The Current Career Model is Broken. Can We Fix It With Vomit-Flavored Jelly Beans?

Do you know someone who's miserable in their profession? Someone who, upon arriving at work, transforms from an animated human into a lifeless cog?
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Photo: Jelly Belly Flavor Scientist Elise Benstein is interviewed by Roadtrip Nation about her life path.

Do you know someone who's miserable in their profession? Someone who, upon arriving at work, transforms from an animated human into a lifeless cog? Someone who's so burnt out that they actually look forward to contracting a cold, because they'd rather be hacking up a lung in bed watching the same episode of "Friends" they've seen 37 times than go to work? Statistics suggest you know this person. You might even be this person. According to Gallup's 2013 "State of the American Workplace" report, only 30 percent of employees are engaged by their work. 50 percent are "not engaged" and basically living out an episode of "The Office" without the jokes. Even worse, 20 percent are "actively disengaged," grazing Facebook when the boss isn't looking, taking "Which Chex Mix flavor are you?" quizzes to avoid the mounting pile of paperwork, and generally "roaming the halls with discontent," as the study poetically puts it.

Limited exposure and backwards thinking: The failing career industrial complex

Worker discontent is an epidemic. It's impossible to isolate a solitary cause, given that there are myriad gripe-worthy factors at play here (jerk bosses, rigid work environments, a constant dearth of "the good candy" in the office candy jar, etc.). But there's a glaring error in the process by which we arrive at careers, and that is this: We're not trained to root our career searches in what we actually like to do.

If we're into music but we'd never succeed as a rock star because our singing sounds like a cat in labor, we're not left with other options. We're told to major in something productive with promising salary projections because our parents (understandably) would rather we not live with them indefinitely in the room they've always wanted to turn into a gym. But we're not told that we could get into music talent management, sound production or tour accounting -- something that converges with our skills and affinities.

Instead, we're told to relegate our interest to a side hobby, squeezing it between work and Costco runs with a band that plays open mic nights at the local bar. Our aspirations get squashed under the bulldozer of societal expectations that tell us what we "should" be. As a result, our vision of the possibilities contracts. We find ourselves thinking we can only be a lawyer, a mechanic or whatever other standard careers we see in our social milieu. There's nothing wrong with these professions -- so long as we garner personal satisfaction from them. But we're so hammered with the idea that a career is a means to an end that we disregard fulfillment and compress ourselves into the perimeters of potentially ill-fitting professions.

It's a misguided mentality, and it's compounded by the technology lag in schools, where too often, students' only contact with careers consists of reading chunks of text in career databases that feel straight out of MS-DOS. We try to give students personalized direction with personality tests, but those reduce the vast possibilities into about three choices, and it's dubious whether an algorithm can understand a human in all of his or her complexities. These tactics lack the self-discovery opportunities that students need in order to understand who they are and what they want to do with their lives. These methods also fail to provide students with human insights from real-world professionals -- insights students need to accurately assess a career.

The new paradigm: Build a career around your interests

But it is possible to put food on the table without feeling spiritually pillaged by your job, and the career exploration organization Roadtrip Nation is on a mission to help future wage-earners break out of the zombifying career paradigm. What does this new approach to work look like? It can all be summarized in the story of scientist Elise Benstein.

Benstein was interviewed by Roadtrip Nation for its public television series, which follows young people as they travel the country interviewing professionals with fulfilling jobs. On the surface, Benstein doesn't seem to challenge long-standing career ideas. (She works with beakers.) But what places her at the vanguard of a new career model is the fact that she was able to bend an off-the-rack path (scientist) into a custom-fit role that weaves together her unique interests and traits: creating vomit-flavored jelly beans.

Benstein conceptualizes candy flavors. She loves hard science, but she's also fueled by the frothy fun of converting far-fetched fantasy into reality. So, she married who she is to what she loves, and now her job title -- flavor scientist at the Jelly Belly Candy Company -- sounds like it belongs to a "Willy Wonka" character.

A movement of people redefining work -- and finding satisfaction

Benstein is just one of hundreds of professionals interviewed by Roadtrip Nation who've managed to split the seams of the one-size-fits-all template and tailor their work for a bespoke fit. Representing every corner of the career spectrum -- from button-makers to robot engineers, MMA sports reporters, heath food CEOs and beyond -- these individuals describe in their interviews how they integrated their interests into their work to create livelihoods that engage the many parts of their identities.

Their interviews can be found in Roadtrip Nation's online video library and multimedia resources, including an interactive tool called The Roadmap. This exploratory experience connects youth to the stories of like-minded professionals, and highlights compatible pathways for students' futures. Students are guided through a quick sequence of self-assessment questions to identify their core interests, and based on their answers, are shown the stories of professionals working in relevant fields. Students can explore professionals' advice thorough video interviews and written narratives, gaining valuable insight on how to chart the future.

For youth adrift in the sea of vocational uncertainty, this exposure to the real world and interest-aligned careers broadens their perspective of what's out there. It also gives them a framework for creating their livelihoods. The framework is simple: Anchor your career in your interests. Because whether you love science, business or knitting hats for cats, if you can pay the bills by doing what excites you, you'll be less inclined to see work as a soul-crushing purgatory between breakfast and dinner. That's the career philosophy we need to teach future generations.

Cisco funded initial development of a customized, online career exploration curriculum with Roadtrip Nation to help underserved youth define their own path in life. For more information on Cisco's focus on education, please visit: