“It seems like you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too.
Maybe what you want is two small cakes?”
- Will Dayble
Two of the most common career conversations I have start with:
1. “I am looking for a perfect job, and weirdly am struggling to find one.”
2. “My current job isn’t perfect like I thought it’d be, so I should start looking for a new one.”
This line of thinking is completely understandable, and destined for frustration.
Perfect jobs are hard to come by, and when they do there’s usually 150 other applicants.
Fortunately, there’s another option – assemble a combination of imperfect opportunities.
Instead of pursuing a dream position that ticks all the boxes, maybe it’s easier to find a role that ticks three quarters of the boxes, supplemented by other work that ticks the rest.
Here are some examples of imperfect roles:
Working at a startup
The great part about startups is that you get to do a bit of everything.
The hard part about startups is that you have to do a bit of everything.
You get exposure to the realities of running a business, making quick decisions and creating something out of nothing.
You also get to learn from the founders, which is like royal jelly for career development.
The downside is that there’s very little padding between the shocks and anxieties of entrepreneurship and you.
Their stress is your stress, and people politics is impossible to avoid.
Working at a large company
Corporates roles are more specialised, so you can literally do the same thing every day.
In exchange for this stability is the complete absence of control, leading to some disempowering situations when your good work gets cut - through no fault of your own.
You get the opportunity to work with a large team, but the work can also end up feeling soulless or chaotic.
You also spend a lot of time sitting down under fluorescent lights.
Working at a charity/NGO/church
The allure of working for a good cause is compelling, but that also sets you up for a fall.
Good missions get derailed by people, and that can be incredibly disheartening.
Anecdotally, every single person I’ve met from one particular organisation has departed feeling sad and cynical, possibly due to their initial optimism.
Some roles are rewarding, and you can change people’s lives for the better.
You also have a lot of rules and expectations, and often don’t have all of the resources you need to do the job well.
Working for the government
This one I haven’t done myself, but I work with a lot of government departments.
I’d say about 20% of the staff have great days at work, since they are good at navigating bureaucracy and internal politics, and get to ensure that funds are used for good causes.
There’s a lot of red tape, delays and compromises that can burn people out, or they become stagnant.
Are these good or bad?
It depends on the role, the person and the circumstances.
I guarantee you’ll meet people in each type of business who love their job, and a lot more who feel like they were chewed up and spat out.
That’s where supplements come in.
These are extra opportunities that tick boxes that your day job misses, giving you a well-rounded year even in an imperfect role.
This might be something you build, like an art project, an event, a website or a productive hobby.
These give you the feeling of progress, increase your skills, help you meet new people, and all without managers and deadlines.
Best of all, you get to pick yourself, rather than hoping someone else picks you.
A side hustle is a hobby with a revenue stream.
Maybe you’re starting an e-commerce business, a consultancy, or freelancing on nights and weekends.
This gives you some exposure to all facets of business, without the need to quit your day job.
You’ll learn about what you do/don’t like, and maybe even make some extra money.
Volunteering can give your skillset some meaning, turning your talents into genuine impact.
It can be unrelated to your work or it can use your talents for good causes.
Perhaps you build websites for NGOs, or take professional photos for community events.
Maybe you join a board, lending your expertise to guide good businesses.
You’ll get a chance to practice your skills, while also enjoying the feeling of helping other people.
Your job might not be building your professional development, but a course or stack of books can rapidly advance your progress.
This can include tertiary studies, short courses, watching tutorials or reading good books.
It can also give you the “piece of paper” you need to take the next step in your career, something that additional experience at work can never provide.
The common objection is that this takes time, but remember - the time will pass anyway.
Clubs and support networks
You might be the only person in your organisation “like you”, e.g. young, creative, freelancing or socially conscious.
Instead of moving jobs, perhaps you need to find/form a group of people who can offer support and share your frustrations.
They say “iron sharpens iron”, and having good people around you can give you a certain boost that your colleagues can’t offer.
How supplements work
Some people reading this will be thinking “Yep Isaac, that’s the life for me; I’ll master my day job and also crush it with a side business at night. Easy.”
If that’s you, great.
For the rest of us normal people, we’re limited by our “battery”, the amount of mental and physical energy we can allocate to everything in our lives.
One of the fastest ways you can drain your battery is to try and “fix” an imperfect opportunity.
This might look like trying to solve all of your office politics, take your team’s projects into your own hands, or persuade your general manager to change their approach and budget.
My question is, which is easier:
a) fixing your imperfect opportunity?
b) accepting that it’s imperfect, and actively creating a supplement?
This is a strategic decision, with strategy meaning “saying no to good things”.
It means accepting that you aren’t amazing at your day job, so that you can channel your extra energy into something else on the side.
It’s why cyclists ride as a peloton, staying average for most of the race so that they can break out when it counts.
If you go hard from the start, you’re likely to burn yourself out.
Worse still, you’ll have put all of this energy into things that are out of your control.
With a supplement, you have control over timing, pacing, finances and the right to change your mind.
People are imperfect too, and the same principles apply here.
The most impressive people in the world (e.g. Elon Musk, Michelle Obama, Sean McVay, Jacinda Ardern) aren’t hiring for internships, but it’s surprisingly easy to apprentice with a combination of imperfect geniuses.
Some will be great at technical skills, others will be good at soft skills, and you probably want to develop both.
Again this requires the discernment to ignore certain teachings, navigate conflicting advice, and accepting the fact that you’ll occasionally disappoint them.
This approach lets you get the best out of your mentors – learning from their strengths, without automatically copying their weaknesses.
Here’s my suggestion; when you feel like the perfect job is eluding you, see if you can design a combination of 2-3 opportunities that give you everything you’re looking for.
It takes more creativity to design, but you’ll have almost no competition and a greater sense of control.