How can you keep your options open? The best way is to work for a company with a strong national "brand"—hundreds and hundreds of companies are in this category—or for an organization with a great reputation locally. One woman we met in Southern California parlayed her low-level job at a well-known regional bank into a managerial job in her state's treasury department. "I was trusted walking in the door for the interview," she said. "The bank gave me a kind of halo."
Job halos are like little angels; they help a lot when a journey is long.
Does this job represent a considerable compromise for my family's sake? This question is tough; it forces you to confront just how long it might be before you find the career you've been waiting for.
Almost ten years ago, I took a job—as an editor at the Harvard Business Review—in large part because it wouldn't require me to travel.
It was quite a change. For years I had been a management consultant, and I loved it. The work was fascinating and the people at my firm were kindred spirits, but I was often away three days a week on business, and even when I wasn't traveling, I worked long hours.
I had three children and was pregnant with my fourth when the HBR job came up. My family needed me home, especially since my husband at the time, the family's main wage earner, also traveled extensively.
I made the trade-off. I'm not saying I didn't like my job—I enjoyed many aspects of the work. But HBR was a nonprofit monthly magazine, and I never stopped missing the fast-paced excitement of the competitive business marketplace.
Still, I would make that choice again. Sometimes you have to take or keep a job because the people who love you need you to. Eventually, though, circumstances change. Your kids grow up. Your husband gets more flexibility in his job. Your older sister steps in to care for your mother. When the moment arrives and you can stop compromising your own dream, seize it.
Finally: Does the job—the stuff I do every day—touch my heart and feed my soul? This is, in the end, the most important thing you need to ask yourself. Very simply, you will never be what you were meant to be if you aren't having fun.
The perfect job is perfect because it makes you happy inside. Something about it—the thrill of making a big sale or making something work just right for your customers, the camaraderie of hitting a deadline with your colleagues, the reward of coaching new employees—turns your crank. Your work matters to you, and, on a visceral level, it just delights your soul.
The answer to this question is a feeling—a feeling of excitement and sense of meaning. When that's what's going on inside, you know you've finally reached your destination.
It's almost never where you expected it to be.
Remember my friend in the Midwest? As a girl, she dreamed, albeit briefly, of being a surgeon like her father. She also imagined writing poetry and becoming a social worker. She had no idea the best job for her was helping teenagers reach their dreams—until she was doing it.
I met a woman recently who, as the head of development for a state college with 10,000 students, raises millions of dollars a year to fund buildings and scholarships. She has her tough days, but when I asked if there was something else she would rather be doing, she gasped. "This is the perfect job," she said. "I literally couldn't do anything else. I'd miss it too much!"
Fund-raising—and loving it—is just about the last thing she imagined she'd be doing when she began her career 25 years ago. She was the only daughter in a traditional Irish family; her parents mortgaged their home to send her four brothers to college. After secretarial school, she landed a job as a bank teller. She might have stayed at the bank forever, she says, if she hadn't needed to get out of town when her husband began physically abusing her. A bitter divorce left her broke, and so she quickly became a licensed nurse practitioner. "All I knew was that I could get a job as a licensed practical nurse," she recalls.
Four years later, needing more income, she went back to school at night to become a registered nurse. It was there that she took a class in communications and loved it. When she graduated, she found an entry-level position in public relations. That job led to several more jobs and promotions in the PR field, which led to a job as a legislative aide to a congressman, which prepared her perfectly for her current job.
"Looking back now," she told me, "I think, How sad that all those early years as a bank teller and a nurse were wasted. But then I realize they really weren't. I couldn't have gotten here if I hadn't been there. I learned something about myself and about work every step of the way."
And that's the key, ultimately—learning. To find your perfect job, you have to relentlessly gather the lessons of the journey.
Just keep asking questions. Does this job allow me to be myself? Does it make me smarter? Does it open doors? Does it represent a compromise I accept? Does it touch my inner being?
If you listen closely enough, with time, patience, and the courage to act, the answers will lead you to the very place you were always meant to be—when you finally grow up.
From the September 2005 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.