How to Find the Perfect Job

At some point in the last few years, I moved from being a person primarily looking for job advice to a (mildly) seasoned veteran giving out career advice. I don’t entirely know how this happened — I can still use plenty of guidance myself, and seek it every chance I get — but it did.

As I talk with folks trying to break into the policy/advocacy space (or with those leaving academia,) so many of my conversations focus on how people can find a role, organization, or even field where they can have an impact. Where their work will be valued and utilized. Even so, I find that many people are either (a) looking for a job, but have no idea how to find the right one, or (b) are laser focused on breaking into their dream organization, without a clear sense of how or why it would be the right place for them — or what might happen if they don’t get the job.

When I think about finding the right job fit, I come back to Seth Godin’s idea of “Linchpin jobs” — jobs that are worth doing, where you can contribute, and where you can make a difference. Of course what ‘making a difference’ or ‘impact’ means exactly will vary widely by the type of job, by the organization, and by the field. But tackling interesting projects and making progress on urgent and necessary work will go a long way toward job satisfaction, regardless of the specific role. And one big takeaway I want to impart from the beginning is that there are often many paths to finding job satisfaction.

In my experience there are three factors that lead to impact: (1) identifying your value add, (2) relentless focus, and (3) a supportive community.

Below I briefly dive into the three factors, and include summary questions for each. Certainly these are questions to keep in the back of your mind as you go about a job search. They can cut to the chase in informational interviews or with prospective employers, and can help you figure out if a given role is right for you. But they also make great topics for a step-back meeting with your current supervisor, even if you’ve been in the same role for some time.

Identifying your value add

First and foremost, find a role where you can add value in a real, meaningful, and tangible way. There are lots of hot jobs and hot projects that everyone wants to work on — roles or companies that come with prestige. But rather than seeking status, find a role where your skills and your contributions are critically needed. Find a place where there are interesting challenges to be met, and gaps that you can fill, regardless of whether they have the highest visibility.

Of course, no one is able to completely set their own priorities (nor, as I discuss below, can you make everything a priority.) Everyone has a boss. But there will always be more projects than people to carry them out, and always opportunities to step up and volunteer. You can do a lot worse than building a reputation as someone willing to tackle the hard, unglamorous work that just needs doing.

Questions to ask:

  • Beyond what’s in the job description, what are the most urgent projects that need addressing? What skills would be most necessary to address them?
  • Where’s the white space (to use a phrase from former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker) in a given organization? What’s missing and worthwhile? What are the hard projects that haven’t yet been tackled?
  • If this role/team/organization had unlimited resources and the right people in the right roles, what challenges would they tackle?

Relentless focus

In any field, organization, or job, there will be no shortage of problems to solve and urgent tasks to complete. Inevitably, there will be a host of meetings to attend, and emails filling your inbox. I know I’m not the only one who has spent entire days just responding to incoming requests. But in the long run, the only way to really make an impact is to focus, choose priorities, and stick to them.

Years ago, in graduate school, I was lucky to work alongside Josh Daniels, who just wrapped up eight years on the Berkeley Unified School Board. Reflecting on his time on the Board, Daniels writes that “system change comes from relentless focus.”

It’s hard — really hard — to choose only a few areas where you can add the most value and relentlessly pursue them, even as day-to-day events conspire to throw you off track. As Daniels argues, “Staying focused is particularly difficult as it requires saying “no” to good ideas.” There will never be enough time, personnel, or resources to tackle every problem, so be judicious about where you choose to focus your energies.

I love this quote from the former head of Google’s People Operations, Laszlo Bock: “Innovation thrives on creativity and experimentation, but it also requires thoughtful pruning.” In a nutshell, “put more wood behind fewer arrows.”

Questions to ask:

  • Does the role/team/organization have clear priorities? How do they measure impact?
  • When priorities and needs shift, how do those decisions get made? And what happens to the stuff folks were working on before?
  • What important, urgent, things have they said no to recently?
  • And for projects you personally take on: If you say yes to this, what will you say no to? (This last question is a great one from Michael Bungay Stanier’s The Coaching Habit, one of my favorite management books.)

Discovering a supportive community

If you are going to work in a Linchpin job, to find a role that allows you to tackle tough challenges and that demands your relentless focus, you need to find a community of people that will lift you up along your way. In my experience too many people focus in on a specific job, organization, or field rather than first finding the people who can most support them in their careers, and only then figuring out how to work with them.

So find people that similarly believe in plugging in where they can, finding the white space, and being a value add. Who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get stuff done. Find people that share your sense of prioritization, that share an urgency about the big questions facing your chosen field. And most importantly, find people that you genuinely want to be around day in and day out, the people that will support you on your bad days, and help you achieve your biggest successes. Even if that means shifting your focus, or considering a wider range of potential jobs, there is real magic in finding your sustaining community.

To be clear: Linchpin jobs do not have to be jobs that work you into the ground. They can and should have work-life balance, and should allow you to grow in your role without sacrificing your well-being. It’s about finding a place where you can give it your all without giving everything you have.

Questions to ask:

  • How do folks here define culture? What parts of the culture matter the most here?
  • What are people here passionate about (both inside and outside of work)?
  • What does work/life balance look like here?

Conclusion

I have two parting thoughts:

First, as Kim Scott points out in Radical Candor, at various times in a given career, people can be rockstars — who have mastered their role and “don’t want the next job if it will take them away from their craft” — or superstars who “need to be challenged and given new opportunities to grow constantly.” Scott’s insight is that teams need both rockstars and superstars to excel. So think about where you are in your career and what kind of role you are looking for. And when an opportunity comes up, consider whether it is best suited for a rockstar or a superstar. (The same, of course, is true if you are the boss — figure out which of your people are on gradual or steep growth trajectories, and manage them accordingly.)

Second, the roadmap I lay out above can also help you find fulfillment in your current role. Regardless of where you are now — no matter how junior or senior you are — you can think about what your value add is, where there are hard problems that you specifically can tackle. Regardless of how much of your time is beholden to others, you can still choose what you will be relentlessly focused on and what you will say no to. And you can absolutely find your community.

The truth is, there will never be a perfect job, or a perfect fit. But you can do a lot worse than finding a way to personally make any impact wherever you end up.

Thank you to Jeff Krehely, Jonathan Powell, and Matthew Sargent for their input and feedback.