’ve done? If you aren’t satisfied with what you do, the shortest commute in the world won’t help you to love your job! And while money isn’t everything, bringing in enough to cover all monthly expenses and still have something left over does contribute greatly to one’s sense of self esteem, purpose, and general happiness level.

  17. Jessi
    Jessi says:

    I think people have different motivations and I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to be infamous.

    Fame= Renowned

    I think the problem with the “40% of the workforce that think they will be famous” is that they expect it to fall in their lap! They don’t want to take the time to build a reputation…they just expect it. As much, as people don’t want to work, the most gratifying fame is the one that was worked hard for.

  18. Dave
    Dave says:

    Laura said: “Lastly, one area I didn't get a point on the quiz is the commute because I have a long-ish commute to work every day. I don't really understand why everyone hates it so much.”
    I couldn’t agree more. It really depends on how you use that time. Myself, I’m a motorcyclist – and I’d rather take the bike on just about any day. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about snow in southern California! The bike saves me time (I can lanesplit through the worst of traffic), hassle (finding a parking spot – easy!), money (even my big bike gets ~40mpg in the city), plus the performance and handling are far better than all but the fanciest sports cars. I commuted 60 miles each way for 3 years on a route that took me along the Pacific for many miles each way – what a great way to decompress on the way home! The few times a year I drive the car to work – ugh, hate it! A fellow motorcyclist has a job that requires him to travel to several different job sites on a regular basis, all (relatively) local, too close to fly but far enough to need overnight stays – he rides his bike. He’s got enough leeway in his schedule to enjoy the trip and get in some sightseeing too. Sure sounds good to me.

  19. Dan B.
    Dan B. says:

    I’m having a problem with 50% of the “test” relying on whether or not someone has two or more good friends at work. Nice start, but it needs to cover at least a few more areas!

    * * * * * *
    Dan, here’s another way to think about the test: You can either have a good job that meets the requirements of what is fulfilling work. Or you can have good friends which has been shown to help people overcome the problems of having a bad job.

    –Penelope

  20. DWG
    DWG says:

    Definitely, financial rewards is a necessary part of having a good job. I had a job that would have scored a 5 or 6 on your quiz, and yet, I left in under 2 years. This was a tenure-track job at a prestigious university. And yes, it was a “fulfilling” job.

    The problem is, we were being asked to compete with other lower-ranked universities having professors being paid 40% more money. And, we were asked to do it in a city where the average house price cost 200% of what the typical house cost at those other universities. And, I was stressing out making sandwiches for lunch every day, driving my car for 2 months with a nail in the tire, grading lots of student work because there was no money for graders, etc. That job was a recipe for guaranteed career failure, or at least, forcible lowering of career aspirations ..

    “Performs miracles on demand for no rewards” is no longer a part of my job description …

  21. John Goodman
    John Goodman says:

    Good post, Penelope,
    Living in the Los Angeles area, but having only a five mile bicycle commute in the burbs, I bow to the east 7 times every morning when I see the traffic report on the a.m. news and know I don’t have to deal with it. The analysis is correct though. When I did have an ugly commute I knew where I could expect traffic and accepted it. It was those unexpected accidents, closures etc. that most impacted my attitude.

    As for workflow management I must take some exception. For those of us that can manage our own work flow it is the best of all worlds. I’ve been in a consulting capacity for the last several years and love it. I set my own hours, but tend to be fairly disciplined about working a regular schedule. On the other hand I’ve seen many people try and fail when given control over their own time because, as one of my associates so rightly pointed out, “they become too busy to work”. There is always something else to do; run errands, go to the gym, schlep the kids somewhere etc. etc. Some people just need structure imposed on them by a “higher authority” to get discipline in their lives and this doesn’t only apply to work if you get my drift.

  22. Tony Tallent
    Tony Tallent says:

    OK, I really like my job. I’m in the 4-6 range on this test. Somehow I knew this. It’s the solid stuff that counts–a couple of great colleagues, having some freedom in your schedule, not having to drive for a hour to get to your desk. The rest of the grey stuff– clueless leadership, turn-of-the-century policies and procedures, pockets of dead wood staff…those don’t keep the show from going on. And shouldn’t keep a solid resume from being built for the next big step.
    Tony Tallent

  23. Andrea C>> Become a consultant blog
    Andrea C>> Become a consultant blog says:

    Wait a minute. I’m self-employed. I don’t have employees — although I do have subcontractors. Does this mean I lose 40% or does it mean I should only hire good friends as subs? Or can I have points for having other self-employed friends who can meet for coffee when everyone else is at work?

  24. NYC Memories
    NYC Memories says:

    I work for a small management consulting firm (tiny, like 15 people), I work from home most of the time, and yet I STILL have no control over my life.
    My conclusion is that no matter who “freelancing” you are, if you are a consultant you do whatever that makes the client happy – therefore you basically have no control over your life because nobody is begging you for money, it’s the other way around.
    And in this economy even freelancers face intense competition, so nobody can afford to be flexible with their schedules.
    Sad, but true.

  25. Owen Richard Kindig
    Owen Richard Kindig says:

    Thanks again for incisive advice. I got a two. The commute is 50 feet and the goals of video production/marketing strategy are always clear and challenging. But the lack of collaborators and the inability to control workload have burned me out… I need to join a team and I’ll soon be driving across the country to Seattle and a new set of circumstances. These findings suggest I should be brave and burn my bridges to self-employment.

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  27. Atanu
    Atanu says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I very much agree with the points. However I suppose that you have assumed that:
    (1) In short term – One is in a job which pays as per present expectations and (2) In the Long term – One is in an acceptable growth path to cater for future growth prospects.

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