4 ways to make really smart career choices

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(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Sure, it's a tough job market and beggars can't be choosers. I get that. But you know what? Someday, that's going to change. Trust me on that.

If you're good at what you do, if you've got talent or at least potential, there will come a day when you'll have choices, lots of choices. And when you do, you'll need to know how to steer your career in the right direction. You'll need to know how to make smart choices.

Here's how to evaluate opportunities and have a successful career without reading a single self-help book, attending a seminar or spending a penny. I came up with these four steps about halfway through my career. Yes, I tried it out during the second half and it works pretty well.

Look at it as a business opportunity, not a job

When most people evaluate a job opportunity, they put way too much emphasis on near-term considerations. They focus on title, responsibilities, salary, benefits, flexibility, the boss, the hours, whatever. If you're not going anywhere in your career, that's fine. But if you've got talent or potential, you need to set your sites higher than that.

I'm not saying don't negotiate the best compensation, but think of it as a package, not just salary. Look at the big picture: the opportunity for growth, promotion, equity, that sort of thing. Yes, title is important, but mostly to the extent that it provides access to the next step up in bonus and equity. Will this opportunity help get you there?

What's better than a big fat paycheck?

Think of the company as an airplane. Where can it take you and is that where you want to go, especially at this point in your career? How much further along your career path are you likely to be when you leave the company and what will you have to show for it? What kind of return on investment can you reasonably expect to achieve during that time?

Evaluate the company like a Wall Street analyst or a VC

When friends or readers ask me to evaluate a company they're considering working for, I look at it the same way a Wall Street analyst does or the way a venture capitalist evaluates startup companies.

How well is the company positioned to lead in its industry? Is it targeting a high-growth opportunity? Is it focused on the right goals with the right strategy? Does it have a unique value proposition to gain customer traction? What barriers does it have to overcome and how defensible will it's position be against competitors?

What's the pedigree of the executive management team? What's their chemistry like? Have they been successful in the past and are they sufficiently motivated to aggressively pursue the opportunity in a brutally competitive market? How well capitalized is the company and how strong is its balance sheet? Is the risk-reward ratio reasonable?

Are they setting you up for success or failure?

Lots of people will tell you to determine if the company and the opportunity is a good fit, but that's a bit too amorphous for most people to determine. Here's the way I like to think of it.

How well do your skills, experience, and style complement the rest of the team? Do they need someone like you and can you provide what they need if they hire you?

You also need to think about how realistic their expectations are for the position. Are they expecting too much? Have they underestimated the resources you're going to need to do the job and do it right? Are they going to be the wind at your back or present hurdles you'll have to overcome? Are they setting you up for success or failure?

Is this what you really want to do?

In the long run, you'll be far more successful doing what you enjoy, what you want to do, than following a path someone else has carved out for you or doing what you think you're supposed to do. As Steve Jobs correctly put it in a Stanford University commencement speech:

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. 

This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle.

Yes, I know that's easier said than done. To help find your path, check out "Is 'do what you love' good career advice?"

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