How to tell if it’s a good job or bad job

Many of the coaching sessions I do center around a single question: is it time to switch careers? What I’ve found is that in most cases, the answer is no, it is not time to switch careers.

Here’s why: We are absolutely terrible at predicting what we will like to do in our careers, and we overestimate how much we’ll like a new career.

We learn best from trial and error. However we are naturally risk averse and we hate to fail, so we’re constantly trying to make intelligent decisions in an attempt to avoid the errors in trial and error.

You have to be okay with failing or you get completely stuck. But the more we can understand what sways our thinking, the better we can compensate for that when making decisions about what to try and when to be okay with failure.

Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert coined the term affective forecasting to encompass the research that shows people are surprisingly poor judges of their future emotional states. For example, I’m smitten with Livia Marin’s melty porcelain cups. In predicting how much that cup in the picture is worth to me, I focus on the excitement of buying the cup and do not consider that there is little excitement in day-to-day living with the cup. (This is why wanting expensive things makes us happier than buying them.)

Here are the three big mind games (scientists say “cognitive bias”) that get in the way of clear decision-making about careers (and all other decisions as well:  who to marry, whether or not to have kids, and so forth):

1. Anchoring
Anchoring describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions. Once an anchor is set, we make other judgments by adjusting relative to that anchor. For example, the initial price offered for a used car sets the standard for the rest of the negotiation, so that prices lower than the initial price seem more reasonable, even if they are still higher than what the car is really worth.

2. Empathy gap
The crux of this idea is that human understanding is “state dependent”. For example, when you are angry, it is difficult to remember what it is like to feel happy, and vice versa; when one is blindly in love with someone, it is difficult to understand what it is like for one not to be, (or to imagine the possibility of not being blindly in love in the future).

This is a frequent problem with startup founders. You should always negotiate a way to buy each other out if you start hating your c0-founder. But at the beginning of a startup you are so enamored that you cannot imagine what you will want to do yourself or your partners when your electricity is cut off.

3. Misconstruals
People give more weight to the data they have about a given outcome and they either ignore or inaccurately create data to fill in for what’s missing in order to make predictions about how they’ll feel.  For example if all you know about being a startup founder is you don’t have a boss and you sell a company for millions of dollars, then you probably feel like you’ll be happy as a founder.

I really like the details in this job description from a reddit thread. While it seems like getting paid to maintain a Twitter feed would be a fun job, there are so many terrible parts to that job that you can’t really see until you’re in the thick of it. And in this short job vignette the writer describes all the minefields of trying to guess at what job you’d like to do.

It’s fun for a while. It feels creative, it feels important. Your friends think it’s cool. They follow your brand. And then a month passes and you’ve written 1000 tweets about hamburgers, even though the public will only see 100.

And then the next content calendar is due. You don’t know what more you can say about hamburgers. You barely know what hamburgers are anymore. Yes, there is beef. Yes, there is a bun. But what does it have to do with St. Patrick’s Day? Do leprechauns eat hamburgers? Is that offensive?

You present the entire month’s worth of tweets to your client over the phone. You’re supposed to read all of them as if hamburgers are exciting, but you can’t because that’s ridiculous. The client kills half your calendar. You have to write more, today, because they need to approve them and then run them by legal and then your art director needs time to create images.

But you don’t have time today. Because you don’t just write tweets for one brand. That would be inefficient. No, you write for four brands. And today you were planning to write tweets about insurance. You’re presenting those tomorrow.

So then it’s 11:30pm and you’re writing about hamburgers. Your girlfriend climbs onto your lap but you push her off. “No,” you say. “The hamburgers.”

You present the content again, even less enthused than before, and draw dicks all over the paper as you read them out loud over the phone. Client buys all the terrible ones. You realize there is nothing creative or important about both the work and yourself as a human being. Your friends stop following your brand and answering your calls. Your girlfriend no longer mentions what you do when she introduces you to people. You get in trouble because yes, talking about leprechauns on St. Patrick’s Day is kind of offensive.

It’s 11:30pm and you’re drafting apologies from hamburgers. You should’ve gone with the “patty” pun.

And to top it all off, you’re out of whiskey.

But the pay is decent, yeah.


24 replies
  1. Keith Clarke
    Keith Clarke says:

    Ha Ha. So true. The grass is greener ….

    No problem with the grass being greener if as you said, you are prepared to fail.

    Changing careers is doable, absolutely. But it’s bloody hard work and never goes as you expect it. So the first questions have to be, “Why do you want it?”, and “How bad do you want it?”

    If you don’t truly know the answer to those or you aren’t prepared to answer honestly and comprehensively, then best staying where you are.

  2. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    Reminds me of the old adage, People make decisions on emotion and justify with fact. Great piece.

  3. Ann
    Ann says:

    Founders never anticipate the many details it takes to get their venture off the ground. But that is half the fun of it. Solving problems /presenting solution in a more creative way than your competitors.

  4. Absolutely Tara
    Absolutely Tara says:

    This is a great post. I don’t even know if I can articulate my thoughts on it more than that, but it has me nodding my head and saying, “This is a great post.”


  5. Nur Costa
    Nur Costa says:

    Is the second link of Reddit right?
    It’s the same link as for the blue & black // white & gold dress. Does it have something to do with the job descriptions you mention in the paragraph? Or have I just misconstrued the whole point?

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      No, the comment about presumably an advertising copywriter was taken from the comments section of the Reddit link.

  6. Kaneesha
    Kaneesha says:

    I just wanted to say how I awesome I think it is that you can use Reddit in this way. I’m on Reddit all day and cannot make the mental connections to seemingly different ideas that you do. You’re amazing…

  7. Vanessa
    Vanessa says:

    haha! sub project management, e-commerce or algae for hamburgers and you have a perfect description of two years of my life.

    if i was still in this game it’d be a perfect time for a “4 Things We Can Learn About Project Management From Zayn Leaving One Direction” post. you’re all missing out, i’m sure.

    • Brandy
      Brandy says:

      Vanessa – please, please, please write that post and let me know when I can read it! It may not be quite the “5 Time management tricks I learned from years of hating TF”, but it’d be up there!

  8. Brandy
    Brandy says:

    This post reminds me of “You are Not so Smart – A Celebration of Self Delusion” and I love you for it. A little reminder of things I already know, but don’t like and choose to forget is helpful sometimes.

  9. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    I absolutely made a good decision to go to nursing school when I was 46 years old, I am now a nurse with a part time job, fulltime income, helping support my three kids in college and the 4 left to go in mpls. I was getting divorced when I took anatomy and left my free lance art therapy gig. My job with an associates from a community college is giving me more job security than my master’s from Drake University ever did. I looked at what was out there and saw a ton of jobs in nursing, and now I am in a job that is challenging and I love it.

  10. Aneesa Bodiat
    Aneesa Bodiat says:

    I obsessively started reading Penelope’s posts last year and after a few months actually quit my regular job and am now trying to make it as a freelancer – I’ve already realized that 2 of the 4 things I am now trying out won’t work for me in the long run because I’ve just lost interest in them, so there’s much to be said for trying things out to decide whether they’ll suit you or not. And those were the 2 things I most thought I’d want to do.

    Maybe I just want to stay at home and start a family and do a tiny bit of work on the side…still figuring it out – but this blog helps, thanks.

    Aneesa – South Africa

  11. Ben
    Ben says:

    Great article. One thing I’d also add is the value of patience and also recurring issues. If you constantly come up against the same problems when going from job to job, you are probably not tackling the root cause!

    Also, it’s important to understand how to find meaning in a career path. Many jobs seem transactional and boring if you never look at the bigger picture. Very funny reddit comment though!


  12. Frank
    Frank says:

    Penelope, a brilliant post!

    It amazing that no matter how good a job sounds, there will come a point for a lot of us, when you will absolutely hate it.

    But when people ask what you do, you will upsell it a bit to maintain a bit of self-esteem while not trying to sound like a whinger or loser.

    At some point, usually after a biggish decision is made, you will rationalize it to justify your decision to yourself but especially to your friends

  13. Peter
    Peter says:

    I think changing careers and changing jobs are two different things.

    I don’t think people change careers or not people do not while we all need to change our jobs once we are unsatisfied.

  14. Allen
    Allen says:

    P, you are wonderful! I do love how you express yourself and thoughts in these posts.

    Your comments section is also worth the time to read all the way through. There is so much to think about, and take away from others contributions.

    Thank you!

  15. yvbaw4t
    yvbaw4t says:

    Is the second link of Reddit right?
    It’s the same link as for the blue & black // white & gold dress. Does it have something to do with the job descriptions you mention in the paragraph? Your comments section is also worth the time to read all the way through. There is so much to think about, and take away from others contributions.

  16. Alexander
    Alexander says:

    As you highlight there are a lot of decisions and research that has to be undertaken, it could almost be too much. I think it is important to recognise this and do some of this work when you are not stressed, or when you can think clearly. Maybe the morning or later in the evening, depends up how you roll.

  17. Maria
    Maria says:

    Here in Portugal the smashing majority of jobs are bad, or horrible. Most new jobs are bad, bad, terrible, underpaid even for graduates, barely above poverty level or not even reach average salary. It is impossible to have dreams and hopes here. It gets worse when you can’t just flee abroad easily and escape the pain. You feel is useless to spent your hard-earned money (like i did, no support from parents) on college studies, unless their daddy has a company. But for low-mid class families like mine, it is hopeless now. Only a small minority of engineers and IT technicians get jobs that allow to live. Once in a while a good job pops in. But they are reserved to the rich kids who have relatives on politics or corporations, companies. This is a hell hole of corruption here. No hope for people like me. I did so much and so hard it was so long that transformed a energic, outgoing person, into a depressed and broke(n) remain…

  18. Sarah T
    Sarah T says:

    This is really interesting. I never assessed my love or hatred for job using the factors you have just outlined. For me, it has always been about constant learning and practicality. If it pays well and it is interesting enough for me, I will stick to whatever that job is.

  19. James Davis
    James Davis says:

    Great Article. Person will only decide the job whether is good or bad when he joins the job or can also decide on the basis of salary, atmosphere etc.

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