Pop quiz: what do all of the statements below have in common?

• “I want to work for a good company”
• “I’m looking for a job where I can really make a difference”
• “I want to find a company where I can settle down for the long haul”
• “I’m seeking a career path that will utilize my creativity/communications/problem-solving skills”
• “I’m looking for a role where I can collaborate and be part of a great team”

My personal belief, based on working with thousands of people through the ins-and-outs of the job hunting process, is that the common theme of all these statements (get ready for some tough love) is that they are almost completely non-actionable from a job hunting standpoint.

I realize this statement may seem like heresy, compared to most of what one reads out there on the notion of career planning.  But when you’ve actually got your sleeves rolled up, and are trying to help people make a meaningful step forward in their career evolution, you quickly realize that these kinds of thoughts, statements, and sentiments don’t get one anywhere.  They might feel good to say.  And they may be absolutely heartfelt and authentic.  But when you get down to the nitty-gritty of it all, concepts like the above ones are generally too subjective to spark any useful progress or activity in regard to improving one’s employment situation.

Let’s take the first item above, as an example.  If somebody tells me that they want to work for a good company, I immediately feel compelled to ask them “Okay, so what does ‘a good company’ actually mean to you?  A big one?  A small one?  One that lets you bring your dog to work?  One that shares your values?  One that contributes to the betterment of society?  One that lets you telecommute?  One that practices diversity?  One that’s been around a long time?  One that gets good Glassdoor reviews?  One that promotes from within?  Or what, exactly?”

Or if instead, an individual tells me they ideally want to use their problem-solving skills to a greater capacity, I’ll have no choice but to follow up with the question “Great — so do you want to solve financial problems?  Mechanical problems?  Chemical addiction problems?  Software architecture problems?  Horticultural problems?  Talent acquisition problems?  Aquatic immunization problems?  Social justice problems?  International relations problems?  Or some other types of problems entirely?”

While these lines of questions may be annoying, they’re imperative.  The key to changing one’s career situation for the better is to dig deep, push beyond the safe generalities above, and do the hard work of defining the specific, concrete, actionable ingredients you’re looking for in a new job or employment role.  Short of this, you’re going to be stuck drifting in the middle of the metaphorical ocean, wondering why you feel so stuck and your situation never seems to get any better.  What’s more, even your close friends and supporters won’t know how to help you, since while they may listen to your wants and desires with great empathy, their brains won’t be able to translate ambiguous statements like “working for a good company” or “solving problems” into any sort of meaningful recommendation, networking referral, or career succession to help you move forward.

Make sense?  I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but even Starbucks baristas could be viewed as extremely creative, collaborative, resourceful problem-solvers in most respects.  Have you seen some of their artistic foam designs and how much they have to pull together, as a team, to please their fickle, addicted customer base?  One could also argue that they work for a good, ethical company that treats its employees well, given that Starbucks provides all of their employees with health benefits and seems committed to fair trade practices.  And yet, something tells me that if I were to suggest becoming a barista as a career choice to those professionals who tell me they want to be creative and work for a high-quality employer, they’d think I was off my rocker!

So again, this type of transition isn’t easy.  And I don’t mean to underplay the amount of angst, confusion, and challenge involved.  But I feel it’s important to point out that if you’re at a career crossroads, and catch yourself saying (or thinking) some of the common clichés I’ve outlined above, this should serve as something of a red flag — and likely suggests you need to go farther in your self-reflection process and come up a more specific list of qualities or characteristics you’re seeking to leverage in your next employment chapter.  The good news?  If you can do this, and figure out what a “good” company actually means to you in unequivocal terms, there are all kinds of killer resources for figuring out which employers are the right ones to target.  Or if you can break down your ideal job description into one that involves working on spreadsheets, brainstorming marketing slogans, or reforming the educational system, it’s not hard to pinpoint the exact careers that involve these activities.

But just looking for something good/cool/rewarding?  That’s not actionable enough.  That dog won’t hunt.  So drill down and come up with more tangible concepts to build your next career move around — such as actual skills, passions, or knowledge areas — which will provide you with the compass heading you need to move forward productively with your exploration efforts.