Inputs and outputs.  That’s essentially what careers and jobs are all about.  You input your time/effort/smarts into a company, to solve certain problems they face, and hopefully you get rewarded by a series of “outputs” that enrich your life and make you a happy camper.

The funny thing, though, is that I don’t feel most professionals have actually thought as deeply as they need to about their priorities, the specific things they want/need to get out of a job, and what the notion of “satisfaction” actually means to them, personally.  For example, if you’re among the majority of current Americans who report NOT being entirely satisfied with your current work role or employment situation, let me ask you a few questions.

If I were to offer you one, would you accept:

…a job that pays $30,000 less than you’re used to making, but that you’d love getting up and going to each day?
…a job that requires a one-hour commute, each way, but offers tremendous long-term growth opportunities?
…a job where you’d work for a great boss, but would perform your work within dingy, windowless surroundings?
…a job that required 30% travel away from home, but offered 401k matching and fully-paid medical benefits?
…a job that’s two steps down from the title you used to hold, but is with a stable company that has zero history of layoffs?
…a job involving the exact type of work you’re most passionate about, but in a corporate culture that doesn’t suit you?
…a job that doesn’t come with any insurance benefits, but provides free parking and is located five minutes from your house?
…a job that would require you to work 70-80 hours a week, but could lead to a huge financial windfall if the company goes public?
…a job that met virtually all of your desired needs and parameters, but required you to relocate to a different state?

These aren’t false choices.  These are the real types of options professionals today have to consider when contemplating an employment change of some kind, since at the end of day, the notion of “perfection” really doesn’t exist out there in the marketplace.  Every job involves a series of tradeoffs and every career choice you make is almost guaranteed to provide you with a handful of things you really want, while simultaneously falling short in other areas.  Just ask anybody if their job is “perfect” and they’ll set you straight, no matter how romantic their career might seem from the outside looking in!  So the more you’re able to separate your non-negotiable needs from the much longer list of nice-to-have wants, the more empowered you’ll be to make smart career choices — and maximize your odds of landing an assignment that provides you with consistent satisfaction.

Let me hoist my own career up as an example.  I’m extremely grateful and humbled to be able to report that I’m probably more satisfied by what I do for a living than 95% of the people one might bump into out there.  I don’t make a killing, economically, but I certainly make a decent living.  I love that I largely get to set my own schedule and express my own creative ideas without restraint.  I’m delighted that the work I do seems to make a difference in peoples’ lives and allows me to use an incredible variety of  skills and talents such as writing, creative thinking, market research, and the like.  So based on all these factors, I’ve come to count myself as an extremely fortunate human being, and the only question I still wrestle with is whether I fell into this “great match” of a career by happy accident or divine providence.

At the same time, I can also assure you that my career is no exception to the rule I stated above. The life of a self-employed career coach certainly comes with tradeoffs.  For starters, as any consultant or entrepreneur out there can tell you, it can be nerve-wracking to not have a clue how much money you’ll make each month.  Some months you might do well, while in other months, you fall several thousand dollars short of what you expected to make — making you envious of the predictable income W2 workers get to enjoy!  Additionally, the life of a sole proprietor doesn’t allow for much direct collaboration or camaraderie, should these be needs of yours or aspects of your career that are important to you.  Working for yourself can be lonely, at times, and in any type of “counseling” profession it can also be stressful to spend your days dealing with people going through extremely tough (sometimes heartbreaking) personal situations.   As for the notion of employer-paid insurance?  Forget it.  And if you ever CAN break away for vacation for more than a day or two, you have to figure out how to enjoy yourself despite the constant realization that 1) you’re not making a dime while you’re gone and 2) that nobody is answering your phones or covering your client obligations while you’re taking time off.

Again, I’m not complaining one iota, I assure you.  I’m just sharing these insights from my own occupation to illustrate that even for a situation like mine, where I’m doing work that fits me like a glove, there are still plenty of annoying obstacles that one has to cope with and figure out how to work around.  But the good news, and why I think my situation has worked out so well, is that I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time reflecting on my priorities — in many cases, applying my own models to gain greater clarity — and as a result, I think I’ve figured out the exact elements that “feed my soul” in a job, compared to other aspects of work that are less important to me or that I can learn to live without.  This knowledge has given me (I believe) a great deal of freedom and power in terms of how I’ve navigated my own career prospects over the years, to the point that I’ve actually turned down several formal offers from other organizations after carefully analyzing how the pros/cons stacked up against what I’ve learned about myself.

So my advice to people, especially folks who haven’t been highly satisfied with their careers to date, is to start with a thorough re-assessment of their priorities and a clear identification of the “outputs” they most want/need to derive from their work.  Make sure to push yourself beyond the easy answers.  You might surprise yourself.  Over the years, in fact, I’ve been shocked by the VAST range of different notions my clients have expressed about their careers, ranging from people who are all about achieving fame and fortune (which is just fine, if that’s how you’re wired!) to people whose top priority might be job security, fun, personal growth, work/life balance, making a difference in the world, or some other factor.  There are no judgments here — just be true to yourself — and you might also discover that your priorities have changed over time, as you’ve grown older and more experienced.  They almost always do.

At any rate, there’s much more we could discuss on the subject, if anybody’s interested, but I think I’ve made my key point and that’s probably more than enough to chew on for a single blog post.  Please feel free to post a comment if you have other thoughts/ideas around the subject of career satisfaction, since it’s an area that really spins my jets.  And lastly, while perhaps not the most upbeat observation to end on, the simple fact is that today’s recessed economy (aka “buyers market”) is going to require professionals to accept more tradeoffs in their work than they likely would in more “normal” economic times — so the clearer you can become about your priorities, and what’s really important to you, the better you’ll be able to make tough choices like the ones I outlined at the start of the article!