A Weekly ComputorEdge Column by Douglas E. Welch





Back to Archive Index -- Go to WelchWrite.com

January 1999

Career Compass

© 1999, Douglas E. Welch

As we struggle to develop our careers and our lives we often fall victim to the old cliché of not seeing the forest for the trees. We live our lives from day to day, seeing little more than the end of our nose, and then wonder how we ended up where we are. One of your main goals for 1999 should be the development of a personal career compass. We all need a little direction in our live and often we are the only ones who can provide it.

Finding North

A compass works by giving you a reliable indication of magnetic north. Your career compass provides the same indicator for your career and life. First, though, you need to discover where "Career North" is for you. If you don't have a direction in mind then you're just wandering through life. Too many people wander around without a definite destination in mind. Your Career North is the perfect job for you. As with most ideals, it will be rare that this job will ever actually exist. Your goal is to strike as close to that north point as you can.

This is not to say, though, that you don't make a move without knowing your final destination. Needs are always changing and the place you're headed today may not be the place you're headed tomorrow. Be flexible in developing your Career North.

Once you know where you are headed it is time to start making plans on how you are going to get there. It might be easier than you think

Gone South

Too many people have fallen into their current careers without any planning or direction. They were offered one job. That job led to the next and so on. Then, 5, 10 or 15 years later they look up and realize they have been going in the opposite direction from where they wish they were. It's easy to lose direction in your career if you don't pay attention to both the present and the future.

I call this problem, Going South. These people have been building a career and a life that is headed due South from their Career North. Worse yet, the longer you stay on this wrong path, the longer it will take you to get back to life you want. In the case of a career, you might never get there at all! While you can reach the North Pole by heading towards the South Pole the road will be much, much longer.

For the next 4 weeks I am going to explore the many reasons people go astray in their careers, a few ways to help you find your Career North and avoid Going South.

If you pay attention to your Career Compass it is easy to see when you are heading down the wrong career trail. In some cases you might find that your current job is leading you down that wrong trail. When you come to that conclusion, the first thing to do is start looking for a new job that is on the correct trail and closer to Career North.

Taking the first step

Your first task is to banish fear from your work life. If you fear your supervisors, fear your co-workers or even fear yourself in your current position, it should be obvious that it is time to move on.

You don't need to work for people who threaten you, bully you or take advantage of you. Too many people put up with behavior at the workplace that wouldn't be tolerated anywhere else. You must realize that if you do your current job well you can do it just as well, probably better, somewhere else. Don't let anyone tell you that you are worthless. You should know better. It is only their way of trying to maintain control.

The key to understanding this is looking for a new job. You will gain a lot of confidence when others treat you like an intelligent and skilled person. That will make you stronger.

Sending out resumes and interviewing for new jobs is a low risk proposition. It may be cliché, but it is true that it's easier to look for a job when you already have one. You have financial stability and aren't in danger of losing your home. If you don't want to let on to your current employers, you can make phone calls on your own time, even it means visiting the local Kinko's to use their free phones. You can send out resumes from home.

Most potential employers will make allowances if you tell them up front that you are dealing with a difficult situation at your current position. This might mean interviewing after hours or taking some personal or vacation time on your part. Believe me it is worth it. Making a small sacrifice now will reap large benefits in the very near future.

This weeks task

This week, take 15 minutes a day to evaluate the pros and cons of your current position. Then begin thinking about what you would do with your life if you could. Don't worry about being realistic. In fact, the less realistic the better. You might just stumble across that one desire that you have always wanted to fulfill. Let your mind wander, but be sure to write everything down. Nothing is too absurd. Nothing is too far out.

Next week: Making a list and checking it twice. Finding out exactly what you like to do and putting that knowledge to work for you.

This week's column is going to introduce you to an exercise that can be used time and time again to find your Career North, no matter how much your goals or desires change. It all starts with a simple list.

Making a list

Take a few minutes out of your busy day, say over lunch or during a coffee break, and begin a list of everything you do in your current work life. I do mean everything, from cleaning up the customer service desk to writing programs to analyze megabytes of data. Don't think about it and don't censor. Just write.

You should continue working on this list for a few days so that you have an opportunity to think about those items you only do on a weekly or monthly basis. You can start the next step though as soon as you get a few items on your list.

Checking it twice

Take a look at the items on your list and start asking yourself a few questions.

  • Do you like/dislike doing any of the tasks'
  • Do you wish you could do more/less of a given task'
  • How much of your day/week/month does each task occupy'

You can use any coding scheme you want, color markers, checkmarks, arrows, whatever, but make sure you can understand your own system. If nothing else, simply draw a line through those tasks that you dislike the most. Again, take a few days to work through your list and don't be afraid to add new tasks as you are reminded of them.

Gonna find out'

Finally, start adding tasks that you would like to do, but don't do now, to the bottom of your list. Don't worry about reality, just add tasks that sound interesting to you. Include tasks that require taking on new responsibilities at your current job. Include tasks that are part of other jobs. Include your deepest dreams and wishes.

The End Game

Once you let this process percolate for a week or more you will begin to get a very clear idea of what tasks you like and don't like and maybe even a few that you would love to do. You also now have a roadmap to your new, better job.

Now that you know what you really want out of your career it is time to start finding a job that matches your needs and desires. Having an ideal in mind, you can now reach for it. As I said before, you probably won't find your perfect job but by keeping it in mind you will come much closer to it. You will be amazed how quickly you will spot those jobs that are right for you and toss away the jobs that are wrong.

Next Week: Building a new job from your current one.

Over the past few weeks I have been proposing methods for defining and achieving a new career that is more fulfilling and better paying. In some cases though, you may be able to build a better career without leaving your current company. If you have found a position and employer that suits your most basic career needs then it just might be possible to grow this position into something even better.


Often, you can tend to outgrow your current work position before your supervisor recognizes that fact. Management can be so tied up in other problems that employee development falls completely off their radar. If this is happening to you, you need to take matters into your own hands. If you have gone through last week's exercise you already know where you want to be. You only need to develop a way to present it to your current superior.

One of the best ways to start is an informal chat with your boss when they have a few free minutes. This might be early in the day, near lunch or after working hours. Find out when they are ready to take a break from the crises of the day and ask for a meeting then. Make sure you start the meeting by telling them how happy you are with your current position and the task you are performing. Then let them know that you think you are capable of taking on more responsibility in your department. Have a few examples of tasks that you would be willing and capable of performing for them. You should also explain how other tasks, those you dislike the most, might be redistributed among other workers.

You want to present your ideas as a benefit for your superior, your department and yourself. If you have a fairly good relationship with your boss they will appreciate your initiative. While you might not be able to get everything you want, small improvements over time can add up to a better career all the same.

Choosing a different path down the same road

It is important to keep your eyes open to opportunities that run parallel to your current job. Is there a job opening in another department that better matches your needs' Maybe you would be better off making a lateral move into a new area instead of climbing up your current career ladder.

If this is the case, you want to enlist the aid of your current boss in engineering the move. You don't want them to feel you have gone behind their back. You want your current boss as a reference and cheerleader. If possible, arrange any move so that your current department has time to hire and train a replacement with your assistance before you move to your new position.

Next week: Learning to say no!

Even though I have been advising you how to find a new career or just a new job for the New Year it is important to know the difference between making a well-planned change and just jumping from one rat race to another. Each career move you make should be carefully planned, otherwise you give your power to direct your own life up to the whim of chance.

Making bad decisions

It seems obvious that humans make their worst decisions when they are stressed the most. Decisions made in the heat of anger or distress often end up hurting you more than you ever thought they would. You want to "keep your head when all about you are losing theirs."

One secret to avoiding bad decisions is be watchful of possible problems and developing ways to deal with them before they occur. Devising a game plan before the crisis can help to eliminate the crisis quickly without making stressed decisions.

Comfort -- the light and the dark

When you are in a position of relative comfort you are more likely to think clearly and still take the risks necessary to develop your career. It is always easier to look for a job when you are already employed. When you have the security of a paycheck you can avoid the major problem of jumping from one bad job to another bad job just to get out of your current position. The goal is not to move from one frying pan to another but to get off the stove entirely.

Conversely, being too comfortable in any job can lead you to stop looking for the next step in your career. The only time you should stop looking for the next great job is when you think you might already have one. Even then I would recommend keeping an eye on the job market. You might just be surprised at what you find. It is also possible that your needs may change and the once perfect job may change.

The art of saying "No"

There is a certain art to saying no to a job offer. You don't want to burn the bridge to a new employer completely. Maybe they will have a position in the future that is better suited to your needs and desires. Be honest about the reasons for your refusal. If the salary is too low, say so. They might just surprise you by raising it. If the job responsibilities are not defined clearly enough, say so. Then offer to assist them in defining them more clearly.

If, in the end, you can't come to an agreement, thank them generously, but still say no. If a job is not a good match it would be a disservice to both you, and your potential employer to accept the position.

Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on Douglas' web page at: http://www.welchwrite.com/dewelch/ce/

He can reached via email at douglas@welchwrite.com

Browse the WelchWrite Bookstore