How to make the best of the only job we got?

Many well-meaning and articulate authors have said that choosing a job ought to be like choosing a romantic partner. We need to have a set of non-negotiable criteria that must be met, personal and organizational goals must align, and the workplace must be collegial and fun. The same things apply to the romantic partner situation, of course, the words “organizational” and “workplace” need to be suitably replaced (agreed, for some of us that may not be needed as the families sound more like an organization with the hierarchy and the drama; much worse if it is a family-business, huh?). At the end, one way or the other, it comes down to making a decision in our professional or personal life.

Tomas Chamorr-Premuzic says in his HBR article that most people want these three things from their jobs: a sense of competence and mastery, a sense of community or affiliation, and a sense of meaning or purpose. These are excellent goals to have and we want a job that gives us a high probability of achieving them. So in some sense, for our decision making, we may want to find a job that maximizes our probability of achieving all three goals. Of course, it is understandable that it is extremely difficult to assess these during the interview process, but that is all we get and we have to make that call. It is like going on one date and having to decide to get married.

Let us go through the entire process before we jump in. We apply for a job possibly with a really cheesy cover letter (akin to going on a date with pick up lines such as: Are you a time traveler? Because I see you in my future!; Is your name Google? Because you have everything I’ve been searching for; Can I follow you where you’re going right now? Cause my parents always told me to follow my dreams!). Hopefully someone gets past the cover letter, looks at our resume, and shortlists us for an interview. Then we go on this single date called interview, and it is usually a one-way selection like the Bachelor. It does not have to be that way, we can also turn down an offer (like in the Bachelor).

This brings us to the title of this article. Say we get the job offer. What if that is very likely the only job offer we could get? Assume for now that the fit is not ideal as there are some red flags we saw during the interview process. I completely agree with the author of the aforementioned HBR article that people are too good at tolerating bad jobs. We should not be taking up jobs where we see red flags. However, maybe it is a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. That could be due to being an international student, or during a pandemic when jobs are hard to come by, or we just have limited alternatives in the restricted geographical region.

In other words, we do not really have the option that is presented while solving the so-called secretary problem. In the secretary problem, we get to try one thing after the other, and at the end of each trial we need to decide if we will stop trying. Presumably secretaries were selected that way back in the day. Fun fact: the problem is also known as the marriage problem! The optimal solution is essentially exploration and then exploitation. That means, initially we explore to see what the lay of the land looks like. Once we have an idea of what our options are, we exploit by picking the first one that is better than anything we have seen thus far.

Few of us lucky are enough to be in that secretary-problem situation of having numerous options to choose from. What should the unlucky few that get only one job offer do? Here are some thoughts on how to make the best with the only job we get:

Excel in the things we can/want

We may be in a job where we may be good at or have passion for some things, but not everything that is required to thrive. For example, in a faculty job it is important to be able to teach, write papers, secure research grants, and provide professional service. Maybe one of the four we are weak at or have no interest in. Perhaps we could excel in all the others, and then either work on our weaknesses or just find a position where those skills may not be needed.

Find friends outside our team

If we are in a reasonably-sized company then it would make sense to find friends outside our immediate team or group. This would enable not only the opportunity to discuss any difficulties we are facing, but also it may open up doors to move teams in the future. Social events are usually good places to find these friends outside our teams. There may be other situations like ride share, conferences, or just by asking around, we can find people with similar interests as us.

Help others succeed

We are often too caught up in doing things to maximize our chances of succeeding in the workplace. A counter-intuitive strategy would be to help others succeed. Why? Think of it as giving a positive spin to “what goes around comes around”. Understandably, this is difficult especially if the situation sounds like a zero-sum-game. But more often than not, small random acts of kindness can be done to others that will be rewarding in the long run.

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