Marion Barraud for HBR
Many people seem to feel that if the market can’t offer them a brilliant job, there’s not much point looking.
But you don’t need a perfect job. Every job is a compromise between what you want to get out of life and what an employer wants to get out of you. Keeping this reality in mind will help you challenge perfection-focused thinking and increase your options.
Remember, all roles — the great and the not-so-great alike — include some uninspiring tasks. While jobs that are a poor match often provide fewer opportunities for autonomy and growth, even they usually reveal some positives. Work is rarely as monochrome as we like to make it.
Even if the perfect job existed, searching for one would be a fool’s errand. Detailed reviews with hundreds of clients have convinced me that you don’t need a job you love five days a week. Three-and-a-half days out of 5 seems to do the trick. It’s enough space to thrive, learn, and feel you’re making a contribution. The rest of the working week may be paperwork or dull meetings, but you can live with that.
Career management in tough times is also about calibrating expectations. Your next role probably won’t tick all your boxes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t shape it in your direction more than a little — at the point of accepting the offer, and maybe 12 to 18 months down the line when you’ve proved yourself. Knowing what’s good enough is about creatively accepting compromise.
Take a job that only meets half your wish list, perhaps, but make sure it’s a stepping stone towards 7 out of 10. Which is enough for anyone.
So how do you find your three-and-a-half-day job? It takes more than diligence. Today’s market needs cunning. That’s a very old Norse word, which before the Middle Ages didn’t mean deceitful guile, but special knowledge and skills — the ability to track down what you need in unfavourable conditions when everyone else is hungry.
Applying cunning to the market often means new thinking, new strategies. Jobs are far more hidden away than they were a decade ago, and filled by complex routes, so it makes sense to look carefully at what’s working in any job search process, and how much your picture of the market is getting in the way of discovering what’s really out there.
Those who have made big step towards a life-enhancing role nearly always tell you about the conversations which made that journey possible. Ask them what they could have done to get quicker results, and they’re likely to say something along the lines of, “I should have talked to the right people earlier.” This isn’t networking, but simply learning, planning, absorbing.
So, talk to people who have found roles they feel are worth getting up for in the morning. Ask how they turned the odds in their favour; you’ll discover the toughest step wasn’t applying for the job or getting selected. It was a long way further back when they took their first exploratory step. This step is nearly always a conversation, usually with someone who will inspire as well as inform. Reach out to someone who already does what you’d love to do. Then do it again. And again.
You can also put energy into transforming your current job. Fixing the role you’re in rather than rushing to the job market to solve career problems. Moving on should be about the attraction of the new outweighing the repulsion of the old — actively going to, not just wanting to get out.
When people do start to build their job in half day increments they start to gain control. They learn how to coax hidden aspects of their job into the daylight. They learn smart but diplomatic ways of saying to an employer “here’s how to get better value out of me….”
Holding out for the perfect job is a brilliant avoidance strategy when jobs are thin on the ground. Playing “100% or nothing” is a great way of giving yourself permission to do absolutely nothing. Don’t get caught in this trap and suspend belief in your future.
Avoid the temptation to rush down corridors, always trying to find the next level, but ignoring the half-open doors along the way. Sometimes you simply need a quiet faith that behind some doors is a person who will take you seriously, and that, with some effort, you can be quite happy with three-and-a-half good days.