Someone once said that the three most important decisions in life are the answers the following questions:
- What are you going to do?
- With whom?
- And where?
I thought that was pretty nifty when I first encountered it 15 years ago. Today, I still think it is practical wisdom wrapped in a nutshell. At the beginning of each year, we should stop and consider the choices we have made — and can still make, however old we are — so that we can have the best possible lives.
My Career in 300 Words
When I was a child, I wanted to be many things — a policeman, a circus strongman, and a writer. Movie-generated illusions I had about the excitement and romance of such professions formed these ambitions.
My early work experience was very dull, since my youthfulness and poverty limited my job choices. I had a paper route and worked in the delicatessen down the street and in a car wash on the other side of town.
During my high school years, I worked weekends and summers as a grunt for hire, cleaning out warehouses, shoveling snow, painting houses, etc. In college, my buddies and I started our first real business, installing above-ground pools all over Long Island. We had four crews running simultaneously, made what seemed like tons of money, and had fun.
It was a very good introduction to entrepreneurship, but I knew it wasn’t going to be my career. After getting a master’s degree from the University of Michigan, I enrolled in the Peace Corps and went to Chad (in north-central Africa) for two years. There, I taught English literature at the University of Chad in N’Djamena.
In addition to teaching, I did some writing on the side (editing the Peace Corps newsletter and writing a book on local oral poetry) and got great enjoyment from it. So when I returned to the states in 1977, I began looking for a job as a writer. I got one with a small newsletter publishing company in Washington, D.C.
I was initially happy with that work, but after several years of doing the same research and writing virtually the same story every week, I told my boss I wanted to run his business.
He agreed, and I did it. Two years later, I became the editorial director for a larger business in Florida. A year after that, I became my boss’s partner.
That, in a nutshell, is the history of my career. I have put it in front of you to make a point:
The “what to do” in my life was not the result of thoughtful choice but of expedient decisions based on circumstances. It took me to a good place eventually, but the path, in retrospect, seems half accidental.
I believe that is true for most of us. We begin with youthful dreams. They dissipate with experience. We take a job to make ends meet, and then another to improve our income, and then another, and before we know it, we have had a “career.”
It is a meandering path. Sometimes, we find that what we are doing is something other than what we really want to do.
What Are You Doing?
As I said above, it is never too late to ask, “Am I doing what I want to do? Is it giving me all of the benefits I want and need? How close is it to my perfect job?”
Take a few moments now to think about it. It might help to look at this brief list that identifies what, for me, are the most important characteristics of the perfect job.
Your Perfect Job
- I would be happy to do the work I do for free.
- I believe it has value — to me and to the people who pay me for it.
- It is fully challenging. It engages both the logical and the creative sides of my brain.
If you find that the “what to do” of your life is not perfect, don’t panic. If it is paying the bills, it is something. Our first responsibility, as moral citizens of the world, is to support the financial well-being of our families.
But if your work falls short in other areas — if, for example, it doesn’t challenge your intelligence and imagination — you should commit to making changes.
If you are lucky, you may discover an opportunity to slip into your “perfect” job. More likely, you can move toward it step-by-step by making adjustments, as I did in my career.
The Perfect Partner
I had always considered the question “with whom” to be about one’s spouse. And that is probably its original meaning. But it is also relevant to one’s occupation.
The people with whom you work — your boss, your partners, your colleagues, and your employees — determine to a great extent both the satisfaction and the success you will have from your working life.
If you stop to think about the work experience you’ve had, you will realize that much of the pleasure or pain you’ve experienced came from the relationships you’ve had — your interactions with the people with whom you worked.
And you may think that you have no choice in these matters. After all, you can’t hire your boss. But, in fact, you can. In choosing the business you work for, you are choosing your future colleagues.
If you find yourself in a toxic work environment (a work environment that is political, rather than entrepreneurial), don’t hesitate to look for a better company.
And when it comes time to hire employees, don’t consider only their work skills and talents. Consider also whether or not you will enjoy working with them.
The following characteristics should help you choose the best possible partners:
- He/she respects you.
- You have his/her back.
- He/she has yours.
- You don’t expect him/her to change. You are happy with him/her as he/she is.
These four characteristics may seem obvious, but I managed to ignore them for most of my working life. Gradually, I came to recognize how important it was for me to make good choices in terms of partners. These are the characteristics that, after all of these years, seem most important to me.
The Perfect Place to Live
Where you live and work is important too. The physical environment you naturally prefer very much affects your perfect life. (Do you love the mountains, the plains, the beach? Do you prefer big, bustling cities or tranquil little towns?)
When you are starting out, you must go where the work is. But as you move up the ladder of business success, you will have more choice in the matter. This is especially true in today’s world, where in so many industries one can work remotely.
Consider, also, your commute. Some people enjoy spending an hour or more every day commuting. They use this time profitably to listen to music or books on tape and so on.
Other people — such as me — prefer a very short commute. Locating my office a mile from my home has enhanced the quality of my life. I can walk, bike, or drive there in less than 15 minutes.
More specifically, the quality of your immediate work environment — your office — affects the quality of your life. Since you are likely to be spending a big portion of your active day in that one place, make sure you like everything about it.
Your office should not be an accidental, junky place that has what you need. It should be a haven where you can work productively and a bit of paradise filled with art and artifacts that give you pleasure.
Putting It All Together
Whether you are young or old, beginning a career or enjoying a retirement job, you can find good answers to all three questions.
Start today by thinking about the three questions I listed at the beginning of this essay. Conjure up your perfect life. And then begin the process of having it.