I’m going to assume that most readers already grasp the difference between what you need vs. what you want. But I see people think about their needs at the wrong point of a job search.
Your needs should be defined before you start applying for jobs. There is a core baseline that would make you reject a job offer no matter what – a minimum salary, a maximum commute. You may have industries you will not work in, or tech stack you will not work on. Do you need specific health benefits? These needs should be thought through so they are in your mind, and maybe even written down somewhere, to help you filter our job listings or inquiries from recruiters that you would never accept.
When thinking these through, don’t rush to decisions. If someone offered you less than your minimum salary, but a 40% stake in the company, would you consider it? If so, you haven’t defined your needed salary, you have defined your wanted salary. They both matter, but it is important to know the difference.
The same concept goes for your commute, or any other trait of a job you consider – if the rest of the offer package was stupendous, would you give on your needs? If so, they are not needs. Determine your needs now, both to know what questions to ask in the interview process, and also to know where to draw hard lines in negotiations later.
That brings us to wants. We all likely want more salary and a shorter commute than we need. But we also want other things – autonomy, meaningful work, skilled and personable co-workers, perks and benefits. Perhaps you want to work on new technology, or get some upwards career mobility. There is likely a large list of wants, with no single job that will give you them all. But knowing what they are matter when the offer comes in.
Because once you get the offer, you can quickly reject it if needs are not met, but you have to balance your wants. Look at your list of what you want and check off which are going to be fulfilled by the new job, and which are not. For every want you do not get, there should be a balance of a want you did get. I’d recommend seeking a job where you get at least half of your wants.
If you are on the fence about an offer, having this perspective on a list of what you did and did not get makes negotiation easier. Sometimes a potential employer cannot budge on salary, but can budge on other aspects of the job. Or the other way around, where the job isn’t flexible, but they can increase the offer. You need to know what you want to effectively negotiate because you should be pushing harder on jobs that fulfill less of your wants, and you should be more flexible on jobs that give you most of your wants.
Even beyond reacting to a specific offer, knowing your needs and wants may get you more offers. That knowledge will drive you to asking good questions, while at the same time, not being over-demanding in areas where you are flexible. When a potential employer sees that you can be both firm and flexible, and that you know when each is appropriate, it earns respect. They will have an easier time believing in you and find you more likable than candidates who fall to either extreme.