“My earliest memories of my father are of seeing him work at his desk and realizing that he was happy. I did not know it then, but that was one of the most precious gifts a father can give his child.”
~Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point
Work is a funny thing in 21st century America, especially for millenials. We’re almost bi-polar about it (or “manic depressive illness” if you want to use the official APA term for it).
On one hand, work isn’t supposed to be all that important. Everyone needs a job, everybody needs to pay the bills somehow, but it’s the other things that really make life worth living – going out for drinks with your friends after work, snowboarding on the weekends, picking up a unique, obscure hobby like brewing your own beer in your garage. (Sorry to burst your bubble man, but pretty much every other male 20-something rocking a tight combover fade from their local barbershop and a watch from JackThreads has a home brew kit, whether they’ve gotten around to using it or not.) The last thing we want to be is a career-obsessed workaholic with no life outside the office.
On the other hand, we want our work to be our life passion. “Hey, do what you love and find someone to pay you for it, right?” says the not-a-hipster at every college town microbrewery before he goes on to tell you about the artisan water business he’s starting with his buddy from back home. We don’t just want a 9-5 job that pays the bills but doesn’t resonate with who we are as people or utilize our unique talents and affinities. As David Infante of Mashable put it, “We yuccies (young urban creatives) are indoctrinated with the belief that not only do we deserve to pursue our dreams; we should profit from them.”
Now I’m not saying that both of those perspectives on work are completely off-base, especially since I probably fall fairly neatly into the “yuccie” category. Yes, work should never be the central focus of life. I think we all get a sense that things like family, good friends, and mountain biking through yellow Aspen leaves on a crisp fall day in the Rockies are all more real and lasting than our careers. And sure, there’s nothing wrong with looking for a job that excites you and lets you use your abilities to their full potential. But the first perspective drastically devalues work, turning it into nothing more than something between you and the next weekend, and the latter is a fairly entitled, naïve view of work that often breaks down when faced with the reality of volatile economies, weak job markets, and Monday mornings.
As millennials, I think we need to rethink our perspective on work, and I think if we looked to past generations for some guidance on the topic, we could learn a couple important things about work.
For one, my work is not all about me – it should serve others in my local or global community. It’s not about doing what makes me happy and finding someone to pay me for it; it’s about finding how my talents and passions can meet a need in the marketplace and make someone else’s life a little bit better somehow, whether that is through giving sound financial advice to a client or growing fresh cut flowers for him to bring home to his wife after work.
Second, I should be able to find joy in my work and take pride in pouring my full self into it to produce an excellent product or service. We will spend 90,000 hours at work in our lifetime, so why not be proud of what we do with that time? And I don’t want to hear the classic excuse, “I can’t be passionate about my job; all I do is [boring sales job].” It’s not the job that determines whether you can be happy there; it’s how you approach it.
Think about the old guy who has owned the hardware store downtown for 43 years. He’s probably not super passionate about landscaping rakes; he probably doesn’t talk about socket wrenches with his wife and grandkids when he’s at home. But he commits himself to doing an excellent job keeping the store clean, treating people right, and offering valuable help and advice to customers when they walk in his store. That’s the kind of pride I’m talking about, the kind us millennials need to learn. It’s not all about him; he puts himself into something outside of himself, and the way he does his work benefits the people around him, and in a small way, makes his community a better place to live, or at least makes the front lawns look nicer.
Personally, I’m at a pretty unique point in my life, especially in relation to work. I’m set to graduate from college in about a month and a half, so I get to do all those fun job searching activities like sending out resumes and cover letters, going to job fairs, setting up informational interviews, hitting up industry professionals with the classic, “Can we get lunch?” line, trying to form connections. But beneath the surface level concerns like figuring out what job I’m going to take and where I’m going to live, lurk deeper questions that are much harder to answer. Questions like, “How important is it to find the right job? Will I be happy in this career ten years from now? What’s the point of work anyways? What should I be looking for in a job or a career?” In a way, I feel like I’m at the top of a ski slope, and I know that after I drop in, I won’t have much chance to change my mind or alter course. Ten years from now, I don’t want to look back with regret on my career or feel like I accomplished nothing with my efforts.
I don’t know if I’ll ever find sufficient answers to those hard questions about work, but it does give me confidence to know that even if I don’t find the perfect job or don’t end up doing what I love and getting paid for it, I can still find purpose in my work and make the hours I put into it worth my while.
So whether you are graduating from college and beginning your yuccie career like me, or you’re in the middle of a long, successful career, contemplating the purpose of your work, whether you’re selling insurance, building houses, or striving to craft the highest quality leather goods and outdoor apparel for the rugged gentleman like us... let’s take a lesson from the old guy at the hardware store and take pride in our craft and find joy in our work.