Three Steps to Job Satisfaction

11 Feb 2016
Author: Robert Precht

Career Planning Theory

For those of you who are just embarking on a career as a lawyer or for those who have been practicing for some time certain universal truths apply to the career planning process.  To find a satisfying job in public interest law (or in any field for that matter) you need to follow three steps: (1) know yourself; (2) identify compatible jobs; (3) create a written plan and follow through with it. In the next three blog posts we will look in depth at these three steps. This week we will look at the first step. 


When I was a career counselor at the University of Michigan Law School, I was constantly amazed that many students and seasoned lawyers I spoke to could not answer the question: "What are your talent?" Yet knowing the answer to this question is probably the single most important factor for long term job satisfaction. Simply put, the key to finding a satisfying job is finding a position where you can use your talents frequently. 

Many people I ask this question of simply respond by listing skills. "I am a good manager" or "I am a good writer" or "I am able to organize complex data." But a talent is not simply a skill. A talent is a skill we enjoy using. In my own case, I am able to manage people, perform grant management functions like preparing a budget and writing quarterly reports, and fundraising. I can do all these things quite well, but I don't really enjoy doing these things. I prefer counseling, public speaking, and writing. These are skills I enjoy using. So these are my talents. So your talents are the skills you enjoy using. 

What are your talents?

How do identify your talents? Look back on your life. What project or activity gave you an intense sense of satisfaction while you were engaged in it, something that challenged you to your limit but now beyond your limit, something that gave you a flow experience? Maybe it was in high school when you acted in a play. Maybe it was a hobby when you made a film about something when you were 16. Maybe it was creating a new literary magazine in college or volunteering at a hospice. Just choose an experience that gave you satisfaction. Then ask the question: "what skills was I using during these experiences?" 

For example, when I look back on my own professional career, I derived a keen sense of satisfaction by publishing a book. It was a arduous process. My book about my experience as a public defender in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing trial was rejected by several publishers. I had to rewrite the draft several times. Conceiving the narrative, organizing the structure of the book, getting copyright permissions to publish photos with the book, and drawing up a book proposal to interest possible agents and publishers really stretched me to my limits. In the end the book was published by Cornell University Press and I am happy to report that while it was never a best seller many libraries bought it. What skills was I using? Writing, conceptualization, creativity, marketing. So I would identify those things as some of my talents. 

Now it's your turn. Pick an experience that gave you great satisfaction. Then try to isolate two to three skills you were using during that experience. PRESTO! Those are your talents. 

Why is identifying your talents so important? If you do not use your talents on a consistent basis in a job setting you are unlikely to feel fulfilled. Or, putting the same idea more affirmatively, you will feel the greatest job satisfaction if you are using not merely your skills, but the skills you enjoy using (talents). 

What are your values? 

This is another key piece of information you need to know about yourself to attain job satisfaction. While it's essential to find a job where you are using your talents regularly, it is also important to be in a job that furthers your values. Values are the things we prize in people and organization.  Be honest with yourself. Do you place a value on making money? There's nothing wrong with that, but you need to admit it. Or do you place a value on changing the world for the better? Or helping individuals in crisis? Or finding homes for abandoned dogs? Or furthering justice (however that's defined)? This is not an exercise of passing moral judgment, but of identifying what matters most in our life. Ultimately, for a job to be satisfying you need to feel that it is furthering your values. 

How do you identify your values? Which historical figures do you admire? What qualities do those historical figures have? The answers to these questions will bring you closer to identifying your values. In my case I greatly admire Abraham Lincoln. What were his characteristics? He was a lawyer, a superb writer and public speaker, and he cared passionately about social justice. He was also a deeply flawed person who suffered from depression and made remarks about African Americans that we would deplore today. But for the most part Abraham Lincoln embodies my values. Now I'm not suggesting that I will be able to find a job where I am another Abraham Lincoln. But in choosing job settings I can try to identify those which will further my values. Being a public defender in the first part of my career was certainly an occupation that furthered some of my values. 

Now it's your turn. What are your values? Who do you admire? Who would you like to emulate, even if it is a miniature version of that person? 

Armed with self knowledge -- an understanding of your talents and values -- you are now ready to move to the next step: identifying jobs where you can exercise both. That's the subject of our next post.