How to Start Your Career on the Right Path

Creating a "3x5 List" can help new grads be more effective when starting out their careers. Learn more in this exclusive excerpt from Howard's Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life's Work.

Eric Sinoway and Merrill Meadow
4-minute read

How to Start Your Career on the Right Path

Over the last few years, most new graduates have been happy to find a job, any job. If the job happens to fit into their career goals, that was a bonus. But with the economy picking up speed, today's graduates can afford to pause for a moment of thought before they dive into a job search. “For the first time in a long while, they can be thinking not just about getting a job but about taking the first step in a long and satisfying career,” explain Eric Sinoway and Merrill Meadow, the authors of Howard's Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life's Work (St. Martin’s Press).

By creating what the authors call a “3x5 List,” new grads can be more effective in finding a job that matches who they are now and where they want to go in their careers. To start out a career on the right foot – or to assess how well a current job fits – take a few moments to answer the following 5 questions.

Question #1: What Are Your 3 Key Strengths? The way to succeed at a job – and to create a satisfying career – is to identify, use, build, and leverage your greatest strengths. It's easy to assume that what we like to do or want to do is what we're good at. That's often not the case. The best way to proceed is to identify what we're really good at, then figure out how to use those strengths to also do what we like.

Question #2: What 3 Risks Are You Willing to Take?  Each of us has things that worry us or make us feel uncomfortable as we consider a first (or next) career step. Letting those things lurk in your mind as vague, undefined concerns is going to hamstring your ability to pursue good opportunities. Identify the things that might scare you about a potential job or career field, but that you're willing to take a risk on. For example, “I’ve never lived in a city and it makes me nervous, but I’m willing to give it a try,” or “I’m not great at one aspect of the job, but I’m willing to risk looking bad if it helps me learn how to do it well.”

Bottom line: Don't just respond to a job opportunity based on gut reaction, and don't forego something simply because it involves risks you might be willing to take.

Question #3: What 3 Characteristics Do You Want in a Work Environment?  One of the most important determinants of success in a new job is whether you are a good fit with the organization’s culture. Give some advance thought to what kind of work culture is best (or worst) for you. Some characteristics are basic ones – for example, do you thrive in an organizational culture that’s formal or informal, hard-driving or laid back, rigid or flexibly scheduled? Other characteristics are more complex – for example, do you want to be rewarded on performance (how hard you work, how much skill you bring to the effort) or on results? Do you want to work in a culture of teams or of hierarchy? Do you want to work in a creative culture or one that is solely driven by facts and numbers?

Question #4: What Are Your Top 3 Off-the-Job Priorities?  Just as you’re not going to be happy if you don’t like your job, you won’t feel satisfied in a job if it keeps you from enjoying the rest of your life. Take time to understand the most important non-work aspects of your life – from family and social life to spiritual connection to physical health – and clearly understand the impact that any one job (or career path) will have on your ability to meaningfully engage in those things. There may be times in your career – and your first/next job may be one of those times – that you’ll decide it’s worth downplaying one of those priorities in order to gain particular career benefits. But, it’s really important that you make that choice consciously, as opposed to waking up one morning to discover that you’ve sacrificed something important in your life without realizing it.

Question #5: Who Are the 3 People You Go to for Advice?  Nobody has all the answers to all the career and life questions they face. But there are usually people who can help us figure out the answers – because they’ve got deep experience, or a particular perspective, or specific skills that we’re lacking. Don’t wait until you’re scrambling to make a decision or figure out a problem. Take time now to identify a small group of “wise people” you can turn to – and let them know that you may be reaching out to them, so they’re not surprised.

Find more career and life wisdom in Howard’s Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life’s Work (St. Martin’s Press) by Eric Sinoway with Merrill Meadow.