We live in an interesting time that is often filled with contradictions.
Take, for example, our cultural and social attitude and relationship with work.
Keep Your Job
A sense of unease, uncertainty, and worry permeates the world of work at a macro level. Those who are about to enter the workforce fear that they won't be able to get a job, many who are out of work face that exact reality, and those who are working fear that they may lose their job. Nobody feels very certain or secure, and those who have work hear the message that they should be relieved to be working at all, no matter what they do.
Get a Better Job
While at the macro level it seems like you should hold on to your job no matter what, at the micro level there is a strong message of contradiction. This message says, at a personal level, that this is a time of amazing opportunity and nobody should settle for work that does less than pay exceptionally well and fulfills you at a deep and soul satisfying level.
The practical result of these two messages is often paralysis.
Young people seeking to get in the work force are pessimistic about their chances of getting a job, but are unwilling to settle for anything less than an occupation that does meaningful "world changing" work that is so exciting it propels them out of bed in the morning.
Older workers, who have a job, are often scared to seek new opportunities, feeling like they must be thankful to have any work. At the same time they are dissatisfied, sure that there must be better, more satisfying work than what they are doing.
What Everyone Should Know About Work
Personally, I have been blessed to be able to do work that is satisfying and interesting and I think makes a difference in the world. However, I have also needed to do work that is dull, seemingly pointless, and unsatisfying.
Professionally, I have worked with hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of young people who are working to prepare themselves for meaningful work and who are learning to navigate the professional world. I have also worked with older workers who are making that big career adjustment and are looking for new work that is more deeply satisfying.
Based on those experiences here are three things I wish everyone, especially young people, knew about work:
What are You Working For?
1. The end matters more than the means. Assuming that the job you are doing is neither illegal nor immoral then what you are working for is always far more important than what kind of work you are doing, no matter how difficult, dangerous, or dull that work may be.
It is far more important for young workers to be doing anything, no matter how different from what they picture, than to be doing nothing. Any job offers opportunities for mastery (see below), and builds experience, contacts, and confidence that will lead to the next and better job.
Older workers, specifically older workers with families, should never forget that the most important outcome of their work is provision. Work that enables you to provide food for your family, a safe place for them to live, and the necessary resources to learn and grow is by definition honorable and important work.
Be Brave Enough to Change
2. Never be afraid to change jobs or careers if the risk is right. In a slow economy and an uncertain world the first reaction is typically to hold on to what you have. This attitude can prevent younger workers from essential advancement and keep older workers from fully using their gifts and skills.
How do you know if the risk is right? Here are some key questions: Does this new position help me move closer to where I want to ultimately go? What is the worst thing that can happen? Will that worst thing merely cause hardship that my family and I can recover from, or will it needlessly endanger my family and me?
A few years ago at a crucial point in my career I was agonizing over a decision and was paralyzed and afraid to move forward with a change. My wife bluntly forced the point: "What's the worst thing that can happen? The job doesn't work out and we lose the house and have to live with Mom and Dad for a while? Big deal, I like Mom's cooking, and it would only be temporary until you found something else and started again. What are you worried about?"
All of those outcomes were far worse than anything I had imagined, but her point was that even at its very worst failure would only mean hardship, some embarrassment, and some inconvenience. We wouldn't be homeless and endangered. With the risk revealed to be manageable (and the security of having the support of my wife) I was able to move forward and found better work and more success than I had ever experienced before.
Become an Expert
3. Seek to gain mastery in some area with every job you ever hold. This is perhaps the most important attitude to maximizing your work experience and working towards meaningful, fulfilling, and rewarding work.
Here's the cold, hard truth: Very, very, very few (if any) people spend their entire working life doing something they love every day. You will need to work at a job that is less than exciting, fulfilling, and wonderful. Even when you find exciting, fulfilling, and wonderful work, you will need to do certain tasks and jobs that are less than exciting, fulfilling, and wonderful. In those times, committing to seeking mastery in some aspect of what you are doing makes all the difference.
Seeking mastery means that in every job, every task, every experience you have that you commit to look for one aspect, one skill, one process that you can master that will help you achieve your bigger goals in life. Working a manual labor job? Commit to mastering the discipline of arriving on time, mustering your energy to work at 100% all day, and stay until the work is finished. You may not dig ditches the rest of your life, but the discipline and commitment learned on that job will pay dividends for a lifetime.
Working at a fast food restaurant? Commit to mastering the nuances of outstanding customer service, doing everything with a smile, always being polite, practicing that the customer is always right, striving to make sure your customers have a great experience and leave a little happier than when they came in, and being quick and efficient in delivering the service they are expecting and more. You will move on from asking "Do you want fries with that?" and you will find there isn't an industry or company on the planet who doesn't want employees who can deliver great service and a great experience to their clients and customers.
Buckle Down and Get it Done!
Sure it is a tough market out there. Yes, you will need to do work that feels like, well, work. No, you won't likely leave home and find your dream job, or even know what your dream job is by the time you are thirty or even older. Don't be surprised, and don't be discouraged! Finding fulfilling, meaningful work is a process, and don't be surprised if it takes you a few years to put it all together.
Focus on the end and the bigger goal. Don't be afraid to change and do something different if the risk is right. Commit to mastering something in every experience.
Live deliberately and move forward!