How to find a career with a bright outlook

The last article discussed how to stay motivated to do work over which you already have a high degree of control.  However, how can you get there in the first place?

You've probably heard people repeat the tired line, "Follow your passion!"  But this advice only works for a very small number of people.  It leaves the rest of us feeling inadequate because we don't have a passion for something that we are good at and pays well.

However, "follow your passion" may be better advice than "follow the money."  We all know people who end up miserable despite earning high sums.  Studies show that, above around $50,000, income has no relationship with day-to-day happiness.Kahneman, D., & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(38), 16489–16493. as discussed at 

How, then, can we stack the odds in our favor of having a career that will make us happy?

We use science, that's how.

What you need to get from a career

Let's start with a meta-study of 48 studies involving 15,000 nurses.BLEGEN, M. A. (1993). Nurses' Job Satisfaction. Nursing Research, 42(1), 36???41.   According to the authors, what factor has the strongest association with job satisfaction?  Try to answer without looking.

That's right, stress, with a correlation of (-.609).  Of course, many factors contribute to stress, including some of the following.  Let's see what other factors they found:

  • Organizational commitment (.526) (That is, the worker's feeling of attachment to the organization)
  • Communication with supervisor (.446)
  • Autonomy (.419)
  • Recognition (.415)
  • Routinization (-.412) (That is, how routine the work is)
  • Communication with peers (.358)
  • Fairness (.295)
  • Locus of control (-.283)

Note that some of these are social factors: communication with supervisors, recognition, and communication with peers, and fairness.  To a degree, these depend on the company culture and to another degree on the coworkers we happen to end up working with.

Are there factors that can be built into the job itself?  According to Job Characteristics Theory (JCT), there are.  

Greg R. Oldham and J. Richard Hackman developed the JCT based on earlier research into worker motivations, especially intrinsic motivations.According to Oldham, when a person is well matched to a job, they do not have to be coerced into doing the job well; rather, they will try to do well because it is within their nature. The research uncovered similarities between games, enjoyable pastimes, and engaging work.

To expand on the description of a game in my last article:

  • Both games and engaging work involve clear goals or tasks with a definite outcome.
  • Both involve a high degree of autonomy; that is, having the belief that one's own efforts, actions, and decisions determine the results.
  • Both involve variety in the tasks and skills required.
  • Both involve frequent, unambiguous feedback.

In addition to the above, engaging work often has a substantial impact on the lives of other people.

Oldham and Hackman developed the following formula:

Motivating Potential Score (MPS) = (Skill variety + Task identity + Task significance)/3 X Autonomy X Feedback

In other words, autonomy and feedback are the most important factors and the other three have an additive effect, that is, a deficit in one can be made up for in the other two factors.  In turn, these factors lead to three "critical psychological states" that affect the worker's motivation:

  • Experienced Meaningfulness of the Work: The degree to which a jobholder experiences their work as intrinsically meaningful and is able to convey their contribution to others and/or the external environment.
  • Experienced Responsibility for Outcome of the Work: The degree to which a worker feels accountable and responsible for the results of their work.
  • Knowledge of Results of the Work Activities: This is the extent to which the jobholder knows how well they are doing.

A diagram showing relationships between core job characteristics, critical psychological states, and outcomes

According to Charl J. Jacobs, the JCM is one of the most widely researched models in the history of Industrial Psychology, and by 1987 more than 200 studies had examined and tested the model.Jacobs, C. (2014). Once More: Testing The Job Characteristics Model.  Benefits of this model include:

  1. This model addresses one of the most important work-related issues: people and productivity.
  2. It is easy to understand.
  3. It can be applied practically anywhere, including education, hospitals, and even penal facilities.

Jacobs undertook to provide a "final verdict" on the JC model.  His conclusion:

The original propositions of Hackman and Oldham (1980) hold true. All the job characteristics load onto the psychological states, as previously believed. In addition, autonomy also loads onto experienced meaningfulness. Feedback was found to be the powerhouse state and loaded quite strongly onto all three psychological states. All of the psychological states predicted the outcomes as originally prescribed by the model. Only knowledge of results did not predict internal motivation.I also looked at another, more recent, study with similar findings: Bogicevic-Milikic, B., & Cuckovic, M. (2019). How to increase job satisfaction and organisational commitment in the ICT sector through job design. Ekonomski Anali, 64(222), 81–116.

Jacobs suggested a revised formula for calculating the MPS:

MPS = Skill Variety (.15) + Task Identity (.10) + Task Significance (.10) + Autonomy (.30) + Feedback (.35) 

From the evidence, we can logically conclude that the most important factors for satisfying employment are autonomy, and useful feedback from superiors and coworkers.  Other important but less significant factors include variety, seeing the outcome of your efforts, and feeling that your work benefits others.

How to go about finding this kind of employment

You're probably looking for the most lucrative jobs in fields that both interest you and have a demand for your skills.  Now you have a few more criteria to use to narrow down your search.

You've likely heard the saying, it's not what you know, it's who you know.  Of course, both are important, but having a good network of people will help.  Additionally, the methods outlined in the last article can help you find a job as well as help you stay motivated at work.  Let's see how they apply.

First, start with why

Consider how your existing identity and values relate to the type of job you want.  Use the WOOP method to help you keep momentum in your job search.

Add the what

Create a process for finding your dream job.  Remember, this includes:

  • Establishing standard practices: decide how many leads you will pursue each day
  • Frequent feedback
  • Rapid adaptation
  • Not trying to take on too much at once

Just as in a regular job, feedback is crucial here.  How can you get regular, actionable feedback?

Find people who are already experienced in the field(s) you are considering.  Interview them.  According to Ramit Sethi:

It’s not unusual to learn years of hidden insights in one interview. You’ll also start building relationships with people in that career field. ...Almost every time my students have followed this process they’re the first ones to get job offers when positions open up.

Sethi also offers some useful suggestions for those who don't know for sure what fields they want to consider.

In addition, you can use surrogation to help you decide if you will like the job you are considering.  That is, ask them questions about their job, such as how much feedback and autonomy it provides, to help you determine if you would enjoy the job.  Heck, ask them how much they enjoy their work.

Also, through interviews or other research, you can learn about what kinds of challenges you would have to deal with in a given field.  Why not look for a smaller-sized challenge that is similar to what you would do on the job?  Try to complete a project or solve a problem that you can then use to show a future potential employer that you are capable of doing something like that for them.  Make sure it involves small steps and can be rapidly adapted as you see the results of your efforts.

Don't forget the how

Establish a system for monitoring your job search success.  Keep careful records, and look back at your previous successes and failures.  Above all, keep track of everyone you have spoken to.  And look for ways to improve the quality of every step of the process.

It's a process, not an end in itself

I hope these suggestions will help you to find a satisfying job.  But at some point, you may decide you're not enjoying your work.  No problem!  You will be better prepared to try another career path that may be more rewarding.  As much as possible, try to adopt these principles in every facet of your life.  The end result will certainly be satisfying.