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by Cathy Vandewater | January 19, 2012


According to the Labor Department, the number of Americans seeking new unemployment benefits dropped to its lowest level since April 2008 last week. The week-long dip—a decline of 50,000 initial claims—is the largest in more than six years.

If you're job-hunting, this improvment in the market may signal a shift in mentality: that it's time to set your sights a little higher, from "any job" to "a job I actually want to do."

Though time will only tell whether the drop in claims will affect the national unemployment figures, overall numbers (such as the lowest four-week average in claims, 379,000, since 2008) point to an improving economy.

The bottom line: if you've been exclusively shopping for "safe" jobs without regards to happiness, think of it this way: by being a little discerning now, you may save yourself the trouble of re-entering the job market in a few months... when everyone else is looking for an upgrade. Yikes. Be brave now!

1. Let Go of "Responsibility"

Many people think work shouldn't be fun. That's nothing new. But since the recession, that mentality has only gotten worse. It's not just considered frivolous to shrink away from the big money careers, but downright irresponsible. Parents aren't just smiling and shrugging at their art-loving high-school grads—they're begging them to ignore their instincts and do something, anything, else.

The trouble with "money" careers is this: not only do they make no promises of job satisfaction, they only ever bring real success to those who are good at what they do. If you hate numbers or are terrified of risks, accounting and banking aren't likely to be rainmakers for you.

If you're completely miscast in your job, your best case scenario is being rich and miserable. Worst (and more likely) case? Broke and miserable.

Money comes and goes, but when you're in the right field, you can always build on your experience, branch out from it, and find victories. And if you love the field, you'll do a much better job at putting the time and effort in.

2. Take an Inventory of Your Strengths

It's possible that you have a skill or talent that you take for granted, that others might consider very valuable.

You may consider art or music, or obsessive organizational habits just parts of your personality, but framed the right way—or applied in a great-fitting position—they can catapult you to the forefront of a great career.

Think back on what you've been praised or received awards for, even as far back as elementary school. Did you respond well in an emergency situation? Save the day with an outside-the-box idea? Rallying a group of people for a cause? (Girl Scouts activities count!)

Everybody has special proclivities and gifts. Don't write off your love of chatting up strangers at parties, or your habit of mapping out plans or to-do lists, or your knack for planning parties. These are all marketable talents, and rarer than you may think.

Combine what you enjoy doing (and rule at, naturally) and use that as a starting point to explore fields you find interesting. Event planning for a social butterfly? Management consulting for an organization freak? Do your research, and try some creative combinations. You never know when a hip art space is looking for a financial consultant!

3. Explore your Interests

Trade journals? If you really love your job that much, sure, read them in your spare time. But if you don't, it's time to branch out and explore other interests off the clock.

Three huge words of advice: Follow your curiosities. All the time, whenever possible, and for your entire life. This is not something to try until you find a job; it's a lifestyle.

The effort is worth it: actively exploring things you're curious about or enjoy can lead you to amazing and completely unforeseen places.

A foray into community theater might lead you to discover a talent for motivating and managing groups of people—or it might help you stumble upon a career you never knew existed or you might like to do, like working in lighting and sound.

Even if you think you're already in the right job, but hate your working environment, it's worth checking out things you're drawn to. You might find a whole other field of work to apply your work to, where you can immerse yourself in other things you find enjoyable. 

At very least, stretching your creative muscles, expanding and diversifying your contacts, and making yourself a more well-rounded and interesting person are all huge boosters to any job search.  

4. Enlist help

Did we mention "expanding and diversifying your contacts"? It may just be the missing link between your current job and the job of your dreams.

The more you circulate outside of your usual circle, the more people you'll meet from all walks of life. These people can not only help you expand your ideas about you might like to do, but give you concrete job leads, too.

The first step (after actually getting out of your office once in a while, of course) is being curious about others. Even if you don't think their line of work is relevant to your career, ask people what they enjoy about their jobs. How they got started. What drew them to the field. It can help the wheels start turning for you, as you draw connections between your path and others', plus shed some light on ways to apply your own talents.

And don't forget to share a little about you too: the more your contacts know about who you are and what you'd like to be doing, the more likely they'll be to share contacts or ins, or put in a word for you with their network.

Stumble upon a perfect contact? Have a quick sentence at the ready: "Actually, I'm really interested in doing X… I've been trying to break into X, so if you know anyone I should speak to, please let me know!"

Don't be afraid to put your feelers out. As long as you're respectful and genuine, it may surprise you how much people will be willing to help.

5. Take baby steps

There's so much you can and should be doing to find the career you love, that it's overwhelming. Don't try to do everything, but be diligent about doing something. A few items a week will do. Make a coffee date with an interesting new contact. Schedule an informational interview with your dream company. Pencil in time to volunteer, or take a class.

Learning to Samba or having a latte with the CFO of Netflix won't necessarily get you a job, but you're guaranteed to have a least a little new perspective. Just getting yourself out and mixing up your routine can refresh your brain and get your gears turning in a new way, which is job-search gold.

And who knows—you might end up cha-chaing with a future boss or coworker. If not, you've escaped your miserable job for a few hours and reminded yourself that there are things in the world you can still find enjoyable.

That can be tough to remember that when your job sucks, but stay strong. There's a career out there you can be happy doing. Make it your job now to figure out what that is.

--Cathy Vandewater,