The "3P" Framework for Taking Your Next Step

(Update 3/10: my latest Think Better newsletter looks at the Newman Design Squiggle and making tough decisions. Subscribe here.)

I had the honor to be a panelist for one of UC San Diego's Triton Table Talks. The title of our talk was "Designing the Rest of Your Life." 

Prior to the talk the registrants submitted questions about their biggest concerns for taking their next step. Many of the questions will be familiar to you:

  • How can I find work I'm passionate about?
  • How can I find work-life balance?
  • What if I don't like my first job?
  • How do I balance career success with other priorities?
  • What if I don't have a goal when I graduate?

This is just a few examples, but the theme was consistent. Students want their work to be meaningful and they want to have full, complete lives.

Of course they do! We all do. But the path often looks like this squiggle, which I wrote about in The Newman Design Squiggle and Finding Your Purpose. If you're in the middle of the squiggle (which most of us are as students or early in our careers), then it's really hard to see "the best move."

Newman Design Squiggle for your life

So how can you make a move confidently? One of the frameworks I use I call my 3P's.

The 3P's are a simple way to evaluate an opportunity to consider if it's worth pursuing. They don't guarantee that you'll make the best choice, but they help to eliminate obvious bad choices. Sometimes that's enough to get out of inertia and get moving forward.

But before I share them, let me quickly share the "Not 3P's": three reasons that many people overvalue and that you shouldn't weigh too heavily.

The "Not 3Ps": You Don't Need to Pursue Perfection, Passion or Pragmatism

Let's look at each of these briefly, because these are three criteria that many people get hung up on when making a career decision.

First, perfection. It's a fool's game to expect any job to be perfect. Or to be so good that you can't imagine anything better. There's always some hypothetical "better" out there for you. Getting stuck on finding that mythical opportunity can cause you to overlook what's available to you.

You don't know what's perfect for you until you get started. And what's perfect for you today will no doubt change when you have a wife, a family, a new manager, etc. Perfection isn't a thing. Stop pretending it is.

Yes, you can imagine something better. No, you don't need to wait until you can get it.

Next, passion. This one flies in the face of a lot of career advice and self-help books. If you can find a job that aligns with your passion, that's great. Don't treat it as a necessity. Treat it as a bonus. 

It's perfectly fine to pay the bills one way and pursue your passion another. If you're truly passionate about it, you'll find a way to do it. Just because you're passionate about something doesn't mean it will be enough. Grinding away at it for hours on end and tying it to all the stresses of life can kill whatever joy you take from it.

My advice is to look for positions that may connect to your passion, even weakly, but that allow you to develop or leverage other skills. I write about running, not because I make a living from it, but because I enjoy it. Whatever I make from it is a bonus.

Finally, pragmatism. You don't need to play it safe. You don't need to do what everyone else does. You don't need to prioritize money, a long-term plan, or whatever other factor your parents might prefer.

Yes, it's great to make money. Really. I recommend it. But your next step does not have to be pragmatic in a financial sense. There are many many different ways to measure life, and money is just the easiest one to count. To achieve success in another area, or to set yourself up for even greater success in the future, you often have to take a step down or sideways. That's ok.

Not everyone's going to get it. They won't see what you see. That's ok, too. The reality is that most good next steps are pragmatic. But that's not why you should take them. It's just one of many criteria.

Now let's get to the real 3P's: Positive, Productive, Purposeful

P1: Is the opportunity Positive?

The first thing I think about when I consider any opportunity is whether it's positive. For me, this can mean a few different things.

Does it make the world a better place? Does it make me a better person? Does it add to my skills network? Does it make me happy to do it? Do I get to work with cool people?

Very loosely, I define positive in terms of how it makes me feel about myself and my choice. Do I want to tell my friends about it? Will the people I tell be excited about it?

I try to listen to my gut. If the opportunity makes me feel sleazy or like a sell-out, I feel it. I'm ok with my gut being conflicted, because much of life involves trade-offs. But if I'm feeling net negative, I typically keep looking, no matter how pragmatic it is or passionate I am about some aspect.

P2: Is the opportunity Productive?

The second thing I think about is what the output of the opportunity will be. I want to work on things that make a difference. I want to be productive.

Sometimes productivity is measured by the actual product being sold. When I worked at Apple, I really felt like my work contributed to getting the iPhone into more markets and that our customer's lives were being improved. Of course I played a minuscule part in the overall business, but it was a productive one for the team I was on and the business as a whole.

Recently I've spent time working on projects that improve my skills network. I have put on conferences, hosted two podcasts, written a book, and learned a language. Some of these are about creating a product that improves others' lives, but they are all opportunities for me to improve my life.

If the opportunity is improving you, making progress toward your goals, or creating new future opportunities, it's productive and worth considering.

P3: Can you approach the opportunity Purposefully?

This one is about the mindset needed to be successful. Any next step you take is going to put you in a position where you need to learn and change and improve. It's going to take hard work. You have to be willing to do that work purposefully.

The key to being a great athlete is purposeful practice. It's about working on specific skills, staying focused, getting the feedback you need to improve, and pushing outside your comfort zone. The same is true for learning a new job.

If you look at the opportunity and see yourself diving into it and becoming an expert at it, then it's worth pursuing. If you're only ever going to be half-committed, half-engaged, half-in, you're not going to get the results you need. Move on.

It's Not About Being Precise, It's About Moving Forward

You've no doubt noticed that my 3P's aren't all that strictly defined. Positive, productive, and purposeful can be considered pretty flexibly.

That's a feature, not a bug. The point isn't to give a numerical calculation that spits out what your next step should be. Precision is not the goal. The goal is to eliminate paralysis. It's to help you actually make a decision.

If an opportunity only meets two of the three, you should really consider whether you want to pursue it. You may still say yes, but there are red flags. Understand them before you say yes.

If the opportunity only meets one or doesn't meet any, just move on. It's not the right one for right now. (Though it could be later...don't burn any bridges.) Don't worry about saying no. Saying no to the wrong opportunity is way more productive than saying yes!

As long as you're doing positive, productive, and purposeful work, you're going to develop new skills, create strong connections, and open doors to new opportunities. Trust yourself and trust that you will find the right path. Because you will!

If you are looking for your first job out of school, looking to pivot to a new career, or simply looking to do something bold with your life, the 3P framework will help you make that decision with confidence.

If this helped you, please tell me about it!


Update: I wrote a related article about the 3 rules I live my life by. You may like it.