If you’ve spent any time interviewing for a job in the past five years, it can seem like a one way street: A historically tight job market has given employers the upper hand. But what if you walked into every interview or looked at every job posting knowing exactly what was most important to you in your career—and committed to not settling for less?
Knowing your career non-negotiables will give you the confidence you need to say “no” to things that aren’t aligned with what you’ve already decided is important to you. And it’ll help you to see when you are headed in the right direction. Most importantly, it’ll lead you to a career that actually makes you happy.
Try these steps to creating—and enforcing—your career non-negotiables today.
1. Take a Job History Inventory
Start by creating a list of every job you’ve ever had. Yes, all of them—even that brief stint working the drive-thru or babysitting your neighbor’s kids in high school. Write out all of the things you liked and didn’t like about each job. Once you’ve done this, take a look at your likes and dislikes as a whole and take note of the themes on both sides.
Really make an effort to go deep. For example, if you notice you enjoyed working with numbers in several of the jobs, don’t stop there. Ask yourself what it is about working with numbers you enjoy. Is it the certainty? Or being able to problem solve? Push yourself to think expansively about what the themes you’ve uncovered mean to you, and which themes highlight your greatest strengths. To achieve the greatest level of fulfillment, you’ll want your career choices to emphasize and cultivate your strengths rather than trying to overcome weaknesses.
2. Consider What You Need Day-to-Day
Next, take some time to think about your lifestyle, both what your life is like now and what you want it to be like in the next three to five years. What about your life, outside of work, is most important to you? What do you want to do more of? What do you do now that you’d never be willing to give up?
Then, start asking yourself about your work style. What type of work environment brings out the best in you? What kind of people do you enjoy working with? What kinds of challenges excite you?
Even though we all love to think about our biggest dreams and aspirations, the bulk of our lives are lived in the day-to-day, with a sprinkling of highs and lows to keep things interesting. Knowing what will keep you motivated, engaged, and satisfied on a daily basis—and what won’t—is key to creating a career path that works for you.
As an example, I quite enjoy working on my own. I’m a self-motivated person who doesn’t have much problem sticking to a schedule (as long as I have a deadline!), and I don’t really need the office interaction and face time that someone more extroverted might thrive on, so I do well with people who are equally self-sufficient or who can at least read the signs when I’m ready to bow out of a conversation and just get to work. I also thrive when I’m challenged to come up with an innovative solution. I don’t mind introducing an idea that’s a little out there or even controversial. These are the kinds of things that bring out the best in me and make me excited to get to work every day.
Your job is to figure out what those things are for you.
3. Combine the Information You’ve Collected
Now, take the data you’ve gathered about what kind of lifestyle you want to have and what kind of work style brings out the best in you, and compare it to the themes you extracted from your job history. Distill your findings down until you have three to five things that you can say with absolute certainty are non-negotiable when it comes to your career. (Any more than that and you run the risk of creating unattainable demands. Any less and you’re likely to find yourself in positions where you feel stifled or undervalued.)
Remember, you’re going for depth and substance here, so “Must not involve uncaged shark diving,” though likely a non-negotiable for most, isn’t going to get you the result you’re looking for. You want these to be meaningful—things you’ll fight or hold out for.
For me, a flexible schedule is an absolute must. I have young children, so not only are my mornings completely unpredictable, but my weeks are often filled with school events and volunteer hours that need to be fulfilled, so a schedule that allows me to roll with things as they arise is a clear non-negotiable.
Another slightly less tangible, but no less important non-negotiable for me is directly related to my work style: freedom. I need to be free to work in the way that works best for me. Time and space are key to working my magic, so a situation where I’m constantly having to check in or report back on my progress isn’t a good fit for me. I just need to know the parameters of what needs to be done and given the freedom to do it.
4. Enforce Them
So now that you know what your non-negotiables are, how do you put them into action and ensure that you’re not jumping at any offer that’s tossed your way?
First, hold yourself accountable for them. These are the things you’ve decided are most important to you after all! Commit to only looking for jobs that you believe will meet the threshold you’ve created for yourself. If you find this too restrictive, then I would suggest you take another look at your non-negotiables and create new ones that are important enough to you that holding out for them doesn’t feel like a sacrifice.
You should also share them with your friends and contacts when you discuss your job search. This might feel risky at first, but having a clear set of “must haves” is actually very useful for people who are in a position to help you. And your confidence and clarity will set you apart from most other job seekers.
Next, you’ll want to practice ways to tease out information on how an opportunity stacks up against your non-negotiables during interviews. This needs to be done with some finesse, so I would recommend rehearsing questions out loud or even practicing with a friend so you can get the right wording. While an HR person might not be thrilled to hear you ask something like, “So, can I work from home two days a week?” at your interview, questions about the company culture or work-life balance are welcome—expected even—and can give you a glimpse into how flexible they might be if that is one of your non-negotiables.
Finally, don’t forget to revisit your non-negotiables on a regular basis. As you move along on your career path, they likely will change, but knowing what they are and keeping them top of mind when making decisions about your career will ensure that you’re always headed in the direction that’s best for you.