Three Conditions

Restrictions breed creativity.

It’s hard to think of an idea when the criteria is a blank page. When anything is theoretically an option, we tend to freeze up. On the other hand, when given a very specific framework to operate within, we often find very creative solutions.

“Design the best possible house” is daunting. “Design the best possible house that can fit in under 800 square feet, costs less than $75,000 in materials, and can stay cool in the Arizona desert” is actually less daunting despite the restrictions, because we start looking at the restrictions as problems to be solved. The things we can’t do actually become the starting point for the things we can do.

That can apply to a lot of things, and different types of restrictions make sense for different decision trees. “Where do you want to eat dinner tonight” is a classic relationship-straining question. But add some restrictions, like: “Where do you want to eat dinner tonight that is within 15 minutes, has a maximum cost of $30/person, and includes cheesecake as a desert option?” Suddenly it’s easier to figure out.

Using that concept, here’s an exercise to use when brainstorming about jobs. If I say to you, “design your ideal job,” you’d probably come up with absolutely nothing that was interesting or realistic enough to start your search with. I’ve asked many clients this, and stopped because the answers never went anywhere. But then I started asking a different kind of question.

I’d start with some job, any job, that came up in conversation. Maybe it’s the job their sibling has. Maybe it’s a job ad they happened to see but rejected. Maybe it’s just a job another of my clients has. Doesn’t really matter as long as it’s at least in the ballpark of their career level.

Then I’ll say, “Imagine a scenario where you have to take this job; you have no choice. But you can make exactly three changes to it – blank checks to change any three aspects of the job. You can change industry, chain of command, compensation structure, schedule, duties, company culture, etc. – but only three things. Basically you can re-write three lines of the job description. What three conditions would make you excited to take this job offer?”

Now that question produces answers! And those answers tend to be very illuminating in terms of what the person really wants out of their career. You could do this with anything, really. Are you single but not sure what you want in a partner? Go onto an online dating profile and imagine you have to marry the first person you randomly click, but you can change exactly three things. Now you’ll know three things that are important to you, and you can start looking for people that already have those three qualities. And you can iterate until you’re comfortable. How about houses? “I’d buy this house if I could add X, change Y, and take away Z.” Great, now look for houses that already have those features, rinse and repeat.

Do that with a job. Once you figure out what three things you’d change, look for roles that already have those three things. When you find such a role, repeat the experiment, changing three more things. When you get to the point where it’s hard to come up with three things you’d even change, then chances are that’s a great role for you.

This also gets you out of the habit of viewing things as packages of traits that can’t be unbundled. If you see a job with a great salary but an unpleasant commute, you might be fooled into thinking that those things automatically come together; that all good salaries are bundled with unpleasant commutes. But the possible combinations of traits for any given category of thing are infinite – there’s definitely a job out there with a great salary but an okay or better commute, or whatever combination you want. You can find the right set of trade-offs for you if you train your mind to see them.

You could even do this with your life. “If I could only change three things about my life from this exact moment, what three would they be?” That’s a great way of focusing your efforts on what really matters. It probably wouldn’t be that you’d watch more television.

Any time you’re presented with an option you don’t like, affix three conditions to it that would make you like it. Now you have a road map. Go forth and make it happen.

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