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The One-Page Career Cheat Sheet

Originally posted March 8, 2012

Are you happy in your job?

This fun resource—a one-page, “career cheat sheet”—from Sarah K. Peck can help you think through the question in a structured way.

Sarah published this chart last month and has received a strong reaction. Here’s what she had to say about it:

I’ve spent time with a wide range of folks – people in start-ups, people in recently established businesses, people in small companies, and people in large companies. This question comes up a lot, yet you can’t seem to figure out whether or not to stay or go. Whether to try something new. If it’s possible to fix something that’s an existing problem.

The response I’m getting from 40- and 50- year olds is especially interesting. My parents’ generation really responded so well. My dad, for example, said: You know, I really didn’t love my job for a while, but after reviewing this sheet I realized how thankful and grateful I am for my job, and how much my job challenges me and intrigues me. Sure, I’m tired on a daily basis, but I’m not bored.

I love that a reflection sheet like this can actually help us remember how much we like what we already have. It’s not necessarily about finding out that you hate your job, but that you might find out that you like your job after all!

Also, it’s nice to have a rubric to bounce ideas off of. It’s hard to just answer the question “Should I quit?” because you don’t have any frame from which to guide the argument. It’s easier to have a list of questions to provoke you and help you think through what might be important or what matters to you.

I’m heading to Austin this weekend, and then out to see the world on my final big trip before I go on the road for book tour #2. Before leaving, I asked Sarah a few questions about the career cheat sheet.

Q. How did the cheat sheet come about?

On a particularly frustrating day about two years ago, I sat down and asked myself, “What, exactly, am I not liking about this current situation?” I ended up with a long list of things that I hated about my job, from the fact that I was sitting all day, to not having enough interaction with others, to not being challenged on the projects that I was working on. I struggle a lot with figuring out whether or I’m doing work that’s right for me and how to make the most of my current situation. There are a lot of times when I’m not content with what I’m doing, and I’m itching to figure out how to make it better.

Once I made this list, I realized that about half of the things on it were things I could fix myself within a relatively short time frame (from a day to a few weeks). I set a timer and went on a walk every two hours. I made a habit of talking to people. I asked for harder projects, even though it seemed counter-intuitive. I was honest with my boss. Turns out he didn’t want me to be bored and unhappy as much as I didn’t want to be bored and unhappy!

I shared the list with a few close friends and family, and ended up having several honest, open conversations—it turned out that they were struggling, too. One of my friends didn’t know whether or not to leave his job. We asked ourselves, “What is most important about staying–or leaving–your current job? What is it that you need to get from your job?”

I scratched out a diagram that I pinned up on my wall at home—the one that you see in the worksheet.

Today, when I’m going through particularly frustrating weeks, I can use this as a check-in to see if what I’m experiencing is endemic to the job, or more a current symptom of the specific project I’m working on. It helps me touch base with what’s most important about the work that I’m doing.

Q. How can people change if they are unhappy?

I think people need to take a lot more responsibility for their own happiness. I have a few quotes in my (infamous) notebooks to remind me of this. First, it’s okay to be happy. Second, happy takes a lot of work. People sometimes think that a state of happiness is something to be achieved, reached, or is somehow something that will be handed to them. I am guilty of this all the time! I have to remind myself, “Sarah, if today didn’t work out so well, you’re going to have to try something new tomorrow and see if you can get different results.” Most everyone I know that is successful or has a joy for living has done some serious work on themselves, on their relationships, on their jobs.

So what does this mean? Start asking the hard questions. Be specific. What is it that you don’t like? What would it take to change that aspect? Sometimes it’s really hard, and I get it. Some of us have to spend a few years working our asses off to pay off debts, or to dig ourselves out of a whole, or struggle to learn a new skill, or go through a process to change. None of this is easy.

But who said happy is easy. Those are two entirely different words. What’s worth doing is not always what’s the most appealing thing to do in the present, but it’s worth it. People need to be courageous and brave. It’s not easy to say what we’re thinking and feeling. It’s not easy to admit where we are struggling. But if you don’t take the effort and courage to change your situation, blaming your job or external factors won’t help.

I also think people need to be gracious and gentle and kind to themselves. Recognize that things change over time if you put in the work. Realize that today is not indicative of all days. Reward yourself for the small changes. When you go to work and say, “I’m going to take a long lunch break and go for a run, even though I’m worried what other people will think of me, I’m going to commit to myself and my happiness and do it anyways,” — be really joyful in the fact that you did it. It’s a lot harder than it sounds.

Sometimes, just by speaking up, you can surprise yourself. After running several times during the middle of the day, I had several colleagues come up to me and say “I really want to do that, too.” We’re now looking at building showers in our building so that more people can do this. And to think I was afraid of what people would think!

Q. Are you better suited as an employee or independent worker?

A. You know, I’m really excited that I can answer yes to that question. It’s an evolving answer, one that changes as my goals expand and grow. I feel like I’ve gotten to a place where I’m really excited about what I’m doing, and how I’m doing it. I think the projects I’m working on are valuable and meaningful, and I’m learning a tremendous amount in a compressed time frame because I asked for more and more responsibility repeatedly and created several hard, challenging projects to tackle in the last year. Was I terrified? Absolutely. Did I have huge, momentous weeks of self-doubt and fear? Of course. Those moments weren’t necessarily my happiest, not by any stretch. But happiness isn’t an island that you arrive at, sipping margaritas indefinitely for the rest of your life. To me, it’s about building a set of skills, tools, relationships, projects and a body of work that you can grow over time Sort of like an investment–you have to build up the elements that make you happy over time. For me, I’ve learned that the rewards of engaging, challenging work and growth, and my loyal and committed relationships are what make me very happy.

In terms of work: I think one of my biggest challenges is that I am fiercely independent, and the idea of sitting at a desk and doing the same thing day in and day out sounds dreadful to me. I am lucky to have struck a balance and found a firm that is willing to entertain my way of doing things, and my need to run and move and roam in the world. I often slip out, run for two hours, return, and work late in the office in the evenings when I’m more settled. When I’m itching to move, telling me to sit at a desk is like asking a puppy not to play. I can’t do it.

My friend Shane says it well: “it’s really just a game. Learn how to play it.” Sometimes we take our current situation so seriously. I think we should be more playful about how we work. I like to test all of the boundaries of what is considered “normal” and see what I can get away with (Can I work on top of a mountain for 8 hours? Let’s try it!). Each time, I’m not trying to fit into someone’s ‘how” mode of operation; rather, I’m trying to accomplish an objective and do great work. Sometimes, I discover better ways of working, and end up doing even better work over time.

I don’t know what the future holds for my work life, and where my projects will take me. But I do know that I enjoy trying new things and figuring it out along the way.


My thanks to Sarah for sharing this fun resource and answering the questions. You can also download a big JPEG of the cheat sheet for your own use.

And here’s a question for you –>

What do you like and dislike about your current job?