Don’t worry, I’m not a “thought leader” in their 40s about to give a patronizing lecture on the evils of participation trophies or the “special snowflake” mentality.
I’m 29, and I want to talk about the painful realities of finding meaningful work in the age of globalization, automation, and income inequality.
Some of my peers went the startup route. Some are now professionals with fancy letters after their names. Some joined non-profits to do work they adore. But, being honest, most of them are stuck.
When we catch up, the same roadblocks are named every time: the economy, their choice of major, the terrible career advice they received, the student debt that’s suffocating them.
Real and formidable as those handicaps are, our only productive response is acceptance and adjustment. And from the research and polling I’ve done, there are four specific adjustments that pay the highest dividends.
#1 – A better definition of value.
Income potential has never been higher in the developed world. If you’re not getting your fair share, the ice-water reality is that you either don’t have skills employers want or you’re not shopping them the right way.
In the first case, your degree may have made you a better person without also conferring skills with obvious marketable value. If true, you probably need further college or online micro-courses.
But the right education isn’t always enough either. That’s because we have an unfortunate addiction to job postings which pit hundreds of applicants against each other in ways that give all the leverage to the employer ― a dynamic that reliably results in compressed wages and marginal job security.
Applications are still the right avenue for some ― though far less often than we assume. The most attractive opportunities usually exist in the form of frustrations stuck in the throats of business owners as they growl at their incomplete website and endless list of half-finished tasks.
Want a great job? Go interview owners in your local area. Figure out which problems are stumbling them. Research which skills or tools would help. Acquire them. Then go back and pitch.
It really is that simple. (For example, see: How to Start a Business Empire with $0.)
#2 – A heightened commitment to risk-taking.
We all choose to be one of two types: doers with a bias toward action or anxious planners who wait for the perfect moment that rarely comes.
What’s the top quality of nearly every successful founder and CEO? Deliberate, timely decisions. They don’t get caught in analysis paralysis. They research, they discuss, they act.
That doesn’t mean they don’t adjust. They just recognize the difference between caution and inertia. They take smart risks. They fail. They learn. And they roll the dice again with tremendous resilience.
They also understand the power of initial focus: if you want to win the first stage of life, you need to pick a niche and crush it — which takes a considerable investment of time.
Opposed to this obvious truth is our natural but destructive impulse to adopt lifestyles that only serve to impress people whose opinions are really just surrogates for a deeper sense of self-fulfillment.
Here’s why this matters: while we’re Ubering to some can’t-miss brunch spot, engineers in Silicon Valley are working to put a two-year shelf-life on your Uber driver’s job. And their progress won’t end there.
Work shouldn’t be idolized. Busyness for its own sake isn’t a virtue. But we have to be realistic about how the world is changing and how we must change with it. Some adventures may need to wait until we’ve hustled ourselves into a place of at least relative career security.
#3 – A deeper appreciation of networking.
Whenever I meet someone who knows something I don’t, I ask them as many questions as they’ll tolerate. I figure I learn something useful 80-90% of the time.
I’m an introvert. I don’t especially enjoy small talk. But I don’t need to. I don’t lead with flattery or superficial interest. I ask people to explain what a non-expert like me might not understand about what they do. Then I listen and ask probing questions. When they’ve finished, I warmly thank them. If what they shared was particularly useful, I send a token gift.
Until neural implants become a thing, we have to embrace the fact that every person next to us understands something we don’t — on a personal level that we can’t replicate via Quora or Google or Wikipedia.
There’s more upside to this habit than just gaining new information. It helps us understand how different people see the world. It also frequently leads to employment and sales leads. Many of the best deals I’ve ever fell into began with a casual conversation and a few smart questions.
There are dozens of groups out there brimming with opportunities: your local Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, Rotoract, BNI, etc. They love visitors. It’s an all-upside proposition.
#4 – A greater acceptance of sunk costs.
Vegas is full of broke people who bet on the idea of fate owing them a debt — who risked bankruptcy on the belief that their past losses meant something on a cosmic scale.
We can be like them, or we can accept that what’s spent is gone.
That degree that cost you half a mortgage? Those years toiling up the endless ladder? Those investments are only as useful now as their capacity to be leveraged toward the next destination.
You can look back. You can cry foul. You can appeal to justice. And you can be so, so right. But the world will only ask one question in response: what do you have to sell today that I want to buy?