There Are Five Things You Can Get Out of Your Career. Pick Four.

“Fast, good, or cheap. Pick two.” This popular idea is known as the “project management triangle”  or “iron triangle” and the basic logic of it is that if you want to get a job of any kind done, be it a kitchen remodeling project, reorganizing your closet, building a bridge, or even finishing a legal brief, you can get a high-quality finished project done cheap, you can get the project done fast and cheap but it won’t be high-quality, or you can get a high-quality project done fast, but you cannot get all three: a high-quality finished project done both cheap and fast.


I would like to expand the “iron triangle” to the decisions we all make in our careers. In my view, there are five things you can get out of your career:

1.Work/life balance

2. Good pay

3. Doing good quality work as in knowing that you are showing up and doing a good job

4. Doing work for the good of society and feeling like you are making a difference

5. Liking your co-workers

Pick four.

Usually, the most obvious tension is between 1 and 2 but all jobs have varying levels of these five elements and it is difficult to think of a job where you can have all five. So the first step to deciding the right career path for you is to rank these five elements in their order of importance to you.

The key thing is to make sure you engage in the exercise of ordering these five elements. A lot of times, many of us navigate through the career search in something of a blind state, unclear on what is really important to us in our day to day lives. But in order to pursue a career that will be meaningful to you and bring you happiness in your life, you have to know what is important to you.

Let me break these five elements down a bit more:

  1. Work/life balance:

How would you feel about a work schedule that had you in the office from 7AM – 7PM everyday? Do you feel thrilled about working hard and having an amazingly productive work life? Does the prospect of missing your Thursday night yoga class cause you to go into a cold sweat? Does rising to the top in your career sound worth any time investment? Is eating dinner with your partner every night at the top of your priority list? These are all important questions to ask yourself.

Put aside prestige, fancy job titles, shiny salaries, and skyscrapers and do an honest inventory with yourself where you actually write the answers to these questions down on paper.

2. Good Pay

Do you want to chase the highest salary you can possibly command above all else? Maybe you don’t care if you aren’t making as much if you can have some of the other elements on this list. Earning a high salary can be a priority for a few years and then become less important down the line. Are you willing to give up a few years of your life working long days for the paycheck?

Never consider good pay in a vacuum. With good pay necessarily comes giving up one of the other elements on this list. I am not saying that good pay shouldn’t be number one on this list. I am just saying that when you get paid well, you are earning that pay and are expected to do the work to earn it. That often means that you are going to have some late nights and/or projects that don’t excite you. If that is worth it to you, that is 100% fine. Just make sure you are considering all angles of what a high salary necessarily entails.

3. Doing good quality work as in knowing that you are showing up and doing a good job

This might be the most overlooked of all of the elements and this element is the reason I left legal practice for career counseling. Is it important to you to show up and know that you’re doing a great job at work? Do you want to be one of the top performers in your work place, go above and beyond, and create new initiatives?

When I was in litigation, I felt that I was a pretty good lawyer but I thought that the other lawyers at my firm were better than I was. They had an attention to detail to things like legal citations that I just could not muster up the will to care about.  I wasn’t content to just be pretty good at my job. I need to be in a role where I am really good and where I truly feel like I am doing my absolute best work. I want to feel like I am adding tremendous value and that the organization I work for would be much worse off without me there. Do you feel that way too?

If so, you will want to pick a career that isn’t a reach for you. This is especially relevant in OCI. Maybe instead of accepting an offer from the most prestigious firm that extends you one, you pick an offer from the smaller firm that really actively pursued you and feels like a great fit. Maybe if you know that your strengths are in public speaking and getting in the courtroom, you pursue prosecution or JAG instead of a firm.

4. Doing work for the good of society and feeling like you are making a difference

Whereas #3 is inwardly focused, #4 is outwardly focused. If you find that you effortlessly place this element at the top of your list, you are a person that needs to feel like the work you are doing helps others and makes a difference in the world. You need to shape the society you live in and feel like you are moving the needle in the right direction.

You should probably meet with me to discuss careers in government and public interest. But not necessarily. You can easily feel like you are making a difference while working just about anywhere, depending on your worldview. I have a friend who is passionate about contract law and believes that our ability to draft contracts and make decisions about how we order our lives is the foundation of a free society. For him, writing contracts for big corporations is making a tremendous difference in the world and is the most important work he could possibly be doing to affect others in a positive way.

By the way, you’re not a bad person if this element isn’t at the top of your list. You can make the world a better place in countless ways without your work being a part of it. You can volunteer or donate money to causes you care about. You can mentor others who are dedicated to these causes. Or you can just focus on being kind to those around you and living your life by that good ol golden rule.  I am totally agnostic when it comes to how you order any of these elements. But I am deeply opinionated about you making career decisions that align with these elements, however you order them.

At the end of the day, if you know that this element is up there for you, make choices that line up with that fact or you will find yourself in an unfulfilling career.

5. Liking your co-workers

If you have not spent much time in the workplace, you do not yet know how important this element can be. Good co-workers can do a lot to make a bad job not so bad and bad co-workers can do a lot to make a good job pretty bad. If your daily work bores you but you get a boost of positive energy and support from great conversations with your co-workers, that can change everything. Think about law school. If you have a class that you really like but none of your friends are in that class, you might enjoy that class less than you otherwise would.

Conversely, if you are content to put your head down, go into work and get absorbed by the exciting projects you’re working on, then this factor probably doesn’t matter much to you. Just remember that no matter how engrossing, meaningful, or well paid your job is, if you strongly dislike your co-workers, that will make you like your job at least a little bit less.

I encourage you to take time to order these five elements and engage in a thoughtful discussion with a friend about what matters to you in the workplace. However you order them, bring your ordered list to a CDO counselor and we can talk through career options with you. Your email can even say “Katelynn, I am a 3, 5, 4, 2, 1. What should I do!?” and we can get started on a productive discussion.

There are five elements you can get out of your career. You have to pick four. So take the time to order them and know what your priorities are or you are not positioning yourself to make an active choice. When you don’t choose your job, it chooses you and you may find yourself stumbling backwards into a career that does not line up with your priorities.


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