My oldest son is reaching an interesting age where he’s asking me a ton of questions about adult life, mostly when it’s just the two of us.
The other day, he came home from school with a ton of questions about my career. In our area, it’s fairly atypical for parents to work from home – in fact, one of his teachers apparently thought I was a full time “stay at home parent” because I worked from home with a healthy amount of time flexibility – so he had a lot of interesting questions about it.
How did I find this job? What exactly do I do all day? The questions went on and on.
He was particularly interested in my own career decision several years ago, when I decided to become an independent content creator and walked away from a “normal” job in an office. It was a radically different option than the other choices on my career path at the time – even he observed that. How was that radically different option even available to me? Why did I choose it?
I gave him an honest answer: I wanted to have an option like that, so I put in a ton of work to add that better option to my list of choices. I was simply not happy with the list of options available to me at that time, so I did everything I could to add another option to my list of choices.
That experience taught me an incredibly valuable lesson about life: Sometimes, the options available to you are all pretty bad and you do have to take the “least bad” option, but the story doesn’t have to end there. Quite often, you can add more options to your list of choices and then make that decision again, choosing something even better.
Let me show you what I mean by spelling out some of my career options.
At the time in my career when Sarah and I first learned that we were about to become parents, I really had three main options in terms of employment with a healthy income. I could stay at my current job, which offered a one-year contract that was being renewed each year. I could apply for one of a handful of jobs in my relatively narrow niche of expertise that were available from local corporations at the time. I could also apply for a long-term government position that matched my skill set.
Each option had some pros and cons.
I really loved the working environment of my annual renewed contract. My boss there was one of my career and life mentors and he was one of the kindest, most generous, and most insightful people I’ve ever been around. The schedule was fairly flexible, but not overly so. However, it was an annual renewing contract that never offered any sort of assurance beyond the next several months, as the whole thing relied on grants from funding agencies. It was a great day-to-day job, but with no stability and relatively little time flexibility.
The corporate jobs offered the most pay among the options, but the work schedules were completely set in stone and didn’t afford me much family time. The work was interesting, but I knew from the other people working in those labs that there was a lot of expected overtime hours and that I would also be doing a fair amount of travel, too. In short, these would be solid day-to-day jobs with stability, but with a lot of travel and a lot of overtime and no time flexibility.
The third option was a government job. It paid the least of the three options, but it did have some schedule flexibility especially compared to the corporate options. It was also the most stable of the three, as it was a permanent job. It only required a small amount of travel. What did it have against it, then? Bureaucracy and tons of it. While I’d be doing interesting work, a lot of it would be shrouded in mountains of forms and meetings and paperwork.
To be honest, I wasn’t really happy with those three options at all. I wanted a job with a super flexible schedule and at least some degree of stability so that I wouldn’t be scared that I’d be slapped with a pink slip all the time. I wanted a job with little bureaucracy and a lot of creative freedom. I wanted a job where extra effort would be eventually rewarded with financial returns.
All of those opportunities failed on at least a few of those counts.
Eventually, I decided to take on the third option, but it wasn’t a particularly joyful choice. The truth is that I wanted more options than those three.
So, what did I do? I created more options.
I spent the next several years looking for possibilities that matched what I wanted from a job – great scheduling possibilities, rewards for hard work, low bureaucracy, interesting creative work – and then putting myself in a position so that when such an opportunity presented itself I could immediately jump on board. Just a few years later, I was ready when things did click into place – I had built everything I needed to take advantage of it, and so I made that leap.
The entire experience taught me one thing: If life hands you a set of choices that you don’t like, build another choice. Choose the option before you that gives you the best chance to change your life and your situation enough so that you can revisit the decision and choose something much better later on.
Does it sound like wishful thinking? It’s not. It’s a technique I’ve used over and over again over the last several years, with my career path being just one example.
Here’s exactly how you can do this as well.
Clearly Identify the Option You Want
So, you’re trying to figure out which option you want to choose among several. None of them are exactly what you want, but they all have some elements of what you want.
Maybe it’s a career juncture. Maybe it’s a cell phone plan. Maybe it’s something as simple as planning out a family vacation for next summer.
Whatever it is, you have several good options, but no great options.
What do you do?
The first step is to figure out exactly what would make a great option. What is it that you’re looking for that could exist in the real world?
Let’s jump back to my career options, for example. Expecting a job with the best pay, the most flexibility, the least travel requirements, the least bureaucracy, and the most interesting intellectual challenge is simply not realistic. Instead, what I wanted was a job that was great in the one or two key areas I cared about the most and simply solid in the other areas.
In other words, I wanted a job that was very flexible in terms of time requirements, that was at least good in terms of creative challenge and rewarding consistent effort, and that was solid in terms of low bureaucracy, low travel, and solid pay. I sat down and considered what features really meant the most to me and which ones did not. I simply outlined an option that was exactly what I wanted but wasn’t completely unrealistic compared to the other options.
One great way to do that is to pull out your favorite piece from three or so of the other options. Look at the three other options you find most palatable and identify what you like best about each one. Generally, an option that has all three of those things is within the realm of possibility.
For example, my ideal cell phone plan would be one that offers several lines with robust data and strong signals in the central Iowa area at a very low price. When I develop that plan, I’m taking elements of the best options available from traditional carriers like Verizon and U.S. Cellular and pay-as-you-go carriers.
Think of this as being similar to a pros-and-cons list, except you’re just extracting the key “pros” from each option.
The key is to keep things within the realm of reality. You aren’t going to find things for free. You aren’t going to find jobs that pay you millions of dollars (though you may find door openings that eventually lead there). What you’re looking for are options that combine some of the best elements of the options already available to you to create a true best option for you.
Come Up with a Plan to Put That Option on the Table
So, you’ve identified a great option that you want in your life, whether it’s a great job or a great cell phone plan or something else entirely. Now, what exactly needs to be done to put that option on the table and make it available to you?
That “best option” isn’t going to create itself. You have to work to make that option available to you.
How do you do that? There are a lot of tools available at your disposal to add that desired option to your list of choices. The key is to put together a set of strategies and tactics that make the desired option available to you.
Here are eleven such tools that you might use to make the option you want available in your life, no matter what the choice.
Ask. If you know exactly what you want, ask for it. If you’re shopping around for a cell phone plan, spell out exactly what you’re looking for and ask for it. The worst thing that can happen is that they’ll say no, at which point you’re no worse off than you are right now. (Hint: the “fantasy” that someone might say yes someday isn’t worth much of anything.)
Improve your skill set. What skills are needed for that job you’d love to have that matches exactly what you want? Work on getting those skills, either in your current job or outside of it (through external projects or furthering your education).
Shop around with purpose. If you have exactly the package in mind that you want, start shopping around for exactly that package. See whether anyone makes that package available for the right price. If you find something close, that’s the time to ask.
Don’t apologize for asking. If you apologize when asking, you make it easier for the person to simply tell you no because you’re essentially telling them you’re asking for something you think you don’t really deserve. If you ask, don’t apologize. You deserve the good outcome.
Improve your professional network. Having a strong professional network in your field means that you likely have connections to lots of organizations in your field, making it much easier to get your foot in the door for the kind of position you want. Get involved in social media in a professional way. Attend meetings, particularly local face-to-face meetings, and participate. Build strong one-on-one connections with people by sharing information, following up, and giving of yourself, particularly in ways that are easy for you and valuable for the other person.
Figure out how to make the gain mutually beneficial. If you’re trying to get the best option for yourself, make sure to consider what the other people involved with that option would get out of it. How can you tweak that option so that it’s beneficial for the other parties involved?
Improve your public professional profile. Another great method for getting your foot in the door with the professional outcome you desire is to raise your public profile in your professional community. Get yourself out there. Share your knowledge and ideas. Participate in professional groups. Go to conferences and conventions – and, if you can, present there.
Improve your health. If your body is limiting you from taking on the option you most desire, work on that. Commit yourself to a better diet and/or a better exercise routine in the coming months and improve your health to the point where that desired option is feasible.
Negotiate. If you have a opportunity on the table that’s close to what you want but not quite there, negotiate. You’ll often find that there’s quite a bit of room for negotiation when you’re close to an agreement on something that benefits you both. Again, it never hurts to ask.
Start a side gig. If you can’t find the options you want, start building your own option. Block off time to start consulting work or building your own side business doing the things you’re passionate about. Don’t worry about making money from this, especially at first; if you make good things, money will come.
Be frugal. If your ideal option has a significant startup cost, the best way to put that option on the table is to build up some money in savings, and the only way to make that happen in the short term is to cut your spending so that you’re spending less than you earn and putting aside the difference for the future.
Execute That Plan
You’ve come up with an outcome that you want and a plan to get there. The final step is simply executing that plan. You have to actually go through the steps in your plan to make it so.
Here are some thoughts on how to make that work, especially when time and money are tight.
View the things you have now as leverage. Almost everything in life can help you move from where you are to where you want to be.
Your job, right now, is leverage toward the job that you want. How can you use the advantages and opportunities of the job you have right now to get the job you want? Use your job to give you the professional advantages you need.
Your paycheck, right now, is leverage toward the things that you want. How can you use the excess from your paycheck to get what you want from life? Use your paycheck to give yourself the money you need.
Your spare time is leverage toward the things that you want. How can you use the extra time in your life to get what you want from life? Use your spare time to give yourself the time you need.
Look at everything in this kind of light. How can you take this thing you have and use it to lift you toward the option you want? When you start finding ways to eke out spare time or extra money, you start heading down the path to having the option you want.
Recognize that a lesser option in the short term isn’t a bad thing, as long as there is light at the end of the tunnel. Not having the job you want right now is okay as long as it’s helping you move toward the job you want. Not having the cell phone contract you want right now is okay as long as you’re putting things in place to get what you want down the road.
In other words, if you have to make a temporary choice, choose the one that does the best job of pushing you to where you really want to be in several months or a year. Not only does this help you pave the path to where you want to be, it also gives you a clear light at the end of the tunnel.
Discipline equals freedom. If you want to have better options in your life, you’ve got to recognize that they won’t just be given to you. It takes continuous effort to alter your life so that the better options you want are present, and it takes discipline to put forth that continuous effort.
You want a great job? It takes the discipline needed to get a degree in your spare time or to spend an hour or two a day learning new things or working on extra projects.
You want a healthier and more attractive body? It takes the discipline needed to eat fewer calories and to exercise your body.
You want better social options? It takes the discipline needed to consistently put yourself in situations to build new positive relationships and friendships.
Those things aren’t automatic. They aren’t given to you. They require your continuous effort. The discipline you give to those things adds up to a greater freedom in your life in terms of wider options.
No matter what the choice is in life, if you don’t like the options available to you, create a new option. The tools to do so are at your disposal for almost every major decision in life.
The question really is whether or not you’ll put forth the effort to take advantage of those tools and build the option you want in life.
From the simplest things like cell phone contract options to much bigger things like job choices and relationships, the options on the table don’t have to be the end of your choices. You have the power to add more options. It’s up to you.