Annual performance reviews have always reminded me of doctor visits.
Manager: "Hi, Mike. Good to see you. How would you say you've been doing this past year?"
Me: (Unable to remember much prior to today's lunch, let alone nine months ago)
"Pretty good, I guess."
Manager: (Nods reflectively) "Uh-huh. Reviewing your file here, I'd say your blood pressure (revenue) is where it should be, but your weight (cost) has been climbing. I'd like to recommend some diet (staff changes) and exercise (overtime)."
These rituals can feel obnoxious, because both sides of the table are typically so bereft of actionable information. Your manager does care about you, but he or she has a lot of other people to worry about too.
Having learned early in my career that nobody cares about my professional well-being more than me, I committed myself to coming up with more useful assessments of my professional health than "Pretty good, I guess."
"If you can't measure it, you can't improve it." --Peter Drucker
My scheme, back in October 2005, was to commit to a healthy habit of recording my work satisfaction against a few criteria. Some mix of measurements that could help me better assess, and ultimately improve, my professional decision making.
Playing the hand I was dealt, I began with the vanilla employee survey used by my company at the time. Whereas I imagine most of my peers clicked through their six-question survey like a fire-and-forget missile, I kicked things up a notch, making a simple spreadsheet to log my results, and committing to doing the same simple exercise, year in and year out, for the rest of my career.
So that when faced with a heady career discussion with my boss, colleagues, wife, or (to be honest) myself, I'd have a quantitative, longitudinal, evidence-based narrative that would beat the pants off of "Pretty good, I guess."
Twelve years, four jobs, and three kids later, here's some of what I've begun to learn.
My Six Professional Vital Signs:
"This job is definitely not worth eleven-five a year." --Winston Zeddemore, Ghostbusters
Regardless of how far you've made it up Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the plain truth is that the vast majority of us work to make money. When you say it that bluntly, it cheapens the underlying truth, so let me attempt to be a bit more genteel: We work so that we might tend to the many other things we care about in life (the vast majority of which cost money).
If your salary and benefits aren't cutting it, no mix of other factors will matter. Get real with yourself and figure out your needs. I've found that entrepreneur-land is filled with folks at two extremes: scrappers with literally nothing to lose and banked folks with figuratively nothing to lose. Both groups are typically willing to work for very little near-term money in pursuit of a big, fat future payday. Pro tip: Don't let peer pressure dictate that you take a vow of near-term poverty. Only you can determine what your time is worth.
Key personal takeaway: I've never stayed in a position because I felt well paid, but I've certainly left ones when I didn't. For me, compensation has proven a necessary but not sufficient motivator.
"Elected office has more perks than Elvis's nightstand." --Dennis Miller
Perks are a real consideration of any job. I've worked in very different organizations, each with very different fringe benefits. Flipping green chili burgers at the Bandelier National Monument snack shop in 1996 meant all-you-can-drink Cokes. On the flip side, it also meant a greasy, 110-degree kitchen. Ten years later, as a young executive at a global management consultancy, I got to work in fancy, climate-controlled offices and travel the world in business class. On the flip side, I frequently found myself stuck thousands of lonely miles away from my young family.
Perks can easily be taken for granted. For instance, I didn't realize I'd long enjoyed a flexible work environment until I later found myself at a bureaucracy that put a premium on face-time. Likewise, I didn't appreciate my heavily subsidized Fortune 500 health care plan until I later found myself a father of three working at a company with fewer than 10 people.
Key personal takeaway: Some of the grass is objectively greener on the other side. You just need to figure out which perks matter most to you at different stages of your career.
"Life's too short to work with a**holes." --Anthony Bourdain
I'm a sixth grader helping out at an elementary school fundraiser. My buddy's dad is wearing a T-shirt that says, "If idiots could fly, this place would be an airport." All in good fun, but I recall thinking how crappy it must feel to be stuck with people who annoy you. Maybe this is why Y Combinator president Sam Altman recommends that companies hire for values first, aptitude second, and skills last.
Key personal takeaway: Like great perks, great people can easily be taken for granted. By and large, I've been fortunate to work with incandescent all-stars. I'm now able to recognize that, thanks to a handful of painful experiences with those who were anything but.
"If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make that change." --Batman
Are you pumped to tow the company line? Really? As a consultant, this one never really resonated much with me, because by definition, my mission was the client's mission. In 2004, my mission was drug discovery (Pfizer), and by 2005, my mission had changed to offshore drilling (BP), and then enterprise software (Microsoft). One of the quirks of being a soldier-for-hire is that the mission changes every few months, obviating the need to get too attached.
Now that I'm an entrepreneur, I've got the privilege and responsibility to set a mission that our team and I can get behind.
Key personal takeaway: I know when I'm feeling engaged about my company's mission: when I'm eager to answer that classic cocktail-party question "And what do you do?" If I sheepishly downplay the question and look for an escape, it's time to rethink the mission.
5. Today (the Work Itself)
"Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life." --Cliché
We've come this far and haven't actually hit on, you know, the work itself.Do you like the day-to-day tasks themselves? The sausage grinding required of you between 8 a.m. and lunch, and then again (gasp) from 1 p.m. until dinner? Monday through Friday, 2,000 hours per year? Chances are, if you're reading this, you're one of the fortunate few on this earth with some semblance of say as to your area of employ. Be sure you're playing a game that accentuates your positives, eliminates your negatives, and doesn't mess around with the distracting in-betweens.
Key personal takeaway: It's called work for a reason. But if you enjoy (some of) it, are skilled at (most of) it, and the world wants (any of) it, you're well ahead of the game.
6. Tomorrow (the Opportunities Ahead)
"Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted." --Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture
I've heard it said that the thing that separates humans from the other great apes (beyond opposable thumbs and better haircuts) is our capacity to delay near-term gratification in pursuit of a superior downstream payoff. If I'm annoyed by my work or my co-workers, my pay or my perks, I've come to ask this key question: "Is this muck setting me up for a significantly better tomorrow?" Most of the time, the answer is yes: a dreary Tuesday morning in service of a high-fiving Friday afternoon. A hard-knocks project paving the way for a home run. No pain, no gain, etc., etc.
Key personal takeaway: You should always be earning or learning. If you find yourself going a few months without much of either, it might be time to change it up.