What Makes a Job Good?

Many many moons ago I found this poem in a little joke book. For whatever reason, it stuck in my head and has stayed there ever since:

Don’t worry if your job is small

Or your rewards are few

Remember that the mighty oak

Was once a nut like you!

Ah yes. That explained everything. 😉

Of course, I was only 9 – and I didn’t have to worry about paying for stuff like rent or food. But as I sat down tonight to work on a post about job offers, for some reason those ancient and oddly hopeful words popped into my head.

I began thinking about the phrases “small jobs” and “few rewards”.  What exactly do they mean? Isn’t the way a job feels in the eyes of the beholder? Just what makes a job good?

And when it comes to jobs, does size really matter?

First I gotta get this off my chest. This whole idea of small jobs really galls me. It’s so judgmental.  Not only doesn’t it give enough weight to the differences in people’s values, but it also forgets about the might oak…and how small things can grow if we tend to them.

I remember an indelible moment in my own career when I was working as a consultant on a hot-shot task force that helped create a new organization (which also included part of the old one).  The work itself was something I believed in deeply, but when I saw the direction the new leaders were going in and the way they treated the “old guard” (who still had plenty of valuable information to share and much to contribute), I decided to politely move on and accept an offer that a friend just luckily had sent my way.

So instead of being on the ground floor of this huge new well-intentioned organization, I took a “small” job helping a small non-profit start a transitional residence for homeless women. I was excited by the chance to be so much closer to the daily activities and people we were helping – something I felt cut off from in the bigger organization’s ivory tower.

At my farewell party – just for the ivory-tower elite – the CEO asked me why I was leaving his team and this exciting project for what he called “small potatoes.”  I had no good answer for him…because he wouldn’t have understood.

How is a job like a potato?

Potatoes of any size are hard to judge until you bite into them. The same goes for jobs. It’s tough to know for sure whether a job is right for you or will make you happy. Sometimes the dazzling package being dangled before you is far from dazzling on a day-to-day basis. And sometimes, while the work itself may be something you enjoy, the people drive you crazy. Or upper management micro-manages everything to death. Or you aren’t being recognized for all your hard work. Or you get way too much of that hard work. Or…well, the list of possibilities goes on and on.

Then again…I happen to know that a few people reading this article at this very minute actually like their jobs. Yes…it’s true. This is not an urban legend. And they are not on exhibit in some P.T. Barnum-like freak show. They like their jobs. And the funny thing is…others in the same or similar situations, perhaps some in the very same offices as those freaky job-likers, are miserable.

So what is it? What makes a job good? Is it the job? Is it the person? Is it just luck? Do people who like their jobs in general (we all have clunkers now and then) simply focus on different things than those who don’t?  Or are there some special tricks known only to job-likers?

Of course, we all know answers are rarely black or white. Like a good potato salad…ahem…it’s usually a combination of factors in some form or another. But maybe, just maybe, with an understanding of the right ingredients and techniques, there might just be an art to helping make a job good for oneself.

I’m really curious to hear your thoughts. Do you like your job and why? What makes a job good in your eyes? Words of wisdom welcome.

Some related Cafe posts you might enjoy:

7 Ways You Can Put Emotional Intelligence to Work for Your Career

Job Morphing: 20 Career Tips to Help Improve Your Job and Career

Zen and the Art of Being a Receptionist

Your Attitude at Work: Know Your Own Triggers

Is It Your Job or YOU That’s Driving You Crazy?

Carrie Bradshaw Gives Great Job Advice!


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. The right ingredients and technique and attitude are an important recipe for the right job. Your circle of influence – ingredients (outside your control), technique (within your influence), attitude (within your control).

    1. If a particular company or job are a big mismatch for your values, passions and purpose, then it is pretty hard to make it the right job with simply an attitude or skills change.
    Bottom line – you need to know yourself and if that job is at least somewhat aligned your vision, purpose, passion, values and strengths. It the ingredients aren’t aligned – this is outside your control – to completely change who you are or what the job is.

    2. If there is a reasonable alignment between who you are and the job/company, then ask yourself – would new skills or an attitude spruce up to make you more happy in the job? Your attitude and skills are within your control – make the changes necessary if it will do the trick.

    3. If you’ve looked at the ingredients and your attitude and done what you can within your control, but still not happy. Then perhaps your circle of influence (technique) might be the missing part of the recipe. Do you need to incorporate a different “PR” strategy to help others understand how you benefit the ccompany? Do you need to better toot your own horn so that others can see the gifts you bring to table? Perhaps you can influence your boss or co-workers so they better understand your unique strengths and can then give you more opportunities to collaborate and shine – ultimately creating your right job.

  2. It’s not an easy question to answer, Ronnie. From personal experience, a good job has included any or all of the following:

    * Good colleagues.
    * Effective management and leadership that don’t meddle in your work but take an adequate interest in what you’re doing (in other words, let you do your job but want to be sure you’re focused on the right things).
    * Defined processes that help guide you in your work without making it onerous.
    * A clear path to self-defined career growth.

  3. Jenny Ridings says:

    I find that job seekers go through cycles. Sometimes they are looking for jobs and sometimes they are looking for careers. They look for jobs when they get burnt out and they look for careers when they reach the ceiling.

  4. Hi Ronnie,

    This should be a powerful and important question for everyone right now – whether you have a job or are looking for one. Too many people (understandably are scaling their expectations downward).
    I just came from doing a seminar on Trust and if this group of 40 + employees from dozens of industries are any sampling of what is happening in the workplace – wow – are we in trouble!
    Here is some of what they said they want (and most reported they don’t have enough of):

    Trust, honesty, transparency and respect (especially from senior leaders), recognition and gratitude for making concessions and working harder and clear and timely info and communication from their organzations.

    I think if we add in that people want to feel they can “risk” truthfulness, share and collaborate with their colleagues and express their values and creativity, we’ve got the right mix for loving what we do.

  5. I find that sometimes it is hard to judge the value of a job while I am actually working there. I have had jobs that I really dreaded which turned out in hindsight to give me the experience I needed to get to exiting opportunities.

    This was not part of a conscience plan of mine, but more of an “accident”. Looking back, I would not want to work at those places again, but I am glad that I did.

  6. Thanks Kate, Rick, Jenny, and Louise. Great comments. Appreciate your takes on this question. I love when people add exactly what I meant to say. 😉

    And DC Jobs…that’s the story of my life too. So hard to see the entire canvas when you are just painting a small section at the moment. But if we stay true to ourselves and our values and trust that we are building something wonderful (our career story) real career magic can happen!

    ~ Ronnie Ann

  7. The major difference I have experienced between a job I didn’t like and a job I did, has been whether I could see it’s purpose and achieve a result at the end. Plus does what I am doing sit comfortable with the values I have. I feel blessed to have such a luxury, though as I realise it’s much more of an advanced economy thing, rather than just having to work to feed myself and my family.

  8. I think Daniel Pink nails it in his TED talk on <a "the surprising science of motivation." Basically, people are are motivated by work that provides these three things: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

    When I watched the video I was surprised that this was exactly what I wanted from a job (or career); yet, I hadn’t been able to articulate it as succinctly as Pink.

    In my mind having these three things would make a job “good.” A decent salary would be nice too. 🙂

  9. Thanks Karalyn and perri! I’m enjoying reading all the different ways people look at jobs. Values as well as things like autonomy, mastery and purpose seem to be key. And yes…a decent salary is always much appreciated.

    I think for me there’s also a balancing act. If I work with people I really like and respect, maybe not accomplishing as much major stuff or feeling as purposeful in the greater sense is ok. But eventually, I do like to know I contributed well and got somewhere that actually matters. Although what “matters” also varies, since for me there is value just in making someone’s day easier.

    A slam dunk for me might be playing a key role in solving a major societal problem or finding a way to deliver some essential service more easily (or in a more user-friendly way) while working with amazing, caring people who pitch in w/o ego and love to laugh. 😉

    ~ Ronnie Ann

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