After years of rigorous study, you earned the degree you set your sights on. Perhaps you even have a few years of professional experience under your belt. Yet picking the best company — or industry — to work for still feels daunting and elusive. Should you go into finance? Would tech be a good fit? Could you make a foray into consulting? Will a big company be best, or should you opt for a small startup?
It’s not just you. Everybody struggles with the same questions: What am I meant to do? What do I really want to do? What company should I work at?
Unfortunately, people receive little guidance for answering these questions. At best, recent grads bite at the first few companies that show interest; at worst, they pick the first company that makes an offer. It’s inevitable that a bad choice here will lead to unhappiness, burnout, and maybe even resentment.
Choosing the company you work for is among the biggest decisions you’ll ever make. It’s where you’ll spend most of your time, and it’s where you’ll meet the peers that will influence and shape you and your career. If you choose unwisely, you’ll waste your time, burn out, and jump ship in a hurry — and worse, you’ll likely repeat this cycle over and over again.
Learning Life’s Lessons Outside the Classroom
Your university might have versed you in the literary classics or the inner workings of mitosis, but it’s unlikely that those lessons helped you discern the right career path.
If you’re like me, you were never taught how to choose the right company at the beginning of your career — despite years of schooling. Even in my MBA program at Stanford University, we learned a lot about managing companies, but not so much about managing a career. I had to learn the hard way: through experience.
In the decade following my graduation, these are the key lessons I learned about landing my dream job:
1. Narrow down your decisions (and the reasoning behind them). Consider how you assess potential employers. Is it by their brand name? Proposed salary? Perhaps you look at a potential business because you’re interested in its industry, or maybe it’s just about how good the business would look on your résumé. Most people just blend factors like these in their head and then follow their heart. They end up in the wrong places because they didn’t think critically.
To avoid this, make a list of things that matter to you and rank them in order of importance. Typically, this list includes your boss, the social networks you’ll form, learning experiences, money, respective industry, fulfillment, and commute. Put weights on every factor and rate each potential job according to them. In my case, I defined my factors, talked with roughly 50 companies, and rated them all before making my final selection — which is where I work today.
But how do you know what factors matter to you? Funny you should ask.
2. Document your likes and dislikes in real time. As humans, we’re forever struggling to know what we want. This is because our memories of what we enjoy are tainted.
One of the best ways to discern what you want is by writing things down as you experience them. Whether you use a notebook or an app, take a recording tool with you everywhere. Note the experiences that give you energy as well as the ones that drain you.
When I did this, I realized the following: I enjoy all types of one-on-one conversations. I don’t like meetings, except for ones where I help others. More than just about anything, I love assessing a hard problem, understanding it deeply, solving it, and then communicating my findings back to others in an entertaining, intuitive way.
These types of insights are impossible to figure out after the fact when you’re sitting in front of your desk. Write them down the minute they come to you.
3. Take a seat aboard a rocket ship. One of my first bosses gave me the most important piece of advice: “You travel much faster floating with the current than furiously swimming against it.”
In essence, the driver of your success is the company you pick — not necessarily your performance. A mediocre Google employee is much more successful than a superstar at Enron.
In fact, the former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, relayed a similar sentiment to Sheryl Sandberg, who is now Facebook’s COO. Sandberg had several offers on the table, and she was struggling to make a decision. Schmidt’s advice? “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.”
Sandberg, who took Schmidt’s sentiments in stride, wrote about this in “Lean In.” She said he explained it like this: “When companies grow quickly, there are more things to do than there are people to do them. When companies grow more slowly or stop growing, there is less to do and too many people to not be doing them. Politics and stagnation set in, and everyone falters.”
4. Don’t stick around on a sinking ship. If joining a rocket ship is great advice, the contrary is also true.
When I was fresh out of school, I joined a company that was taking off like a rocket. The startup created games for Facebook, which was new and explosive at the time. However, the social media giant soon changed the rules of its platform. All the companies in the industry went down — mine included. We saw our first layoff within a month. I stayed for two more years and survived three rounds of layoffs before I finally left.
If a company is beginning to sink, don’t go down with the ship by waiting for a turnaround. Odds are it won’t come. Companies that lose product-market fit (or haven’t found it yet) are unlikely to find it again. If you join a bad company, your productivity won’t matter: You’ll receive fewer transformative experiences and scant opportunities.
How can you tell when a company is starting to sink? Revenue and profits decrease, and both its leaders and top talent are heading for the door.
5. Try new things, but don’t overcommit. What if you have a few good offers but aren’t sure which one to pick? Or you have a dream you’re tempted to follow? Pause here — you’re not ready to choose.
More often than not, we’re bad at guessing what an experience will be like. Yet we consistently commit thousands of hours to a new job after only a few hours of interviewing (or daydreaming).
Figure out ways to experience what your new job could look like instead. Work on a passion project rather than leaving a current job and going all-in. Look for opportunities to shadow others in fields you’re passionate about. Talk to employees at companies you might like (or even better, chat with former employees). Contract with your potential employer for a week or two.
It’s not easy making big decisions that impact your future. But you can quiet the chaos by figuring out what you want, joining good companies, and avoiding bad ones. Finally, try before you buy. Make time to find your direction. And when you do, follow it.