Lawyer, professional soccer player, veterinarian, author and probably many more that I repressed were all at one point in time titles I wrote down as being “my dream job” when I was a kid. I can’t say I’m surprised none of them panned out though, considering I hate even getting my blood drawn and haven’t touched a soccer ball since the pandemic (outside of removing the deflated one in my trunk last month). What does surprise me though and would have never been listed alongside the ‘pro athlete career path’ I might pursue is my current role–consultant.
Now, this oversight is in part due to 8-year-old Faith having no clue what a consultant is so reaching this career path meant a lot of exploration had to happen. Exploration in which I’ve admittedly experienced lots of trials and errors. While I’m sure there will be plenty more as I continue down my career path, I’ve learned some important lessons along the way. Namely, I’ve discovered three important non-negotiables or criteria I won’t compromise on when it comes to making career decisions. Each non-negotiable I hold has been developed from past experiences and influences me in job searches, promotions, and career changes, and ultimately led me to where I am today.
My first real job was as a hostess at a restaurant. It was fast paced, consisted of long and weird hours, and meant frequently bussing dirty table after dirty table. Was it a dream job? No, but it wasn’t supposed to be. Did it teach me a lot though? Yes. It taught me work ethic, money and time management, people skills, and it showed me early on the value of respecting and liking who you work with.
Before this job, I had no clue the power of working relationships and how much of an impact your relationships have on how you feel clocking into and especially after clocking out of work. I met some lifelong friends at a restaurant hidden away in small-town Indiana, and because of it, I was lucky to learn early on that while the work we do isn’t always enjoyable, the people we surround ourselves with at work can make all the difference. This restaurant job taught me my first non-negotiable for future jobs: I need to value who I work with and for…and it should be reciprocated. To be clear, we don’t all need to (or even should) be best friends but liking and enjoying those we work alongside is important to me–and research tends to agree these relationships make a difference (Gallup, 2022).
While not my second or even third job at this point, my time in graduate school led me to a mix of titles. One position I held throughout my time as a grad student was Research Assistant. I loved this job and got to work with a great mentor, teacher, and advocate for my growth as a researcher (and I’m not just saying this because he’s Mike Kirchner, the guy who asked me to write this blog, and I don’t want him to veto its publication). The second was Teaching Assistant, where I was able to support a couple different course subjects I was passionate about alongside two respected professors who made the work enjoyable (see non-negotiable #1). Finally, I did some consulting gigs with Mike at local companies which centered around employee engagement, retention, and onboarding. All in all, it was a whirlwind two years with a mix of career experiences I had never imagined being excited about as a kid.
The common thread among each of them was that I got to step out of my comfort zone and learn a lot in each of those projects in some way or another. For these roles, I had to learn how to produce technical writing, get used to receiving publication rejections from journals, speak in front of SMEs across the country, and occasionally share tough findings and recommendations with business leaders. These experiences led me to my second non-negotiable: I need to feel challenged and be given the opportunity to continually develop myself. I’d take overwhelmed over bored any day.
My third non-negotiable became apparent after my role at a nonprofit organization. I was in a fellowship program for nearly two years there where I was able to work on a variety of projects. From government departments to school systems, nonprofits, and local businesses, I worked with a diverse mix of great coworkers and clients and was hardly ever bored (see non-negotiables #1 and #2). In fact, I would classify most, if not all, of the work as meaningful. I got to see strategic plans come to life, small businesses persist through the chaos brought on by COVID-19, millions of dollars raised to bring quality and accessible jobs to the state, a county transforming the way it thinks about health and well-being, communities coming together to support those hit hardest by the pandemic…and the list goes on. While it wasn’t always easy work, it was important. I felt like in some incremental way I was making a difference, and this importance was increased because it was taking place in the region where I grew up. This fellowship taught me my third and final (for now) non-negotiable: I need the work I do to be meaningful. Now, the work I do doesn’t have to change the world. That’s not realistic, instead it just has to be meaningful to me. Although this may seem like common sense, I didn’t always realize how critical this non-negotiable was to me for job satisfaction.
Putting It All Together
So those are my three non-negotiables, and to come full circle, I used them in my spring 2022 job search. Today, I am a consultant at a startup based in Chicago working in the learning and development space. My role ticks off all three of my non-negotiables, and I get to apply what I learned from my degrees and do the work I was most passionate about from previous roles. If there was one thing I could share with others, it’s to reflect on your own career journey to identify your non-negotiables. While doing this exercise, consider keeping two things in mind. First, these non-negotiables should operate in a living document and grow with you as new learnings, seasons, needs, wants, etc. come and go. Second, while my non-negotiables seem obvious, they haven’t always been. Take it from me: when you intentionally define your non-negotiables with work and write them out on paper, they can provide clarity and direction. Happy career path-ing!
Faith Stull is a Consultant at Thoughtium, an experience-driven consulting firm based out of Chicago. In her role, she co-creates with clients to address their most pressing learning and development needs.