On a recent road trip to visit an old friend, I spent three-and-a-half hours in my car listening to nothing. No company, no music, no talk radio. Nothing but road noise.
During the first hour, I felt stressed about work. I had left behind undone projects, rapidly approaching deadlines, and a disaster area of papers in my office. But by the end of the second hour, I was happy, relaxed, and definitely on vacation.
My experience in the car that day reflects my personality and values. Every day, our personality and values help determine how we respond to the environment around us, how we manage projects at work, and how we maintain our desired work-life balance. Let me illustrate this with my example about myself:
I listened to nothing in the car because I am an introvert. My job requires that I be an extravert all day long. So, I need quiet time to reflect and rejuvenate myself. I was stressed initially during my drive because doing my job well is important to me. This is something I value. I had difficulty putting aside work thoughts because my tendency to be well-organized and always on top of projects was not happening at work when I left for this trip. I was happy later because I remembered that while I value doing my job well, it is more important to me to be a good friend and have a good work-life balance. After my trip, I had the energy and motivation to get my work life back in order and on track.
I listened to nothing in the car because I am an introvert. My job requires that I be an extravert all day long. So, I need quiet time to reflect and rejuvenate myself.
I was stressed initially during my drive because doing my job well is important to me. This is something I value.
I had difficulty putting aside work thoughts because my tendency to be well-organized and always on top of projects was not happening at work when I left for this trip.
I was happy later because I remembered that while I value doing my job well, it is more important to me to be a good friend and have a good work-life balance.
After my trip, I had the energy and motivation to get my work life back in order and on track.
While the concept of incorporating things you know about your personality and values into your job search is intuitive to many, others don't see how stopping to think about these things can be helpful. It's not uncommon to find ourselves caught up in creating the perfect cover letter or résumé, but a perfect cover letter won't make you enjoy a job you're not well suited for, nor will it make you look better to an interviewer who can sense your deep misgivings, even if you can't. Résumés and cover letters are vitally important in landing the job you want, but understanding yourself is the first step in making sure you are applying for the types of jobs that will make you happy.
If you haven't taken the time to assess your personality and values, I've listed some ways to get started below.
The most talked about method of assessing your personality is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Numerous books and Web sites discuss the principles behind the MBTI, so I have decided to not review this material here. If you have never taken the test, it's fun and informative; I'd encourage you to take it. Ideally you should take it with a qualified counselor, since it's very important that you interpret the results correctly. But a free, easy alternative is to use the Keirsey Temperament Sorter II, which is available online.
An alternative way to examine your personality is simply to write a list of characteristics about yourself. The sidebar includes a list intended to help you get started.
Now be honest, and don't forget to list those of your traits that aren't so favorable; nobody is going to see your list but you. For example, if you truly are a procrastinator, hate working under deadlines, tend to be disorganized, or really don't have great interpersonal skills, go ahead and include those items on a list describing yourself. And if you're the self-critical type, work just as hard to identify your good points as you do your bad points.
One note of caution: Your personality is only one thing to consider in choosing a career path. Just because your MBTI type isn't obviously consistent with an occupational path you were considering, or just because a couple of character traits conflict with what you typically see in workers in a particular field, doesn't mean that occupation is not right for you. We each have our own unique way of relating to our jobs. Standardized tests are all about averages, and none of us are average. Humans are complex creatures, and no single factor should determine your career path.
When someone asks you what your values are, what comes first to mind? Moral values? Work values? Personal values? Some individuals want their work to support a cause. Others place more importance on financial security. Different kinds of values are important for different people.
Typically, people assess their values by using an informal checklist. The items on the list itself give some indication of the worldview of the individual creating or providing the checklist; if the list seems inadequate, feel free to write your own.
In a prior article I asked you to examine what's important to you in your working environment. This time, I am providing a more general list of values to get you thinking about what is important to you (see box). Once again, don't treat the list as fixed and final; use it as a starting point and write your own.
Putting It All Together
Now that you have stopped to reflect upon your personality and values, it's time to use the information.
Here's one example of how you might apply your knowledge about yourself during the job search: Let's assume that you are preparing to apply to postdoctoral positions in academia and that you aspire to be a leading researcher in your field. Your self-evaluation reveals you to be a disorganized procrastinator. What problems might you run into if you don't keep your values and personality in mind? Well, if you value a high-profile scientific research career, it is often beneficial to postdoc in a well-known lab. But positions in these labs are sometimes difficult to obtain. If you let your tendency to procrastinate rule, you may find yourself having difficulty getting into a high-profile lab as a postdoc. And even if you do get a job in such a lab, you might not be as productive as some of your more organized colleagues. This might influence your long-term success.
It might well be that you aren't cut out for that sort of work. But that's for you to decide: If you've gotten this far, you're bound to have positive traits that offset the negative ones. Maybe you're spontaneous and creative, with a lot of good ideas.
Procrastination and disorganization do not render your ambitions unattainable. Sure, it's possible that this sort of self-analysis will lead you to choose a different career path, but another outcome is equally likely: that your new-found self-knowledge--knowing your strengths and weaknesses--will allow you to exploit the former and compensate for the latter in a way that you just wouldn't manage without self-analysis and a conscious effort. Even if you don't decide to take a different road, you'll likely have a better time--and more success--on whatever road you're on.