One of the biggest issues for writers today is how to move between print and online. The issue is really authority. For print people, moving online is difficult because their established offline authority has relatively little meaning online. Conversely people who are mostly online understand that there is a much more structured way to earn authority offline, and they want to feel they are respected in that way.

In both cases, the way to get to the other side is, first and foremost, to care about the other side in a way that is deeper than prestige and self-preservation.

There’s advice here for online writers first, print writers second, and everyone who isn’t a writer and worries about the length of this too-long-to-be-a-post post can skip to the last two paragraphs.

Here are three ways for people to move from online to print:

1. Understand that it’s about paying dues.
And surely you know what I think about paying dues. But you need to work your way up in the print world. Even if you’re great. Sure, there are exceptions, but not so many that you should build a career plan based on them. So if you are doing a lot of work you don’t like doing, and a lot of work you’re not really learning from, you might be on a solid path toward an essay in the New Yorker.

2. Write all the time and expect to be rejected all the time.
You absolutely have to believe that you are a good writer. You must believe this independently of what the rejection slips tell you. Or there is no way to go on. You also absolutely must figure out what you are good at, and this will make rejections in other areas not hurt so much.

No one is good at everything. Very few people really are essayists. Very few are columnists. Very few people give good advice about sex. Fortunately there are lots of different specialties. Figure out what’s right for you. Some people can write for Maxim and some can write for The Atlantic. Few can write for both, but both take talent.

3. Learn the rules.
You have to know how to write a good query. Just stop everything you’re doing and learn how to write one. And have someone you trust review your queries at the beginning. Good resources for this are Media Bistro’s How to Pitch section, and the classes for writing queries at Freelance Success.

The rules for print are arcane. How to get a column is arcane. Mostly, you can’t ask for one — an editor asks you. How to get syndicated is arcane. (But here is some advice on that anyway.) The only thing that is not arcane is the rule that people hire who they like. It’s true in every industry and publishing is no different. So get to know editors if you want writing assignments.

Soul search tip: Ask yourself why you want the prestige of writing for a big-name publication. Prestige is not an end in itself. It doesn’t change who you are, and it doesn’t change how good (or not-so-good) your writing is. Sure, prestige opens doors, but what door do you want to walk through? And why? Because maybe you don’t actually need that particular type of prestige to get where you want to go.

Here are three ways for people to move from print to online:

1. Get a voice and have opinions.
The world does not need another Associated Press. We already have it. So making a name for yourself online is not going to be about duplicating the reporting that the AP is doing just fine. Online success will be something different. It will be about taking a stand. Even if it turns out to be wrong, just take one. This means you have to unlearn all that impartiality.

2. Get off your print pedestal.
Writing online doesn’t mean taking all the stuff that the New Yorker rejected and pasting it into blog software. Writing online means genuinely responding to the community you’re talking to.

If you “just want to write” then moving online is not for you. Because print is about writing from authority and everyone listens. Online is about establishing your authority and having conversations, and people dis you.

Also, be careful whom you emulate. Some people leveraging huge offline brands to move online are not necessarily the online writers you want to emulate. Malcolm Gladwell, for example, is not part of a conversation. He is a great print journalist posting his stuff online. Seth Godin is not having conversation. He doesn’t even accept comments. He is an extremely highly paid public speaker who writes an online diary.

You have to think about where you fit in this new world. And how you want to be. It’s not just writing. It’s a discussion, and there are a lot of different ways you can talk.

3. Educate yourself. Constantly.
The video titled The Machine is Us/ing Us is one of the most enthralling things I have seen about writing online. It has been viewed 2 million times and 5000 people left comments. This video shows what writing online is and what it will be and where we fit. I have watched this video fifteen times, and each time I learn something new.

Many of you will understand almost nothing of this video when you watch it the first time. But if you watch it, and then you read blogs, and you read your news online for a few weeks, and you set up a Google alert system, and then an RSS feed. And after each of those actions, you look at the video again, you will understand a lot.

Soul search tip:
I know this sounds like tons of work. But if you really want to move your print career online, this is the work you have to do. Are you totally annoyed to hear this? It’s okay to not want to learn about how information is spewed and sifted online. Maybe it’s not that interesting to you. But then be honest with yourself: If you don’t get excited about learning about it, why would you want to be a part of it? Think about other career options that get you really excited about learning.

And you know what? This is career advice that applies to everyone, in any career. You need to love learning and exploring in the career you choose. Or else what are you doing there? And you need to be going after something bigger than prestige. If nothing else, we know it’s inherently unsatisfying.

So find what you love to learn about, and find what you’re great at doing, and see where they intersect. That’s where your career potential is strongest.

Other posts from “A Week in Journalism” series:

How to be a freelance writer without starving

Why journalists misquote everyone (and how I met my husband)

Seven ways to get an agent’s attention (by my agent, Susan Rabiner)

One of the most important career moves of the new millennium is getting out of paying dues. Paying one’s due is an antiquated idea in a workplace where few people aspire to climb the same corporate ladder for 45 years.

Eve Tahmincioglu interviewed 55 leaders for her book, From the Sandbox to the Corner Office: Lessons Learned on the Journey to the Top. She found that one of the most common refrains during her interviews was the importance of paying one’s dues. People in leadership positions today think that is important.

However, Tahmincioglu reminds us that what you get from paying your dues is top-of-the-ladder positions that force you to give up almost all your time with your family. In ruminating about what she found from talking with CEOs, Tahmincioglu said, “?”?This is a ridiculous job. If you’re going to get to the top, you need to make sacrifices. You need a spouse at home and you should expect not to spend a lot of time with your children.”

Tahmincioglu echoes what most people today feel about the job of a CEO: Ridiculous. The 80-hour-plus work week is nothing to aim for, and once you decide that you’re not going to climb that ladder, why pay dues? The dues are what you pay when you’re at the bottom in order to get a proverbial ticket to try climbing to the top.

Today’s climb looks different. For one thing, people want personal growth and workplace flexibility – two things not typically valued by people who are hell-bent on seeing people pay dues. The other difference about today’s climb is being able to skip the bottom rung. So the climb looks more like a hop to a spot where you can enjoy yourself without having to worry about the next rung.

Laura Vanderkam has a word for this: grindhopping. In her book, Grindhopping: Build a Rewarding Career Without Paying Your Dues, Vanderkam offers a smorgasbord of career choices and essential skills that will get you out of paying dues while still providing opportunities for challenging and rewarding work.

Her basic idea is for people to take personal responsibility for their goals and career development instead of relying on someone else. She advises people to create benchmarks for themselves and get used to the fact that if they are not climbing a ladder, there is no single clear path. You need to “?”?Get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she advises.

Vanderkam suggests people think “?”?in terms of projects, and not jobs” and then perform like a star so they get more of them. But there are other ways to get past dues-paying as well: People can start their own companies, or skip the heavy dues-paying industries and go into an area that is not as cutthroat.

Raedia Sikkema did just that. She has a degree from the film and television program at New York University with a specialty in animation. Most classmates went to work on feature films for studios such as Sony and Pixar. But she worked on education projects for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“?”?I used to think that working anywhere else [but a big studio] would be sad and not that important. But years down the line, sure you’re working on a feature film, but all you’ve done is a character’s arm.”

Today Sikkema does financial graphics at Lineplot Productions. She works from home, sets her own hours, and controls a project from start to finish rather than working on only one small piece as she pays her dues.

For Sikkema, making the tough choice to not follow her industry’s dues-paying track has paid off: “?”?I feel my work is more creatively fulfilling because I got to do more, even though it was not in a glamorous position.”

The trick to all of this, of course, is being able to market yourself to the people who can give you the work you want. “?”?Position yourself in a way that is true to you, not just as a fit into someone else’s mold,” says Jennifer Kushell, whose company Your Success Network helps young people market themselves professionally. “?”?You need to know what’s special about you and what makes you different,” she says.

Like many things in life, what’s good about not paying your dues is also what’s bad: You get to do work that is true to you, but you have to figure out what that work is to ensure you are good enough at it to get work. So yes, that’s tough stuff, but many will say that it’s much less tough than paying your dues. And really, why do it if you don’t have to?

Yesterday Ryan posted about creating a blended life. His post makes me think a lot about my own set up. I am pretty sure people would say I have a blended life:

1. I work from 8-1pm and 8pm to 12pm seven days a week. Except when I don’t, because my two young sons need something.

2. I take care of my kids from 1pm to 8pm. Except when I don’t because some inflexible business partner needs something.

3. My husband takes care of the kids in the morning, and sometimes in the afternoon, if I have a lot of work. And sometimes I do a whole day of kids when he needs to have more alone time.

This is not a perfect arrangement. For example, I feel guilt when I travel to New York City to promote my book — which I’ve done a couple of times in the past few months. And my husband doesn’t have a career he loves.

But what I want to say is that the hardest part of this blended life for me is not the kids or the career decisions or the marital decisions, but transitioning between the everything.

For example, it’s so hard to be with the kids and not think about work. If nothing else, work is just plain easier to deal with. A blended life is great, but focus on the moment is important, as well. Moving fluidly between such totally different worlds often makes it hard for me to keep my mind in one place when it needs to be.

Last night, at my aunt’s house, there were thirty people around a table all focused on telling the story of Passover. For those of you who don’t know, Passover celebrates when the slavery of the Jews in Egypt ended — thousands of years ago. Who knows how much of the story is true? I’m not sure. But we tell it every year, and it’s a very organized meal, and the point is to teach the story to the kids in an organized way. And last night the only kids there were mine. For much of the story, they were actually paying attention. After all, when does a kid get 30 adults telling a story for your benefit?

What I noticed is that I was so happy to be doing the Passover story and meal with my kids that I stopped worrying about work. Stopped thinking about my blog posts and my book sales and all the other things that hum in my mind most moments of the day.

A lot of times it takes doing something out of the ordinary for you to see what you need to be doing now. Passover did this for me. I realized that even though I’m going through the motions of separating from work each day, I’m not making the mental transition as effectively as I could. I hike with the kids, I go to the gym, do the things you’d think would allow me to stop thinking about work. But I’m not always successful.

Passover was so nice because I had a great ability to focus on stuff that wasn’t work. I want to get that more, in my blended life.

Did you ever notice that in most Starbucks there is art on the wall? In hyperly competitive New York City, where I used to live, the waiting list for putting art on the wall at Starbucks was two years. Really. But I signed up.

I know, you’re thinking, Penelope was an artist? The answer is, sort of: paint and collage. And every once in a while, someone would say, “Do you sell those?” and I’d say, “Okay, yeah, I’ll sell one.” And then I’d think, Well, in that case, then I’m an artist.

So I did what other artists do when they are beginning. I put my name on the list to put my art on the walls at Starbucks. And a long time later, there was a message on my voicemail from the manager of Starbucks asking when I would hang my art.

The answer was — never.

There are two ways to do art: by yourself, in your home, for no one but yourself, or in public, to be a rip-roaring success. Of course, I wanted the second. I tried to want the first, but I keep wondering how well I could do if I tried really hard with the art. And then I thought, if you’re going to be a critical success, you probably don’t want to be known as the person hanging her stuff in Starbucks. Starbucks is for dilettantes.

I think I was a dilettante five years ago, when I put my name on the list. But during the two years it took to get my name to the top of the list, I decided I wanted to be more serious. I had started calling my art collage, and I glued stuff back on when it fell off instead of just throwing it out. I recognized that people who are serious do not let high school kids pick at their paintings in the back corner of a coffee shop.

When you’re on the cusp of dilettantism, but you want to be taken seriously, it’s embarrassing. Because you still look like a joker, but you look like an extreme joker because you’re a joker who no longer wants to admit to being a joker.

I remember the point when I decided that I was a serious writer: I reorganized the folders on my desktop so that the Writing folder was inside my Work folder instead of below it. But I didn’t do that until I had been supporting myself writing for more than a year. It’s a big step to take yourself seriously. The move away from dilettantism is slow, and nervous. Today all I can muster in the art department is to tell Starbucks no.

But I know it’s a step in the right direction because research conducted by Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, in France, shows that the most effective way make a serious move in your life is to do it in a not-so-serious way. It’s more effective to try something out for a few hours a week. That way if you don’t like your new self, you can go back to your old self. And if you like the two hours, try two more. Or maybe use your vacation time to test out your new self.

I did that. I told myself I was an artist and I set aside a week to pretend I was a full-time Very Serious Artist. And this is what happened: I wrote. Because I’m a writer, not a visual artist. But still, I like the idea of doing art. I just have to figure out how it fits into my life. So I’m taking the advice of Ibarra and imagining myself in different situations until I find one that fits.

Change in one’s life does not require a career change. In fact, a career change should be last. After lots of experimenting with small steps in an effort to find out who you really are. That’s how I found out, again, that I’m a writer.

I tell people all the time to change their job if they don’t like it, and people tell me this is totally impractical advice. A lot of people write to me to say that my advice only applies to rich people. Or they tell me that single parents, families living paycheck to paycheck, people in debt, cannot use my advice.

I think these people are in denial. Of course, there are exceptions, but usually these people are really saying that the things they have in their current standard of living are more important than being happy in their job. That’s fine. But don’t complain that the advice doesn’t apply to you. It does. You choose to have an expensive lifestyle instead.

I want to tell you a short history of my financial life. It is so unstable that when I told my brothers that I was writing for Yahoo Finance, they thought it was a joke. And then they got concerned for me that Yahoo would find out the real me, and I’d lose my job.

My bank account looked very good when I was running my own companies. They were well funded, and I extracted a large salary from investors — on top of equity — because it used to be okay to do that. The year my husband and I moved to New York City, I earned more than $200,000.

I had never lived in New York City before. But I had seen photos of John and Carolyn Kennedy coming out of their Tribeca loft, and I figured that’s where I would live with my husband. It was a harsh reality when I discovered that our combined income would need to be in the millions in order to have a loft in Tribeca. So we moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn that was so small that I had to buy storage for all my books. And just about everything else, too.

Then the World Trade Center fell. I was there, and my being there changed me and my husband. We both realized we wanted kids right away, and we wanted to change careers: Bye-bye big paychecks.

My husband started volunteering at human rights organizations. I became a freelance writer and had a poverty-level income for New York City. Then we had a baby. I want to tell you that we lived off our savings for a while, but we didn’t. It lasted about nine months in New York City.

That’s when we realized we had to totally shift our lifestyle to accommodate our work choices. We made big decisions. We stopped being friends with people who couldn’t stop ordering $70 bottles of wine at dinner. We didn’t go to the beach because we didn’t have a car to get there, and besides, beach passes were too expensive.

Soon, we found ourselves making almost every decision based on money, and we didn’t want to live that way. So after a lot of research, we moved out of New York City. We moved to Madison, Wisconsin. I write a lot about how we chose Madison, but the bottom line is that we looked for the city with the lowest cost of living that we could be happy in. (Other runners-up, in case you’re interested: Minneapolis, Portland (Oregon), and Austin.)

Once we got to Madison, things changed. Money was not nearly such a big issue. We became more flexible, we have more freedom in our decision making. I’m not going to tell you that Madison is a bastion of culture and innovation. It’s not. But if you want to live in a bastion of culture and innovation, it’ll cost you. In personal flexibility.

If you want personal stability, flexibility to find fulfilling work, and meaningful personal relationships, that’s about as much as you can ask for in life. That’s a lot. All the other stuff is secondary. Great if you can get it, but not as important as this stuff. I am not positive, but I have a feeling that I do not need to live in a major city in order to get these three things.

If you want to have the ability to change careers and quit jobs you don’t like and try out new things, then you might need to make huge life decisions to accommodate that. I have friends in San Francisco who had only one kid so they could afford to keep their low-paying jobs. This is a big decision. I have friends who are moving from the center of Portland to the boondocks of Portland so they can afford for one of them to be a stay-at-home parent.

I’m not saying you have to live in rural Alabama or forgo having kids. I’m saying you need to be an adult, and realize that adults make big decisions. Things don’t just happen to you. You have power to decide what your life will be like.

And if you set your life up so you can’t change jobs, take personal responsibility for that. It didn’t just happen to you. You are making decisions about that.

The transition from the end of school to the beginning of adulthood is very hard. Today that transition lasts longer than it used to, because there are so many choices and so few tried and true career paths — if any — that work anymore.

Here are five things to keep in mind to make the transition into adulthood a litte easier:

1. Don’t expect things to fall into place too soon.
Today most people use their twenties as a time to search, and then settle down around age thirty. It’s a smart thing to do given the wide range of choices there are for young people today. It’s a great idea to use your twenties to explore — as long as you don’t berate yourself for not knowing what you’re doing. In fact, it’s only a very small percentage of college graduates who know what they are doing with their lives when they graduate. Most start figuring it out when they leave college.

2. Take some risks.
Maybe you’ll move a bunch of times before you figure out the place that will make you most happy. And you’ll probably change jobs three or four times to find something you like. Exploration is common — in a wide range of arenas — and smart. It’s the only way to really know what you like, and this is the time to do it. When you are living in a dump and you hate your job, you can reframe your situation in a way that acknowledges that you are a living in a time where you are trying things to see what works – nothing is permanent and you learn from bad choices.

3. Lookout for depression.
One of the demographic groups at highest risk for depression are people in their early twenties. This is because the transition to adulthood is so difficult. And the time people often feel depression is about a year after graduation, when their work life turns out to be much less interesting than anticipated, and college friends are scattered geographically and making new friends is difficult. Depression is a treatable disease, if you get treatment. Depression is serious — it’s not a time to rely solely on friends and family. Call a professional.

4. Calm down about your debt.
Yes, young people today start out life with more debt than ever before, but this doesn’t have to be a road to disaster. Think in terms of workarounds. For example, most likely your version of the American dream is not about money, so you can fulfill your dreams while dealing with debt. And while you probably want to do work that fulfills you, you don’t have to starve doing that — CollegeSurfing Insider gives examples of how you can pair soul-filling work with good-paying work to find a career that will make you happy.

5. Surround yourself with mentors.
One of the most important indicators of how good you will be at getting what you want in adult life is how strong your network of mentors is. One of the Mentors can be a wide range of people. Your parents count. Your friends count. And your parents’ friends count. But you need to start roping them in early. Mentor relationships require cultivation, and the earlier you start the more support you’ll have getting through your twenties.

So what about Coachology? Hallie Crawford is a career coach who works a lot with young people who are just starting out in their work life. She is donating 90 minutes of coaching (over the phone) to help someone get themselves on track, in terms of where they want to go and how they can get there. You don’t need to set your path in stone, but it’s good to have some path in mind, even knowing that it will change. Hallie can help you find your path by understanding yourself a little bit better in terms of your career.

To get a better sense of Hallie’s ideas, check out her blog. To get free coaching from Hallie, send an email to me by Sunday, March 18, with three sentences describing what you’d like to get from working with Hallie.

The old paths through adult life don’t work anymore. Graduate school is no longer a ticket to a stable career, and in some cases, it’s not even a ticket to a job. Student debt weighs so heavy today that people should not expect to have what their parents have. Technology opens up many types of new types of unstable careers, but slams the door on many stable ones.

Workers today will have no fewer than three careers in their lives, and they will change jobs frequently when young. After that, they will cut back when they have kids, ramp up when they need money, and switch when their learning curve flattens.

The good news is that a large consensus of experts say in today’s world, this kind of living will not necessarily hurt your career. And in fact, changing positions frequently makes you a better candidate in many circumstances. Jason Davis, blogger at Recruiting.com says, “If a candidate has been at the same company for 10 years or more, you should take a red marker [to the resume], draw a big x through it, and throw it in the garbage.”

Today’s worker focuses on finding positions–all the time–that are fulfilling, engaging, and accommodating of personal time. It’s a nice picture, but it’s hard to imagine it’s a stable life.

And, for the most part, people do not like instability. Even the people who you’d think would be risk takers, entrepreneurs, are not, really. Most people are thinking of ways to mitigate the risks they are taking, according to Saras Sarasvathy, of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

So what can people do today to mitigate risk in the face of an inherently high-risk workplace? Get good at dealing with transition, because today’s workplace is full of it. The people who are most adept at dealing with transition are the people who will do best in their career and in their life.

1. Have two jobs at the same time.
The easiest way to make a transition is to do it slowly. The old way to change careers is to quit one, leave everything behind, and start everything over new. This is extremely difficult, and extremely risky. An easier transition is to start a new career while you’re doing the old one.

In some cases, you will end up doing the new career most of the time, in some cases, you will find out you don’t like the new idea and you’ll try something else. Recently, though, some people find they like doing both. Two careers makes sense to a lot of people, especially if one is fulfilling and the other pays the bills. Or one is very unstable and one is stable.

Marci Alboher describes the nuts and bolts of having two careers in a way that works in her new book, One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success. She moves between her own set of careers as author/lecturer/writing coach as she tells a wide variety of stories of how people maintain multiple careers successfully.

“It used to be that the only way to transition was to leave your prior career behind. Today’s strivers are learning how to take what comes before and overlay new experiences on top of that. Today a career can be a mosaic.”

Alboher shows this is a path people can use to not only create more stability as they change, but also to follow their dreams as they’re going.

2. Be comfortable with uncertainty.
Eve Ensler, author of the play The Vagina Monologues and also, more recently, the book Insecure at Last:Losing It in Our Security-Obsessed World, thinks one cause of insecurity in our lives is the expectation of being secure. “If you think you’ll get to the point that you’ll be secure, then you’ll be chronically depressed,” says Ensler.

Since we can never really be secure, we should instead learn to be comfortable with that. Getting good at dealing with a world that does not provide security is actually a more healthy way to live than trying to find that one, perfect path through life that leads to a mythical security.

Ensler’s ideas suggest that today’s career paths, that wind and stop and turn and surprise us along the way, may be better for us once we get used to not knowing what’s ahead. “When you start working with ambiguity and living with it initially, it’s scary because there are no signposts. But eventually it seems to be a much more interesting way of living.”

3. Take time to explore.
It used to be people started exploring when they turned 40, and we called it a mid-life crisis. It seems clear, now, that exploration and self-discovery is something to do throughout life, not just when you get sick of your mortgage or your marriage.

But this process requires we take time to check in with ourselves during transition times. Jumping quickly from one thing to another is not as effective as taking time to figure out how you’re feeling, and what you enjoy, each step of the way.

Mike Marriner was planning to go to medical school but realized he wasn’t passionate about biology. He decided to take time to figure out what he should do next.

During this process, he started Roadtrip Nation, which sends teams of students around the country to interview people about their lives and careers. The idea is to provide inspiration or cautions for people as they consider making a transition. “Today there is no transition period,” says Marriner. “Everything is very quick and we are trying to put the spirit of exploration back into American culture.”

Roadtrip Nation has become a book, a summer program for college students, and a PBS Series, all addressing the idea that transition is serious business, and part of moving into adult life is getting good at figuring out where to go next.

To many people, the continuously shifting workplace is disorienting and discouraging, but really, you just need to reorient yourself and develop personal tools for a new workplace. Transition is an opportunity, and today life is full of more opportunity than ever before.

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.

If you have one good friend at work, it’s a really good bet that you’ll like your job, according to a Gallup study published in the book “Vital Friends” by Tim Rath.

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.

Most of us will change careers. Most young people will change careers at least three times — after they find one, when they are thirty. So work life is really about a series of careers, and we all need to get good at the process of choosing a new career. We all need to get comfortable with the inherent uncertainty during the process.

Here are nine ways you can make choosing a career less stressful:

1. Squash perfectionist tendencies and get comfortable in gray areas.
It’s fine to be lost and not sure what you’re doing, so don’t rush yourself to solve the problem. Maybe you can just look at the problem differently, and it won’t look so bad. And, don’t feel like you need to get the right answer in your hunt for the right career. Being right is not important. Just do your best and see what comes of it.

2. Don’t wait for a new career to start being creative.
Every job is creative. Every job presents problems that need solving, and problem solving is a creative act. If what you mean by creativity is that you want to paint with watercolors, then go home at night and do that. Why do you need to get paid to make art? It’s enjoyable and fulfilling and a fine thing to do in your free time, even if you have only fifteen minutes of free time a day. Raymond Carver is famous for writing short, short stories because he didn’t have enough time in the day to write long.

3. Stop looking for a career to save your life.
A job is not a life. A job is something to do with your time that is rewarding and fosters personal growth. A career can’t make you happy. Relationships will make you happy. Figure out what you can get from a career and what you can’t. Once you recognize that you will rescue you, not your career, there’s a lot less pressure in the career hunt realm.

4. Relax about the career choices you make.
Try something. If you don’t like it, try another thing. There are not rules that say you have to stay in the career you choose. In fact, moving from one career to another at a breakneck pace til you love something might be good for you, and taking ten years to figure something out is fine. The life or death decision is about living below your means. As long as you do this, you have lots of choices in life. If you don’t live below your means, you get stuck in a career.

5. Don’t wait until you know yourself.
You never really know yourself. It’s a process. If it’s a precondition for finding a career, then you could be learning about yourself forever and never feel ready to choose a career. Forget the soul-search and just try something. Ironically, the best way to learn about yourself is to do things and see if you like them, so the inactive, soul-searching time is, in some ways, counter-productive. Try testing the waters with a lot of lower risk moves, instead.

6. Stop choosing dead-end fields.
All things being equal, you’re better off choosing a career in a field that is growing, not shrinking. Once you identify your talents, focus them on a field that has a future. If you write well, go into interactive marketing — one of the fastest growing fields — and not print journalism, which is in trouble. If you like to help people, go into nursing —huge demand, and not centralized, slow-moving nonprofits, which are falling out of favor with donors.

7. Don’t overlook the good points of the job you have.
You can save the world from almost any job, you can shift from a dead end to a hot spot in almost any field, and you can learn and grow if you get good at managing your boss. These are all things you can control. You don’t need a specific career to accomplish these things. So maybe you don’t even need to pick a new career.

8. Make a lifestyle choice before you make a career choice.
Figure out what you want your life to look like, and then choose a career that will enable that life. If you don’t know what you want from life, how can you possibly know what you want from a career? What we want from life might change. That’s okay. You have to start somewhere. So figure out what you want, and an try out careers that might give you that. If you change what you want from life, you can change your career.

9. Talk about yourself the way you want to be.
To figure out what sort of career will suit you, try talking about yourself like you’re already there and see how it feels. We intuitively know what stories feel right, and we can make a career change more efficiently if we create stories about our process. You might actually surprise yourself by figuring out what you want to do by figuring out what story seems natural to tell.

One of my favorite topics is the science of happiness, which academia calls positive psychology. I love this topic because most of us think of our careers in terms of happiness. That is, we look for work that makes us happy. Positive psychology turns this hunt into a science. And then tells us to look elsewhere for happiness.

I was talking to Richard Florida, about his current research, which blends positive psychology and economic development, and he summarized what I have read in many other places as well: “Your level of optimism and quality of relationships impact your level of happiness more than your job does.” What this means is that asking a job to solve our unhappiness problems is asking too much of a job.

I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to focus on optimism and relationships so that we don’t feel so much pressure choosing our jobs. To this end, I was excited to see three different introductions to the psychology of happiness in the last month.

The New York Times magazine ran a long summary of the positive psycholgoy movement, titled Happiness 101 (subscription). For those of you who don’t know much about this movement, the article is a good primer.

Martin Seligman, founder of the movement and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, says, “Postive psychology is not only about maximizing personal happiness but also about embracing civic engagement and spiritual connectedness, hope and charity.”

This is not small stuff, but it’s the stuff that is scientifically proven to lead to a happy life. So when you think about what job to take, realize that this list of things that affect your sense of well-being is not overwhelmingly connected to the idea of doing what you love at work.

One of the most interesting parts of the article is where Daniel Gilbert, the man whose book on this topic was a bestseller, disses the movement as cultish, “I just wish it didn’t look so much like religion,” he says.

It does look like religion, because positive psychology promotes things religion promotes, like showing gratitude at the end of each day. But really, what this tells us is that the things that make us happy are much more basic than doing interesting work with interesting people.

Sonja Lyubomirsky says being happy comes from the way we think at our very core – and that thinking shapes the work we do. Not the other way around.

The Economist jumps on the positive psychology bandwagon in the article, “Economics Discovers Its Feelings.” This report contains some very practical advice. For example:

The traits of work that makes someone happy:
1. stretches a person without defeating him
2. provides clear goals
3. provides unambiguous feedback
4. provides a sense of control

But don’t panic if you can’t find a job like this, because when these traits do not exist in a job, people will often figure out how to add them back in and give the job meaning in their lives. For example, “hairdressers often see themselves as the confidants of clients they like, and they will fire clients they don’t…And there are janitors at a hospital who held patients’ hands, brightening their day as well as scrubbing their rooms.”

Before you smirk at this rationalizing behavior, realize that Gilbert says it actually does create genuine happiness in a job. Check out this video of Gilbert speaking at the TED Conference (thanks, Dennis). Gilbert’s a fun speaker, so it’s worth watching the whole twenty minutes.

Gilbert also says that even if things are not going well, humans have a deep ability to make ourselves think they’re going well. Which is why Gilbert told me that people should not ask other people if they like their jobs, because almost everyone says they do and it has no bearing on how good the job it is.

However he says that this rejiggered feeling of happiness is just as deep and good a feeling as the happiness when something really is going very well.

One of his pet topics is that what we think will make us happy rarely does. (When I spoke with him he told me this is the reason we should not sit at home and try to guess what career to pick, but instead we should just get off the chair and start trying stuff.)

Gilbert’s research shows that while we think being a paraplegic would be very bad and winning the lottery would be very good, three months after the event, neither really affects your happiness. And this goes back to happiness being a result of how we think at our very core — what Seligman calls our level of optimism. (If you are not buying this, watch the video.)

So you don’t have to make yourself crazy about finding the perfect job. All that stuff about how you need to find a job that you love is overstated. “Some people don’t seek fulfillment through their work and are still happy in life. All options are legitimate and possible,” says Amy Wrzesniewski professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University.

You need to find a job that meets those four basic standards for a decent job. But our brain is hard-wired to figure out how to enjoy it once you get there. So maybe you can lighten up about choosing your next job. There’s good research to show that a wide range of jobs can accommodate you in a way where you can find happiness. And there’s good research to show that finding “the perfect” job will not be the thing to make you happy.