Years ago, I was looking for a new job, and could not really figure out what to do. As a management consultant, I could see myself doing lots of different things, and was having trouble getting my story to resonate with the Human Resources people screening resumes. The problem was, I had no clear direction in what I really wanted to do or why I--above all the other candidates--was the right person for the job.
Then I had a call with a mentor who gave me a very simple exercise that helped me figure out what I really wanted so I could be a more compelling candidate for the right job.
It was deceptively simple, yet really hard.
He told me to take a piece of paper, and draw a line down the middle. He had me write "Must Have" on the left and "Must Not Have" on the right. Then he told me to list three to five things in each category.
There were some ground rules. A Must-Have could not just be the opposite of a Must-Not-Have (for example, "Must be able to sleep in my own bed each night," and "Must not travel overnight," would break the rules). He also told me to write it in a way that someone who found the paper would understand what I meant. For example, "Must work for a great boss," isn't descriptive enough because we all define great bosses differently. Say what it is specifically you want in a boss that makes them great.
I took a stab at it, and then shared it with him. He pushed me on every point I put on the paper to really get under the surface of things. For example, if I had written, "Must make at least X dollars per year," and got an offer that hit all my other points but was five-thousand-dollars under that number, would I take it? If the answer was, "Yes," then either the amount I put down was wrong, or earning at least a certain amount was not a must-have.
He also challenged me not to make everything a response to the situation I was leaving in my old job. That is, if you had a bad boss or did not like the work you were doing, do not waste your bullet points on things that are just not your old job. Think about what you wish you were doing. Do you want to work alone, or with people? Do you want to manage people? Work with your hands? Work with kids? Have a social impact? Not have to deal with customers directly?
The things you put down are not right or wrong, they just need to really matter to you.
When I do this exercise with people I coach and mentor, I ask them to really test their answers by questioning what they wrote, asking themselves, "Why?" a lot, and not being afraid to change answers or remove things from the list completely.
In the end, just like I did, they walk away understanding what "perfect" means when they say they want to find, "the perfect job." That gives them the direction they need to identify types of roles, companies, locations, etc. that would really be ideal for them, and helps them craft a successful application because the intent and purpose shines through.
If you are wondering how it turned out for me, after doing the exercise, I received two amazing offers within a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, I ended up picking the wrong one, but I cannot really fault the exercise for that!
If you want to try it for yourself, you can use this template I created to get started.