3 buckets

How To Find Direction In Your Job Search: The 3 Buckets Method

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

With unemployment hovering around 4% and a hot hiring market, one of the biggest challenges for many job seekers now is figuring out what they want. Often clients in this position are confused and paralyzed—they don’t know where to start. They may have no idea or lots of ideas but little direction. The title of Barbara Scher’s classic, “I Could Do Anything If Only I Knew What It Was” sums up what keeps a lot of potential job seekers stuck.

Lane, a project and production manager for an advertising agency, was burnt out and wanted a more humane culture and work that was mission-oriented. She was open to possibility but uncertain. “I’m all over the map,” she said. “I know I should be networking and pulling together my resume, but I’m not ready to talk to anyone yet. What am I even looking for?” 

It turns out that this question cannot be answered by analysis or even deep reflection and introspection. Instead, Lane needed to get into action before she was she knew what she wanted, before she was ready. As London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra points out in her terrific book, “Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career,” most people need to act in order to gain insight into what job or career path will suit them. Acting first and then figuring out what you want contradicts traditional career advice to ”follow your dream.” But Ibarra urges us not to expect that we should, or even could, know our desired destination until we have walked at least a few small steps down the path to see how it feels. 

Ibarra’s advice is similar to the recommendations of Stanford Design School professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’ book, “Designing Your Life: How to Build A Well-Lived, Joyful Life.” Burnett and Evans also take an action-oriented approach to career exploration, based on design thinking. Instead of Ibarra’s language of experimentation, they call this phase “prototyping.” Think of it as finding your own personal product-market fit.

Whatever you call it, this time of exploration is about gathering data. First, you will need to identify options of roles to consider, which will function as your prototypes or hypotheses to test. Experimenting will help you to get the real-world data, information and experience that will help you identify what path you want to pursue.

One of my favorite exercises to use with clients is to brainstorm at least two possible jobs or roles within each of three categories or buckets.

  • Bucket 1: The logical next step. In this bucket, list roles that are clearly related to your current job and for which you have most of the skills and qualifications needed. For example, you could do the same role in the same industry but at a different company. You could stay in your company or organization and move to a different role that has some overlap with your current role. You could move up a level to be a manager or drop a level to being an individual contributor in the same function. In bucket 1, you have high confidence that you would be a strong candidate for the roles you list. If you were applying to college, bucket 1 would be your safety school.
  • Bucket 2: The stretch role. In this bucket, list roles or jobs that represent some degree of reach from your current role. You might consider an entirely different role or function where you hypothesize that many of the core competencies are similar. You might change industries or areas of expertise where there is an analogous or similar function. You might return to something you did earlier in your career and are uncertain whether your skills are up to date. In bucket 2, there is more uncertainty about fit, but also potentially more excitement and interest.
  • Bucket 3: The wild idea. This bucket is both the scariest and the most exciting. Here you want to list ideas that intrigue you even if they seem implausible. Roles in this category would represent a big shift and  involve some uncertainty or risk. You might even feel embarrassed to tell your friends. Perhaps you have dreamed of becoming a travel writer, starting a business, running for office, or going to medical school. Your bucket 3 ideas may seem outlandish or impossible. They also offer clues to what elements you find missing in your current life. And even if you can’t get a job now, they might represent an interest or skill area that you want to cultivate for a later chapter in your career.

If you have trouble making your lists, try asking a friend or colleague to brainstorm with you. Once you have at least 2-3 (or more) roles in each, review them and notice which ones are of interest. Do you observe any themes or commonalities? Do any make your heart sing (or sink?) Pick two—from different buckets—to explore and experiment with. For each idea, identify a few experiments. Your experiments should be easy, low-risk, and cheap. These could include: reading a book or article on a topic; taking a class; having an informational interview; writing a blog post; volunteering; attending a meet-up or conference. 

Be clear about the hypothesis you are testing. For example, Lane’s bucket 1 hypothesis was that she might be happier at a mission driven ad agency and her bucket 2 hypothesis was that her project management and production skills from advertising would be transferable to the non-profit or museum sectors. She arranged informational interviews with various colleagues who had taken those paths. These conversations helped her to refine her hypotheses and continue her exploration. She was on her way!

If you are having a hard time knowing what you want or where to start, try it. The 3 Bucket Exercise can help you get unstuck and take action to explore and iterate—or prototype—your next career move.