January 01, 2003

What Should I Do With My Life?

I found the article "What Should I Do With My Life?" in a recent issue of Fast Company rather compelling. The beginning of a new year seems like a good time to mention it. Others may be thinking the same things I have been.

I'm going to quote from it heavily because I think it says a lot of things that need to be said. But I'm not going to go into all the things that have been bothering me lately. That'll be later...

I'm convinced that business success in the future starts with the question, What should I do with my life? Yes, that's right. The most obvious and universal question on our plates as human beings is the most urgent and pragmatic approach to sustainable success in our organizations. People don't succeed by migrating to a "hot" industry ( one word: dotcom ) or by adopting a particular career-guiding mantra ( remember "horizontal careers"? ). They thrive by focusing on the question of who they really are -- and connecting that to work that they truly love ( and, in so doing, unleashing a productive and creative power that they never imagined ). Companies don't grow because they represent a particular sector or adopt the latest management approach. They win because they engage the hearts and minds of individuals who are dedicated to answering that life question.

All I can say about that is that it just seems right. Who would really argue with it? Not me.

The article goes on to mention something that I've noticed far too much of: people who clearly aren't living (and working) up to their potential for various reasons...

There are far too many smart, educated, talented people operating at quarter speed, unsure of their place in the world, contributing far too little to the productive engine of modern civilization. There are far too many people who look like they have their act together but have yet to make an impact. You know who you are. It comes down to a simple gut check: You either love what you do or you don't. Period.

But worse yet, I worry that I'm one of them. The notion of "operating at quarter speed" seem to describe me pretty well a lot of the time. That goes hand-in-hand with the next observation.

Those who are lit by that passion are the object of envy among their peers and the subject of intense curiosity. They are the source of good ideas. They make the extra effort. They demonstrate the commitment. They are the ones who, day by day, will rescue this drifting ship. And they will be rewarded. With money, sure, and responsibility, undoubtedly. But with something even better too: the kind of satisfaction that comes with knowing your place in the world. We are sitting on a huge potential boom in productivity -- if we could just get the square pegs out of the round holes.

It's really been a while since I felt compelled to make the extra effort. I'm sure sure if that's the result of changes in the last year or so. Maybe it's just frustration resulting from the organizational supidity and crap I've had to deal with recently.

Throughout the 1990s, my basic philosophy was this: Work=Boring, but Work+Speed+Risk=Cool. Speed and risk transformed the experience into something so stimulating, so exciting, so intense, that we began to believe that those qualities defined "good work." Now, betrayed by the reality of economic uncertainty and global instability, we're casting about for what really matters when it comes to work.

I can totally see where the Work+Speed+Risk=Cool equation comes from. I've been thinking it during much of my [short] working career so far.

On the issue of figuring out what job, role, or career is really the right one...

Your calling isn't something you inherently "know," some kind of destiny. Far from it. Almost all of the people I interviewed found their calling after great diffculty. They had made mistakes before getting it right. For instance, the catfish farmer used to be an investment banker, the truck driver had been an entertainment lawyer, a chef had been an academic, and the police officer was a Harvard MBA. Everyone discovered latent talents that weren't in their skill sets at age 25.


Most of us don't get epiphanies. We only get a whisper -- a faint urge. That's it. That's the call. It's up to you to do the work of discovery, to connect it to an answer. Of course, there's never a single right answer. At some point, it feels right enough that you choose, and the energy formerly spent casting about is now devoted to making your choice fruitful.

That bothers me. A lot. I've always felt a little smarter than the pack when it came to selecting a career. Why? Back in college, I never changed my major. In fact, I've been reasonably sure of what I wanted to do for a long, long time. I just never considered anything else. I liked what I was doing.

Recently, however, some things have caused that to change. Some of my older passions and ideas have resurfaced and they're making me question what I'm doing now. (More on that some other time...)

So, why do we end up in the wrong situations?

The funny thing is that most people have good instincts about where they belong but make poor choices and waste productive years on the wrong work. Why we do this cuts to the heart of the question, What should I do with my life? These wrong turns hinge on a small number of basic assumptions that have ruled our working lives, career choices, and ambitions for the better part of two decades.

The first one, of course, is money:

It turns out that having the financial independence to walk away rarely triggers people to do just that. The reality is, making money is such hard work that it changes you. It takes twice as long as anyone plans for. It requires more sacrifices than anyone expects. You become so emotionally invested in that world -- and psychologically adapted to it -- that you don't really want to ditch it.

Yeah, I really want to get a house again. But it's hard. It's going to require a lot of time and sacrifice. Everytime I've considered doing something else (meaning: change jobs), I worry about the house dream. How will I ever afford a house if I take a lower paying job? Crap like that.

And on the value systems involved, something I hadn't considered...

One of the most common mistakes is not recognizing how these value systems will shape you. People think that they can insulate themselves, that they're different. They're not. The relevant question in looking at a job is not What will I do? but Who will I become? What belief system will you adopt, and what will take on heightened importance in your life? Because once you're rooted in a particular system -- whether it's medicine, New York City, Microsoft, or a startup -- it's often agonizingly difficult to unravel yourself from its values, practices, and rewards. Your money is good anywhere, but respect and status are only a local currency. They get heavily discounted when taken elsewhere. If you're successful at the wrong thing, the mix of praise and opportunity can lock you in forever.

Very good point: respect and status are only a local currency. I had never thought about it in those terms, but I always knew it. ("If I change jobs, how do I convince my new employer that I'm really good at [this] or [that]? This is all taken for granted now because people know me.")

Anyway, I enjoyed the article and feel like it's talking to me. Maybe it'll say something to you too.

Posted by jzawodn at 09:52 AM