External factors like student debt and economic transition already make finding a job difficult for millennials, but we’re also holding ourselves back by falling prey to our own career myths.
“Unfulfilling work dulls our senses and stuns our minds,” Maria Popova of Brain Pickings wrote once. Most of us know the feeling all too well. Millennials can’t stand it. And yet, currently, we can’t escape it: 70% of millennials are disengaged at work, according to Gallup.
So we hop jobs in search of the elusive “meaningful work.” We leave each one more jaded, empty handed.
What are we doing wrong?
Three assumptions are eroding our pursuit of professional purpose:
“I’ll find the right career if I keep looking.”
“It is primarily the inability to settle on an occupational identity which disturbs young people,” psychologist Erik Erikson observed.
Our struggle is evident: the average American has had seven jobs before age 29, and a third of them lasted less than six months. According to a 2016 Deloitte survey of 7,700 millennials across 29 countries, 44% want to leave their job within the next two years.
Why? An unprecedented amount of career options has yielded an unprecedented amount of indecision. In turn, millennials are less committed to each choice. In a series of studies, men who were shown multiple images of attractive women subsequently rated their commitment to their partner as lower than did the control group. The same happened when women were exposed to dominant, high-status men.
For online dating, the impact of this effect is obvious. Professionally, our distraction with other, “better” possibilities makes us fickle and dissatisfied. The grass is always greener.
We’re so obsessed with finding meaningful work that the instant we don’t feel it, we start shopping. After all, there’s always another option. This is a mistake: meaning isn’t a product of the job itself but, rather, our sustained commitment to it.
“I can do it all.”
Or sometimes our response to too many options is, “I’ll do everything.” But rewards—both intrinsic and extrinsic—come from doing a couple things really well, not everything sort of well. In today’s job economy, STEM, writing, coding and critical thinking skills have never been so important. Broad, generalized abilities, by contrast, are both unfulfilling and sink in the job market.
In Essentialism, Greg McKeown warns against well-roundedness. He advises to apply “tougher criteria to life’s big decisions” so we can weed out less important paths. Our brains work like a search engine, he says: If we Google “good restaurant in New York City,” we’ll find an overwhelming array of results. But if we Google “best slice of pizza in downtown Brooklyn,” results will be more specific and meaningful.
McKeown suggests asking targeted questions like:
What am I deeply passionate about?
What taps my talent?
What meets a significant need in the world?
“There won’t be as many pages to view, but that’s the point of the exercise. We aren’t looking for a plethora of a good things to do. We’re looking for one where we can make our absolutely highest point of contribution,” McKeown explains. Or, as Euripides said, “Each has his special excellence… one ought to place a man where he can do the most good.”
Carefully choose what you want to do, and then commit wholeheartedly. One study found that professional commitment even has a buffering effect on the development of illness.
“My job should be fun.”
Millennials understandably want to enjoy our work. But what we need for fulfilment is challenge. Research shows that when workers retire and the stresses and demands of work drop off, their lives become less meaningful. Boredom, the antithesis of optimal challenge, is associated with depression, hopelessness, loneliness and burnout.
And challenge may be more enjoyable anyway. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi distinguishes between “enjoyment” and “joy.” Joy is watching something entertaining, or playing foosball at work. Enjoyment is deep, satisfying investment in an activity. People report the greatest enjoyment not when they’re passive, such as watching TV, but when they’re absorbed in a “mindful challenge.” Joy is produced externally; enjoyment is produced from within.
The fun of a job wears off with everyday life. Our investment in and commitment to our work, however, will yield profound enjoyment over time.
Research shows that people are happiest when they view their work as a calling. Meaningful work is correlated with more positive emotions and better mental health in both cross sectional and longitudinal studies. But a calling doesn’t fall from the sky. It’s chosen every day for years until it becomes something we love, something we’re good at and something the world needs (Jeff Goins).
We think we want options, ease and flexibility. What we need is courage to commit to challenge and focus.
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