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The First Step to Finding Your Dream Job

There's no formula that works for everyone, so be as specific as you can when figuring out what the job you've always fantasized about really is

We know it's possible, even if we haven't read The Four-Hour Work Week yet. We know people in our neighborhoods or we've seen people on TV who have dream jobs, so we know they exist. It's the post-millennium workplace fantasy: To do work we love and are passionate about, be paid well for doing it, and to work among smart and supportive team members under the leadership of a wise and ethical chief executive officer. Sounds reasonable on paper. Why is it so hard, in real life, to get all the dream job ducks to line up in a row?

For starters, it's helpful to remember that our dream-job requirements often change over time. One job I held in my youth was a dream job at the time but would be impossible for me now because of the working hours. When I was twenty-something and single, I was perfectly happy to sit in a conference room with my workmates, eating pizza and talking shop at 11 p.m. Couldn't, wouldn't consider that now.

You may have longed for a management role at one time and realize now that's the last thing you're interested in; or you may learn that you're happiest working independently, where your teammates are available if you need them but aren't in your face all day long.

Put it All On Paper

The point is, dream jobs aren't a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. And that means that your ultra-customized dream job is the perfect job for you, not the whole world of job-seekers. So your task is first to understand what you're looking for, and decide which elements in your wish list are most critical for you; and then to make and execute a plan to go out and find that job. The very worst way to land a dream job is to wait for it to find you.

As you create your dream job must-have list, it's helpful to think about your wishes in two separate categories. In your first category, you'll list the "hard" attributes you're hoping to find in a dream job—company size, industry, job function, local or global enterprise, level of management, division vs. headquarters role, etc. Geography is perhaps the "hardest"—the least flexible of dimensions. Would you move across the country or abroad for your dream job? Will you move across town, doubling your commute? Think really hard about these questions, because these factors aren't likely to change.

Be as specific as you'd like as you create your dream job profile. For instance, "I want to manage human resource information systems for a global employer with 10,000 or more employees and a proactive, forward-looking management team in the apparel industry in the New York metro area." In fact, the narrower your scope, the easier it will be to identify potential employers and begin to research them. But before you do that, let's back up and list the 'soft' attributes of your dream job. After all, it's these soft elements that make these jobs so dreamy.

Left Brain Vs. Right Brain

On this list, you want to dig into what makes a work environment appealing for you, including items like: How mature an industry do I want to work in? Typically, the more mature (heavy equipment manufacturing, for instance) the more conservative the corporate culture will be. How flat vs. how tiered an organization do I desire? If there are 14 levels of management between me and the CEO, my experience at work will be drastically different from how it will be if there are two. How "left-brain" vs. "right-brain" an organization do I want? Although neurology types don't use those left-brain/right-brain models as they once did to understand brain function, they're still useful for us in understanding our strengths and preferences. Left-brain areas are math, music, programming, and flowcharting.

If you're that person, organizations dominated by that type of thinking are perfect for you—research institutions and engineering firms are two examples. Right-brain-focused people veer toward the humanities, language, and the arts. An advertising agency or a freewheeling startup might be a better fit. What looks like a dream job on paper will quickly turn to ashes if the organizational culture doesn't celebrate what you love to do and do well.

Identify Your Dream Team

More questions to answer: What kind of manager do I want? A coach who'll mentor me as we go, a hands-off manager who'll let me put my own stamp on the job, or a combination? It's just as difficult to work with too much managerial guidance as with too little, so the length of your 'leash is important.

What kinds of people do I prefer to work around? Some of us look for an environment where everyone knows his or her role and sticks to it. Some like constant change and role-shifting. Some of us need, above all, to work with smart and intellectually curious people who zip through the New York Times Sunday crossword over a half-cup of coffee, while others need a friendly, supportive team and couldn't care less about intellectual heft. What does your ideal team look like?

What Are You Wishing For?

A dream job could be one that takes you from here to retirement, or one that gives you a burst of learning and accomplishment and prepares you for the next thing. Some dream-job seekers are burnt-out on the frenetic pace and demands of the global business world and want to retreat to a quieter, slower corner of the marketplace. Others would be bored to tears if they weren't embroiled in a crisis at least once a day. Which type are you?

Do you seek a dream job that will let you create your masterwork—in code or in graphic design or even in energy bars? Or are you looking for a dream job that will allow you to teach younger people, or one that will allow you to experience cross-cultural knowledge-sharing with colleagues around the world? Is your fondest wish a job that will win you awards or allow you to create a personal brand? Or is it one that will let you be on the 5:57 train home five days a week?

Finally, how important is salary? Would other forms of compensation, from time-off to business travel to your favorite location to tuition reimbursement, affect the equation? How do you define "well compensated" at this stage of your career, and how important is that to you?

Zeroing In on the Job

Once you have a picture in mind of what you're after, begin your research. Sure, you might find a job through Monster or HotJobs, but a thoughtful dream-job search is more likely to entail seeking out and pursuing specific employers who meet your profile.

Expect to spend weeks or months zeroing in on the companies that fit your dream job ideal. When you're clear that you've scored a hit, reach out—not to the Black Hole of HR (especially not when your résumé is unsolicited), but by locating one or more decision-makers or influential people in the organization. You'll do this via your own contacts, the business networking site LinkedIn, and professional organizations you'll investigate as you move along the Dream Job Search timeline.

A request for an informational interview is a great way to learn more about an employer while making a sturdy contact inside. Just don't misuse the informational interviewer's goodwill by blurting at the end of the conversation, "Now, can you get me a job here?" Through your focused networking, employer research, and online outreach to the people inside the organization and their contacts, you'll eventually get to the conversation stage—if the organization has any current needs, or plans to add a person with your skills.

Not an Easy Road

Research and follow-up are key for dream-job seekers, but you've got an advantage over less proactive job seekers. You know what you want and you can spell out why this employer is a good fit for you. That's something that most job-seekers can't do—certainly not the people who blast out 20 résumés a day to whichever companies have posted jobs on the biggest careers sites.

It could take you six months or a year to land your dream job, and it could take a change of location. It could require an industry or functional shift and a lot of networking, hours of research, and more hours of follow-up, online and over the phone. If that sounds too daunting, you could take the next job that comes down the pike. But don't you deserve at least one dream job in your career?

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