As any job seeker knows, a wealth of information exists about how to write a resume, how to network, how to interview. A component of the job search process not nearly so well-documented — though it truly rests at the heart of any successful search — is how to match your personality with your work. If you don’t know yourself, how can you search for the jobs you’ll find most satisfying? Too many job seekers are shooting in the dark.
Start with self-reflection and research
I know because I was one of them (along with many of my friends). As a true generalist, I always find myself attracted to a variety of interests. In daily life, this orientation is generally a plus, as it keeps me picking up new hobbies, trying new restaurants, and meeting new people. But ten years after graduating college, it started to meddle with my working life: I had been going from job to job, trying and enjoying new things, but not doing much building toward a particular greater end. As I started to want more meaningful work I could really sink my teeth into, I realized I didn’t know where to start looking, because I wasn’t sure what would satisfy me.
So I decided to try beginning from the beginning: 1) who am I?, and 2) what kinds of jobs do people like me enjoy? I cast a wide net at first, trying all of the following:
Reading “life manual” books. Books such as What Color Is Your Parachute?and Do What You Are can help you clarify and define the aspects of your personality that are the most important to keep in mind as you look for work. For example, personality type testing revealed to me that I am a strong extrovert; I derive my energy largely from other people, rather than feeling drained by social interaction. Acknowledging that fact enabled me to cross job titles like Forester off my list, because although I love trees and conservation, realistically, being alone in the woods all day would soon drive me batty. Solid personal understandings like this are the cornerstones of sensible and efficient job seeking.
Conducting informational interviews. Aside from the connections you stand to make, it’s illuminating what you can learn about yourself by asking other people about what they do. When I interviewed a psychologist, I realized that, though the communicative and helpful nature of the work appealed to me, running my own private practice would be difficult — I knew I’d miss the more social “water cooler” environment of a job with coworkers. After talking with an urban planner, I determined I didn’t have a strong enough drive for the work to carry me through the higher education degree(s) I’d have to earn to get a good job in the field. Reflecting on conversations with foundation program officers, I understood that I don’t have the academic tenacity to thoughtfully read proposal after proposal, day in and day out; I would need something more collaborative. And on and on.
Enlisting professional help. When I felt ready to step up my personal-research game, I got a referral from a friend to a great career counselor who really helped me understand my job quest (and myself in the process!). If no one you know can recommend a pro, the National Career Development Association’s Find A Counselor resource explains why career counseling is helpful to many people, and how to go about finding a counselor you like in your neck of the woods. Though I found it to be worth every penny, counseling can be expensive, so if you’re on a tight budget, shop around for counselors who offer sliding scale rates based on your income, discounts for students or the currently unemployed, or who will meet with you the first time free of charge, so you can at least get a sense of your compatibility before plunking down any dough. Colleges and universities with counseling programs can be great for this — like the Center for Educational and Psychological Services at Columbia in New York — and, happily, some practitioners make offering affordable services part of their pitch. In line with the holistic approach, look for a counselor whose aim is not so much to help you refine your resume or soup up your Linkedin profile as it is to help you bring to the fore the aspects of your unique personality that will be most critical to match to your work.
An ongoing journey
The most intense period of my job-and-self finding odyssey lasted about six months. It was a job in itself — lots of reading, lots of note taking, lots of reflection. And it’s an ongoing process, in the never-stop-learning sense. But the knowledge I uncovered in that time, about the ways I operate best and what I really value, will stay with me from here on, and I know it will help me make job (and other life) decisions more quickly and accurately than before.