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NEMKO'S RULES: A contrarian approach to finding career contentment

By Marty Nemko

Over the last year, I’ve made a number of recommendations that are contrary to conventional wisdom. I thought you’d find it useful if I summarized them all in one column.


If you’re older than 20, career contentment will probably not be found by waiting for the right career. Most people for whom there is one quintessentially perfect career identified it before they were 20.

Nor are you likely to find career contentment in a so-called cool career. Why? Because, in the end, most people’s career contentment depends mainly on their job having these characteristics:

· work that isn’t too hard or too easy

· work that uses, or could be molded to use, your core ability(ies.)

· is ethically sound

· good-coworkers and boss

· reasonable compensation

· reasonable work hours

· opportunities to learn

· reasonable commute

Because of supply and demand, it’s much easier to end up with such work if it’s not in a “cool career.” For example, a decent job opening in the arts, media, or nonprofits usually generates hundreds of quality applicants for each position. That enables the employer to offer low wages and demand long hours, even if the closest the employee ever gets to a spotted owl is a pile of accounts payable statements.

So, NEMKO’S RULE #1: Do what you love and you’ll probably starve.

COROLLARY: If many people love what you love, do it after work.

COROLLARY: Status is the enemy of contentment.

You are most likely to find career contentment in a not-high-status job or in self-employment. Why? Because the competition in high-status fields such as law or investment banking is fierce. That too often means long, stressful hours and ethical compromises in order to succeed. Also, if you do an aggressive job search (see below) for a not-high status job, you are more likely to get multiple job offers and thus be able to pick the job offering the best combination of the eight attributes above. Plus, because the employer knows that a line of applicants are not panting in the wings for your job, you will probably, on the job, be treated better, financially and personally.

COROLLARY: You’re more likely to find career contentment far from the madding crowd.

Examples of where the job market is not hypercompetitive: Court reporting, accounting, insurance, sales, health care, health care administration, fundraising, financial services, anything serving Latinos (entertainment, schools, hospitals, criminal justice) anti-terrorism, biotech (BA level), blue collar work.

NEMKO’S RULE #2: Think little; act much; spend little. For example, if you’re deciding whether to become a salesperson, don’t spend too much time analyzing if it’s right for you and don’t sign up for an expensive training program. Instead, just read a few articles on what it takes to be a good salesperson and watch a few salespeople in action. You’ll get the sense of whether it’s right for you. Another example: A client was considering starting a business hosting speed dating events for boomers. She asked me, “How do I learn how to create a website? And how am I going to get the money for the promotional materials and the hotel room?” I said, for now, keep it simple: “Hold the event in your apartment complex’s community room (Cost: zero), place an ad for the event on Craig’s List (cost: zero, web experience required: zero), and see how you like it.

COROLLARY: Think big but start small.


Self-employment makes ever more sense in an era in which you need to be quite a star to land a good non-offshoreable job. Self-employment enables you to instantly go from schlepper to CEO.

NEMKO’S RULE #3: The business must be simple: selling one high-profit-margin, not-faddish product or service. Examples: noise control consultant to homeowners near airports, mobile home park maintenance, handyperson, retirement coach, espresso cart(s) near a train station, employee-and shopping-mall-parking-lot-based oil changing.

NEMKO’S RULE #4: Don’t innovate; replicate. Either copy someone’s successful business in a different location or buy a franchise. I’ve heard good things about Merry Maids. Of course, interview at least a half dozen franchisees before signing on the dotted line.

NEMKO’S RULE #5: Don’t become an expert. Hire an expert. It takes too long to get expertise and stay current. You can usually buy expertise for $20 - $75 an hour—a bargain.


Key basic question: Be honest with yourself: Are you too lazy to do the hard work of looking for a job?

NEMKO’S RULE #6: Include success stories and testimonial quotes in your resume, cover letter, pitch, and interviews.

NEMKO’S RULE #7: In applying for a job, especially if you don’t have direct experience, you must prove you have indispensable transferable skills: reasoning, quick learner, ability to motivate difficult people, excellent work ethic, etc.

NEMKO’S RULE #8: Use The One-Week Job Search: Contact 25 people who like you and ask for leads. Cold-contact 25 employers you’d most like to work for (whether or not they’re advertising a position) and try to get a job created for you, and answer 10 on-target ads. (For sources of ads, see Also, just turn this page.

NEMKO’S RULE #9: In answering ads, state, point-by-point, how you meet each requirement in the ad.

NEMKO’S RULE #10: If your resume won’t put you ahead of the pack, don’t include it. Instead, submit a one-page Qualifications Brief that includes a career summary or job objective, and a bulleted list of your achievements and qualifications.

NEMKO’S RULE #11: In cold-contact, networking, and interviews, use a ten-second pitch in which you say what you’re looking for, proof you’re good, and why--if you’re so good--you’re looking.

NEMKO’S RULE #12: Networking isn’t for everyone. If, you tend to not be instantly likeable, and especially if your network is small and unlikely to be helpful, focus your job search on doing a great job of answering ads. See Rule 7 for sources.)

If however, strangers generally like you quickly, do meet lots of new people, reconnect with the old, tell them all what sort of work you’re looking for, and look for quid pro quo opportunities. Also spend some time cold-contacting potential employers and try to get a job created for you.

Here are some new ways to network:


· Online groups. Find them using the “Groups” tab on Consider groups outside your normal milieu. Recreation-oriented groups are fine.

· Newspaper announcements of promotions often list names of just the sorts of people you’d like to ask for a job or informational interview.

· Strike up conversations with strangers at meetings, concerts, sporting events, political rallies, and on airplanes.

In all of the above, at the right moment, give your ten-second pitch.

If your lead has good potential, try to set up a face-to-face interview.

NEMKO’S RULE #13: Ask for what you want. Politely asking for a job lead or for a few minutes of advice is appropriate. The person is a grown-up. He can say no. Usually, he’ll say yes.

NEMKO’S RULE #14: Consider leaving the Bay Area. The Bay Area is a tough place to find good work. Because of the great Bay Area weather and the presence of Stanford, UCSF, and UC Berkeley, and this being the world center for gay people, the Bay Area attracts many of the world’s smartest, most driven, most educated people. Compounding the problem, many companies are leaving the Bay Area because of the high taxes and high rate of employee lawsuits.

Even if you’re not a job seeker, the Bay Area has serious liabilities. Taxes are high and most of your tax dollars won’t benefit you. For example, many residents of San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley feel that to get a decent education for their children, must spend the fortune it costs to send them to private school. Plus, there is a moratorium on new roads in the Bay Area for the next 20 years and mass transit won’t be convenient enough for most people, so traffic will only get worse. In addition, home prices are among the nation’s highest.

So, especially if I wanted to buy a home and had a bright child whom I wanted to send to the public schools, I’d consider moving to the Gulf Coast of Florida, Charlotte or Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Oregon, Washington State or Vancouver, British Columbia.

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