The question “what do you do?” increasingly does not make sense. Five years ago, I would have said “I’m a consultant.” People really just want to know “how do you make money?”
Increasingly, that question is coming to mean “what do you work on?” For me the answer is complicated — I create a podcast, I interview people, I write, I read extensively, I coach people in their careers, I volunteer. Some of those things help me make money and some don’t.
In organizations and in the emerging freelance economy, I have seen a steady, but dramatic shift. The people that are able to thrive are the people that are able to create. The people that are energized and excited are the ones that are doing what matters to them.
Yet, we pretend that the old markers of success — climbing the ladder, getting a promotion, having a “good” job — are what matter.
The Nature Of Work Has Fundamentally Changed, Yet We Operate As If It Is Still 1995
Consider the following:
The decline of full-time work: There was no net increase in full-time employment from 2005 to 2015 — all employment growth was in “alternative work arrangements” such as on-call and temporary as well as contractors and freelancers.
Work continues to increase in complexity: BCG has measured “complicatedness” of work showing that it has steadily increased 6.7% a year for 50 years. This has dramatically outpaced productivity improvements.
Limited connection between traditional education and our work: Less than three out of ten people work in fields tied to their major.
Dream jobs don’t exist: In 1997, Amy Wrzesniewski found that work that is a “calling” is a result of a mindset, not our underlying skills.
People prefer autonomy over control: Researchers found that when power is framed as autonomy versus power over people, people were much more inclined to seek power positions. Autonomy is also highly linked to job satisfaction and performance.
Money is not a motivator: In 1949, Professor Harry Harlow introduced incentives to reward monkeys and ended up destroying their intrinsic motivation. We then found the same result in humans. Yet, almost 70 years later, in organizations, we still use the language of “carrots” and and “sticks”
People are meaner at work: McKinsey found that people experiencing rudeness at work increased from 49% to 62%from 1998 to 2015. YIKES!
Failure to understand these shifts means one thing:
👉 People are stressed, miserable and fed up, playing a game with rules that no longer exist.
In my own career journey, I made multiple career changes and eventually carved my own path as a freelancer. At every step of the road, I encountered endless amounts of bad advice, pseudo-science and buckets of hogwash about the choices I was making. Despite this, I was quite happy and engaged.
That made me wonder, why do ignore science and reality when talking about careers? In the last year as I’ve been carving my own path as a freelancer and in my work as a career coach, I’ve become obsessed with one question:
How should someone think about navigating their life and career in a way that enables them to have freedom to do the things that matter to them?
The deeper I looked, the more good ideas I found. From Pryor and Bright’s “Chaos Theory of Careers” to Adam Grant’s work on original thinking to Ryan and Deci’s self-determination theory to the fascinating research on curiosity, creativity, and solitude.
Our Deep Attachment To Work
How did we get here?
We place so much emphasis on work, yet the labor force participation rate is still less than 65%. We live in a time where we have a belief that much of meaning, dignity and identity can be unlocked through work. This cultural meme runs so deep that we tend to value any work for work’s sake and leave unquestioned the deeper questions of what it means to live a good life. It also results in bizarre phrases like “working poor” being a commonly understood and accepted phenomenon.
🚨We need a radical mindset shift in terms of how we think about work and how we are meant to do things that matter🚨
At the core, we need to stop praising someone for merely being employed or dutifully going into an office every day and we need to embrace the ambiguity and reality of the world.
Let’s ask people instead:
- Does your work bring you alive?
- Are you creating value for other people?
- Are you doing things that matter to you?
- What can I do to support your life?
Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier. — Colin Powell
Perspective: We are operating under the assumption that the default path is the only path. The reality is that the default path is mostly an illusion. Most people that end up doing something that energizes them end up there through serendipity. We need to shift our thinking to embrace optimism and think about work as a life-long journey that will be reinforced by continuous learning and a flexible and open mind to new experiences, ideas and opportunities. Too often, organizations stifle motivation they tell people what not to do — numbing them into a state of learned helplessness. The reality is, for organizations to thrive and for people to thrive, we will need to push people to think on their own, question the status quo and become “original thinkers.”
We are operating under the assumption that career paths still exist and that successful people are the ones with the most money or highest rank. There are jobs and industries with great paths, but these are increasingly reserved for people who know how to acquire the right degrees and credentials. The truth is, we need to destroy the idea that a “job hopper” is somehow a lesser qualified person. We need to encourage people to try more types of work and embrace planned happenstance theory putting emphasis on optimism, open-mindedness and flexibility rather than specialization or the illusion of career paths.
Motivation: We are operating under the assumption that having a job is enough. Unfortunately most jobs are not set up to enable you to thrive and at worst, they may also destroy you. You are also more at the whim of the success of your industry, the pace of change in your job and the “strategic” moves of large companies than you realize. The truth is you will need to continually self-reflect on the work that motivates you intrinsically, prioritizing mastery, autonomy and relatedness and continually re-assess your values, definition of success and a connection to doing work that matters to you.
Compass: We are operating under the assumption that companies will take care of us. Deep down, many know this is not true — just google the word “layoff” and see who was axed today. Here, I’ll do it for you…and this is only in the last 24 hours:
The truth is, we need to shift instead to approaches like Stanford Professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans “Designing Your Life” that starts with a focus on living a good life and then helps you find work to do that fits into that. This does not mean living paycheck to paycheck— it means being thoughtful about mitigating risk through lowering expenses and eliminating debt such that you can have the freedom and flexibility to spend time how you want across all aspects of your life.
It’s the way I study — to understand something by trying to work it out or, in other words, to understand something by creating it. Not creating it one hundred percent, of course; but taking a hint as to which direction to go but not remembering the details. These you work out for yourself.
– Professor Richard Feynman
Environment: We are operating under the assumption that work means going to an office 260 days a year, 5 days a week, working from 9–5 (at least). The reality is, more and more people are not working this fixed schedule and that it is often impossible to do 40+ hours of the types of creative work we will need to do in the future. We need people who are more comfortable in diverse global, virtual and remote teams and understand how to optimize their environments to maximize flow and creativity.
Connection: We are operating under the assumption that investing more in corporate culture will make us happier. The confusing reality of this is that many of these efforts backfire since they are not built on a foundation of meaningful work. We need to instead align our work and lives around communities that share our passions and values (which can be done in companies sometimes!). We also need to shift beyond the “transaction mindset” which pervades our world and look for ways to be generous and support each other in their work so more people do the work that matters to them.
Action: We are operating under the assumption that work is easily understood and can be documented in a process. Not to mention that it should be done full-time! The reality is, work is increasingly happening in projects and the companies that thrive are the ones that think in this context instead of keeping employees from quitting. Workers and companies will need to think about experiments — especially ones that will fail. As Adam Grant showed, original thinkers often run enormous numbers of experiments (for example Edison has 1093 patents, but most of them likely had little impact).
Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning. — Benjamin Franklin
Knowledge: We are operating under the assumption that our employers and universities will train us and give us the skills we need. The data shows that most of the $150 billion spent on learning & development every year is wasted. Universities are failing to give people the skills to compete in the economy. The truth is, we need to embrace the mindset of learning through doing, thinking about learning as a lifelong project instead of something that happens from ages 5 to 22, and creating opportunities for apprenticing or projects as a way to continuously develop skills. Finally, we need to more quickly shift to and give more credibility and support to alternatives to on-campus learning.
Progress: We are operating under the assumption that employers and managers should tell us what to do and that the hierarchy determines our value. The truth is, permission is increasingly an illusion and those who seek it are going to be left behind. Hierarchies are outdated and more concerned with power than helping us develop the skills and experience that will help us build a career and a life. This leads to unnecessary suffering, the lack of growth and people in the wrong jobs. We need to shift from external markers of success to internal ones — are we energized?, are we learning? — and think about our careers as a portfolio of different projects, connections and skills. As Marc Andreessen offers: “The first rule of career planning: Do not plan your career.”
“ Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Vitality: We are operating under the assumption that two weeks of vacation a year is adequate and that “work-life balance” is a worthy goal. This mindset starts with the assumption that work is the most important thing and you need to be some sort of productivity ninja that carves out meaningful time for health, love, relationships and fun. We instead need to start with our work and time and think about how we can invest in other people and communities to get the best out of each other. Finally, we operate under the assumption that workplaces are the source of all dignity, meaning and energy. However, with this mindset, we avoid the solitude and reflection that will unleash our naturally creative spirits. We need to flip our thinking to ask ourselves what the conditions are for us to thrive!