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Are You in the Right Career Box?

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When it comes to careers, we have more choices than we often realize. Can you think of someone who doesn't like their job much? Well, perhaps you can help them by pointing them to the choice of six boxes for their career.

Start from the premise that there need not be any conflict between your work life and what you enjoy outside work. You may be able to work in an area that is your hobby, or even turn one of your interests into a business. Enthusiasm leads to success. It is often easier to convert an enthusiasm into a career than to become enthusiastic about a career dictated by others.

The ideal point to reach is one that you will enjoy immensely and that fits in with the total context of your life -- where you and your partner want to live, the lifestyle you want to have, what you want to achieve. But this is often easier said than done -- old habits die hard and the importance of lifestyle is easily relegated to the demands of conventional career thinking, and, most insidiously, to the quest for more money.

For example, when two friends and I set up our own business consulting firm in 1983, we were mindful of the negative effect on our lives of the long hours and extensive travelling that used to be required by our former bosses. So we decided to institute a "total lifestyle approach" in our new venture, aiming for quality of life as much as earnings. It sounded good, and it enabled us to recruit some great young people. But when, after a shaky start, the work started flooding in, we ended up working the typical 80-hour week, and, far worse, we effectively required our people to do the same. I couldn't understand, at first, what one of our young consultants meant, when he accused me of "ruining peoples' lives." In the pursuit of filthy lucre, the total lifestyle approach had quickly gone out the window.

So -- be resolute. The right career is far more important than money. And, in fact, it is very hard to become financially independent unless you love what you do. You might have high earnings, but if the job is draining you will have high outgoings too, financial, psychic, and in terms of relationships.

Which type of career will make you happiest?

Be clear where you stand on two dimensions:

• Do you have a high drive for achievement and career success?

• Would you be happiest working for an organization, as a self-employed and self-contained individual -- a 'sole trader' -- or employing other people?

The chart here shows this choice. Which box best describes you?

Box 1 people are very ambitious but like to work in a context organized and provided by other people. The archetypical 'organization man' and woman falls in this box. The number of these roles is large, but falling, as big business loses market share to smaller firms. If the demand for these posts is falling, so too is the demand for them, perhaps faster. If this is what you want, go for it. Large organizations can no longer provide a job for life or long-term security, but they still provide structure and status, and plenty of resources to help your work.

Box 2 individuals are typically professionals who have a drive for recognition by their peers or want to be the best in their field. They take great pleasure in their own skill. They want to be independent. They don't fit well into organizations, except those of the most permissive kind, such as universities, some voluntary associations, and political parties that are a broad church. Come to think of it, the Anglican Church is another good example, with tolerance of mavericks. But these tolerant and centrifugal organizations are rare. In general, box 2 people should become self-employed and/or work in networks rather than organizations -- networks have some structure, but less than any kind of formal organization. Yet, even with success, box 2 professionals should resist the temptation to employ other people, even if this appears to be the route to riches. Box 2 people are natural independents; they want to avoid professional dependence on other people, even on subordinates.

Box 3 people have high drive, they hate being employed, yet they don't want the lonely and relatively under-geared life of the sole trader. Some sole traders can change the world, but there are few examples -- it seems that Jesus Christ didn't want to found a religion, but he got one anyway, and wouldn't be remembered otherwise. The Internet makes things easier for sole traders, but apart from authors, entertainers, and sports personalities, it is very hard to have huge impact without having followers in tow, locked into a formal structure. Box 3 people are often unconventional, but they are builders - they want to build something permanent around themselves. They are entrepreneurs, and have to learn to lead and inspire other people. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs started out as the most unlikely people to head a mega-organization, but they had to learn how to do it, and we should be grateful that they did. Even rock stars can turn into organization people today.

There is still a 'rebel rebel' streak to some of the most creative people around. Real rebels don't even want to lead - it is too much like hard work. They should get over it. Leadership is the price of impact. I wish I had bothered to build an organization truly in my image, instead of ducking out of a very successful one, where I was a co-leader, after just six years. Now I feel - perhaps wrongly -- it is too late. If you want to work with other people, but not for them, you are a Box 3 person. Face up to the fact and do something about it. I know many great but frustrated professionals who are really box 3 individuals but are operating in box 1 or 2. They like what they do but not the structure -- or absence of it -- around them. They don't realize that the source of their frustration is not professional, but organizational.

Box 4 people do not have a high need for career achievement, but they do enjoy working with other people. They should ensure that they spend many hours a week doing so, either in a conventional job or in a voluntary role.

Box 5 people are not ambitious but do have a strong desire for autonomy in their work. Rather than work in an organization, or set up their own, the best role for them is as freelancers, working on particular projects for other firms, to suit their own individual convenience. This is becoming easier and easier, and is a wonderful social trend, bringing back into the world of work people who are fully-paid-up members of the human race.

Box 6 people have a low need for conventional success but yet enjoy organizing and developing other people. Many, perhaps most, teachers, social workers, and charity workers are box 6 people, happy in their roles. For box 6 people, the journey, the colleagues, and the people served are everything; there is no need to arrive anywhere, and certainly not in the city of gold.

Well, are you sure you are in the right box? Are you sure your partner or your close friends are? It is well worth pondering and getting it precisely right.