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How To Find Direction And Learn Your Professional Purpose As A Millennial

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I feel like I'm in the middle of the ocean. Like I could swim in any direction but I can't see land on any side so I don't know which way to go.

This is how Ian explained his twenties to psychologist Meg Jay, author of The Defining Decade.

Convinced by parents and society that our options are unlimited, millennials flounder with prospective regrets.

What if this isn't what I should do?

If we start moving and choosing, we could accidentally go the wrong way. "I get hung up thinking I should know if this is going to work out if I'm going to try it. It feels safer not to pick," Ian admitted.

So we stay--jobless, in grad school, abroad or at other crossroads--, slowly sinking in indecision.

A New Method

Smiley Poswolsky, author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, has a solution. Rather than view our career as an infinite, tumultuous ocean, we can see it as a pond of lily pads. Lily pads are interconnected leaps between different opportunities, held together by common roots: what you care about.

Poswolsky tells the story of Dorothy Zhuomei, an MBA-grad turned leadership coach. After her MBA, Zhuomei got two years of management consulting experience, even though she knew within six months she didn't want to do it long-term. Preferring instead to "see impact on the individual level," Zhuomei coached on the side. She's now a full-time career coach at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. Zhuomei's interests in leadership, business and professional development led her through a series of related lily pads--and ultimately to the right direction.

"Leaping between lily pads means you're getting closer to wherever your roots, your interests, and your learning desires are pulling you," Poswolsky explains.

Lily pads break down daunting careers into baby-step-sized choices. Poswolsky suggests, "Instead of trying to find your purpose, learn your purpose. Take action. Explore your talents." One of Jay's former clients confirms, "The one thing I have learned is that you can't think your way through life. The only way to figure out what to do is to do--something."

The Hitch

Though we should "embrace flexibility and experimentation", as Poswolsky argues, a whole career like this could be unfulfilling. Sporadic interests chew up our time, energy and purpose. Sustained commitment, on the other hand, organizes our waking hours, develops our skills and deepens our satisfaction.

Experimentation could also be unsuccessful. In the past two decades, we've come to view contemporary careers as "boundaryless", "protean", "nomad", "spiral" and "post-corporate". But reality hasn't caught up with our mindsets. The career ladder has not, in fact, toppled. One review sums, "the assumption of the collapse of the traditional career model is not supported by the evidence."

Research shows that, though horizontal career transitions have increased in frequency since 1970, vertical career transitions are no less common. Furthermore, vertical transitions are still associated with higher wage jumps. Such findings indicate that, while lateral mobility has indeed become commonplace, vertical mobility still reigns.

This means that if we want to get somewhere professionally, we need to stay somewhere.

Have To Have It Both Ways

Accumulating what sociologists call "identity capital" is key to integrating adventurousness with continuity. Identity capital is the things we do "well enough, or long enough, that they become part of who we are," Jay explains. They're our personal and professional assets.

Identity capital can include experiences, how we solve problems, social adeptness and degrees. But it can't include things we didn't give a fair shot. Kind of knowing or kind of being something doesn't get us far in a skills-based economy.

When Poswolsky decided he wanted to be a speaker, he threw himself into it. He rented out a space and gave a speech to 30 friends; he put together his own book tour; he busted out his intro line "Raise your hand if you've ever had a quarter-life crisis!" on public transportation. "You don't need to wait for an invitation," Poswolsky insists. "You simply must start." And keep doing it.

20-somethings who "take the time to explore and also have the nerve to make commitments along the way construct stronger identities," Jay writes.

Lily pads can reduce our oceanic overwhelm by offering a concrete step forward. But ideally our experimentation then becomes a prolonged hypothesis, not spastic wandering. Rather than seeing lily pads as ends in themselves, we can see them as a series of hints toward a larger, longer direction.

Committing doesn't mean settling, quitting or finishing. And without it, we risk merely skimming the surface of a deeper, defined legacy.

"Who am I? What do I want? What are my unique gifts? What do I want for the world? What is my purpose? Why am I here? Why?" writes Poswolsky.

These are the questions todays 20somethings are privileged and burdened to ask.

But the answers can't be found in a class or meditation. They're found by swimming.

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