I hate the idea of backtracking and wasting time. Have you ever accidentally gotten on the wrong train or bus and traveled for a while before realizing you were going in the wrong direction? If so, you understand the anxiety and frustration. Getting on the wrong train or bus may only waste 30 to 60 minutes of your time, but accepting the wrong job offer can cost you six months to a year of your life.
Because job decisions involve so much uncertainty and tradeoffs, the ideal job-decision tool would be a crystal ball. Then you could peer into your future and see the outcome of your choice. But since you don’t have a crystal ball, how do you make a decision?
The stakes are high. Where you decide to work has an outsized impact on your happiness and quality of life. And the person or people you work for and with have an even greater impact than the company you join. These decisions affect where you live, how much free time you have, the quality of your relationships with friends and family, your health, and what type of house you buy.
When you accept a job offer, you are committing significant time and energy. And you’re closing the door to other opportunities, at least temporarily. Often, it takes three to six months to ramp up in a new job before you hit your stride to make significant contributions or understand whether you are a good fit for the role, team, and culture. You don’t want to waste time and deal with the consequences of quitting suddenly just because you didn’t make a good decision.
Invest time evaluating this critical decision. Leverage over two decades of scientific research into the predictors of a satisfying life and career to help you assess your job offer.
The best predictors of job satisfaction:
- You’re good at what you’re doing.
- You’re engaged, challenged, and have some degree of control over your tasks.
- You contribute value and help others.
- You work with people you like in a supportive work environment.
- You get paid fairly.
- Your work hours and commute match your desired lifestyle
Use thinking tools to evaluate job offers
You may be thinking, “Those factors make sense, but how do I practically apply them to my job decision?”
Use the evaluation criteria and thinking tools discussed below to help you grapple with tradeoffs and clarify your thinking. To figure out whether a decision is good or bad, you need to understand what could be gained or lost and the likelihood of each possibility unfolding.
Thinking tools provide shortcuts to higher-level thinking, forcing your brain to think about a decision from different perspectives. They also allow you to engage in mental time travel and imagine your future in the job to uncover risks and weigh options.
Think deeply, write down answers, and take time for careful and considered reasoning. I recommend investing a minimum of three hours of focused, undistracted time using the thinking tools below before soliciting feedback from trusted friends or advisors.
Avoid pro-con lists
Before I share my recommended thinking tools, I want to tell you about a common tool you should avoid: pro-con lists.
Pro-con lists suck because they:
- Presume there are only two options;
- Present all pros and cons as if they have equal weight;
- Treat each item independently, whereas factors are often interrelated; and
- Often make the pros seem more obvious than the cons. This disparity can cause you to put too much focus on the positive and overlook the negatives.
Instead of pro-con lists, use the following tools and mental models to improve your thinking and evaluate your options.
Use the job decision scorecard
I created the job decision scorecard based on scientific research and other important factors to help me think through and evaluate job offers. Use this tool to assess a single job offer or compare multiple offers.
The scorecard includes:
- Evaluation criteria to predict job satisfaction and alignment with long term goals;
- Weights to adjust the importance of each criterion based on your preferences and goals;
- Scores to help compare and evaluate multiple criterion; and
- Confidence levels to gauge the likelihood of success.
- Role. Will I be good at it? Are my job responsibilities aligned with my interests and abilities? Will I enjoy daily tasks? Will I be engaged and challenged?
- Freedom. Will I have some degree of autonomy and control over my tasks?
- Supervisor. Will I enjoy working for this person or these people? Do I respect and admire them? Do they communicate clearly and persuasively? Will they provide mentorship? Will they support my professional development?
- Learning. Will I develop new valuable skills in my role?
- Goals. How aligned is this opportunity with my long-term goals?
- Team. Will I be working with people I like in a supportive work environment?
- Salary. What’s the value of the base salary? Is it fair?
- Bonus. Do I have the opportunity to earn a bonus? What’s the value of the bonus? How likely am I to get it?
- Benefits. What’s the overall quality of health-benefit plans, including medical, dental, and vision?
- Perks. What’s the value of other perks (e.g., gym membership, commuting allowance, meals, mobile phone)?
- Equity. What’s the potential value of my ownership stake (e.g., stock options, restricted stock units) in the next five years?
- Interest. What’s my level of interest in the mission and the problem the company is solving?
- Location. Am I restricted on where I choose to live? If so, do I like living in the required city? Do I need to commute? If so, how long is the commute?
- Impact. Will I contribute value and help others? What would my potential impact be in this company?
- Risk. Do I have job security for the next two years? Is there a high risk of layoffs due to financial insecurity, merger/acquisition, or reorganization?
- Lifestyle. Will I have a flexible work schedule to match my desired lifestyle? How will the stress associated with this job affect me?
- Social capital. Will I gain meaningful new connections to help me in my career?
- Reputation. What’s the value of the company brand (e.g., Google, McKinsey, Apple)? How will working for this organization impact future job opportunities?
Adjust weights based on importance. Not all criteria are of equal importance. Adjust weights on a 1-to-10 scale (10 = most important) based on your preferred level of importance of each criterion. For example, you highly value having a supervisor you enjoy working with, so you assign a weight of 9 for the “Supervisor” category. Since you care less about “Perks” (e.g., gym membership, meals, cell phone), you assign a weight of 2 to this category.
Score each job offer. Add a score for each criterion on a 1-to-10 scale (10 = most favorable.) You will receive a total score adjusted by assigned weights. For example, if one job opportunity includes a 15-minute commute, I would give it a score of 9 in that category. I would give another job with a one-hour commute a score of 2.
Add confidence levels. Consider all factors and add your degree of certainty and likelihood of success. Are you 80%, 50%, or 20% confident this job provides the best next step in your career? Use a 1%-to-100% scale in Row 20 on the job scorecard template.
Instructions to complete the job decision scorecard
Step 1. Make a copy of the Google sheet to enable editing and data entry.
Step 2. Adjust weights in column B on a 1-to-10 scale (10 = most important) based on your preferred level of importance of each criterion.
Step 3. Score each job offer on a 1-to-10 scale (10 = most favorable) for each evaluation criteria. You will receive a total score adjusted by assigned weights on Row 21.
Step 4. Add confidence levels using a 1%-to-100% scale on your likelihood of success (e.g., 80%, 50%, 20%) on Row 22.
Don’t get caught up in being too precise. Remember, it’s a thinking tool—not a crystal ball. It can help you grapple with tradeoffs but can’t precisely predict the future, no matter how accurately you score it.
Engage in mental time travel
Envisioning positive and negative future outcomes helps you identify obstacles, predict reasons for success and eliminate regrets. Research shows that anticipating the ways things might go wrong helps you more successfully reach your destination. You can produce 30% more reasons for why something might fail when you engage in mental time travel to identify obstacles to the desired outcome. Use the following steps to facilitate your mental trips.
- Premortem. Work backward from a negative future to identify potential reasons for failure. Imagine quitting or getting fired one year after starting the job. Work backward to identify all the possible causes, both in and out of your control, for failure. Imagine the worst-case outcome.
- Backcast. Work backward from a positive future to identify reasons for success. Imagine getting promoted and a big raise one year after starting the job. Work backward to identify all the reasons, both in and out of your control, for your success. Imagine best-case outcomes.
- Regret minimization. Imagine you’re 80 years old or even 10 years older than you are today. Will you regret not accepting this job? Consider the option that causes the least regret. In 1994, Jeff Bezos was 30 years old and a senior vice president at D.E. Shaw & Co., a Wall Street-based investment banking firm. He used the regret minimization model to help inform his decision to quit and start Amazon.
- Second-order thinking. What are the potential positive and negative second-order effects of accepting the job? Cause creates an effect, but an effect can become the cause. Every action has a consequence, and the result triggers further causes and effects that can lead to unintended consequences. For example, does this job help you build unique skills or relationships that are rare and may lead to a future job? Are there potential adverse impacts to your reputation that could come from working at a controversial company?
Apply mental models
In the summer of 2016, I went through the startup accelerator Y Combinator (YC.) One of the most valuable aspects of that experience was “office hours,” when I met with a YC partner and got feedback about a specific problem or decision. I gained new insight as the partner helped me view my problem through a different lens. Mental models can function like a YC partner or advisor, forcing you to see a problem from a different perspective and teaching you how to think better.
Mental models make decisions less risky by helping you better understand the reality of the world around you. We all have models in our heads based on our genetics, experiences, and backgrounds, but we need a toolkit of models to make good decisions. Relying solely on one model is like seeing every problem as a nail and solving every problem with a hammer.
- Make a bet. Are you willing to bet $1,000, $10,000, $50,000, or $100,000 on this job being a good investment of your time and the best next step to achieving your long-term goals? Thought experiments are helpful to clarify your thinking. Betting money helps clarify conviction in your beliefs and your perceived level of risk. If you’re comparing two or more job offers, which one are you willing to bet the most on and why? Annie Duke, a best-selling author on decision-making, corporate consultant, and former professional poker player, recommends clarifying your degree of certainty by placing a bet—even if it’s an imaginary one.
- Hell yeah or no. Don’t settle for mediocrity. Your time and energy are too valuable. You should feel excited to pursue this opportunity because it provides the best next step to learning new skills and building social capital on your path toward your long-term goals. Derek Sivers wrote an entire book on this idea called Hell Yeah or No and says, “If you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about something, say ‘no.’”
- Prestige test. Don’t get hooked like a fish by the lure of prestige. Paul Graham, cofounder of the world’s most successful startup accelerator, Y Combinator, discusses the prestige trap in his essay “How To Do What You Love.” He writes, “If you admire two kinds of work equally, but one is more prestigious, you should probably choose the other. Your opinions about what’s admirable are always going to be slightly influenced by prestige, so if the two seem equal to you, you probably have more genuine admiration for the less prestigious one.”
- Opportunity cost. Every choice you make carries a cost. Choosing to do one thing means choosing not to do another. Job decisions are important forks in the road because you are saying “no” to a bunch of other potential opportunities. Turning down a job offer may be the best choice because it opens up additional options that are more valuable and aligned with your goals. Identify multiple scenarios, then select the one with the lowest opportunity cost.
- Thinking gray. Sit in the discomfort of uncertainty. And delay forming a strong opinion about accepting a job offer until you have invested several hours thinking deeply about the decision and soliciting trusted advisors’ feedback. This takes conscious effort because it requires mental energy and feels unsettling. Complete the decision scorecard, apply mental models, and talk with people you trust before making your decision. This technique is useful to overcome confirmation bias.
- Five whys. Push through your intuition and optimism to reveal the underlying truth about a job opportunity. Ask yourself a series of “why” questions and write down your answers and assumptions. “Why do I want this job?” Don’t accept your initial response and conclusion. Continue to probe deeper into your answer and the underlying motives by continuing to ask “why” at least four additional times. Continuing to question your beliefs and assumptions about the job usually reveals underlying motivations hidden beneath the surface.
- The map is not the territory. Where does this job fit on the path to your long-term goals? Are you confident this route still represents the best way? Maps are a useful metaphor because they represent the accumulation of knowledge from people who have traveled the path before you. Career maps include the milestones and opinions of successful people in your field or industry. But a map is not reality—a map is both a representation of reality and an interpretation of reality shaped from the map maker’s perspective. Maps get outdated because the terrain continually changes and evolves. They are useful in guiding you as long as you test real-world conditions as you go. For example, 20 years ago, the career map to become a software engineer required you to get a computer science degree. However, the terrain has changed, and now there are multiple routes to get a high-paying job as a software engineer without earning a degree.
- Sunk-cost fallacy. Don’t continue in a job track that’s no longer beneficial simply because you’ve already invested a lot of time or money. These are sunk costs and cannot be recovered. Are you considering this job because it’s comfortable and you can do the job even if it’s not leading you toward your career goals? Don’t continue to invest time or effort based on the previous investment. However, don’t casually throw away career capital (e.g., specialized skills, degrees, social capital, years of industry experience) because often there are ways to make course corrections and explore nearby options. For example, imagine you pursued a job path in corporate law. What should you do if you realize corporate law is unfulfilling and you are miserable? You should look for an alternative route based on your interests that can allow you to leverage your law degree. Maybe you should pursue criminal law, estate planning law, or intellectual property law. Sometimes you lose confidence that you are on the right path and think you need to make a radical change. Don’t fall prey to the sunk-cost fallacy that keeps you on a path you no longer believe in.
- Circle of competence. Don’t set yourself up for failure. You make mistakes when you stray from what you know. The most dangerous zone is right outside your area of expertise. Seek out challenging growth opportunities but know your limitations. Ask yourself, will I be successful in this job? Are my job responsibilities aligned with my skills and abilities? Am I ready to take responsibility for the challenges in this role? If not, focus on building the necessary skills and experience before you tackle the job.
Get feedback on your job decision
After you invest time alone using thinking tools, ask two to three trusted friends who know you well to provide feedback on the job offer. Also, seek feedback from a coach or two to three people in the field you want to enter. Feedback will give you an outside view to ensure your enthusiasm for the opportunity is not blinding you to negative consequences or other options. Be aware of the bias of the people giving you feedback. Sometimes you will receive feedback that conflicts. Your job is to synthesize the input and decide what to disregard.
Don’t rush your decision. Sleep on it to allow your mind to consider your options. Your subconscious mind does more thinking than you realize. After investing time using thinking tools and seeking feedback, you are ready to make your choice and commit. Don’t accept the offer if you lack conviction. Remember, “Hell Yeah or No!” It may be better to invest your time exploring other options and building skills rather than job hop as there will be a significant time investment before you and your new employer know if you will be a successful match. If you decide to accept, commit fully and start planning for success.
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 Deborah Mitchell, J. Edward Russo, Nancy Pennington, “Back to the future: Temporal perspectives in the explanation of events,” Journal of Behavior Decision-Making 2, no. 1 (January 1989): 25-38.