Recently I have had conversations with two close friends of mine, both males in their twenties who are building careers in their respective fields, and I found that we had all come to some realizations that I expect are common among anyone who has set out on a career. At different times we each came to understand these three things: we were not completely informed about our current jobs before we took them, people we have little or no contact with will impact our professional lives in profound ways and we had each been told at some point that our careers would give us something that I now believe careers to be largely incapable of giving.
Most of us have come to the first two realizations already, and if we have not then we probably will soon enough. However, I believe the third one is worth taking a serious look at. Growing up my friends and I received plenty of career advice, mostly unsolicited, that we could have found in any number of motivational books or YouTube videos or bumper stickers. We were advised to pursue our passions, find work that would make a difference and not worry too much about the rest. The promise that accompanied this was that if we found that job that allowed us to do things we enjoyed, we would be so overwhelmed with a sense of purpose and fulfillment that we would not need to look elsewhere. I have since come to view this approach to employment as problematic and potentially dangerous.
The first counterargument to this thinking is simple: when was the last time a job description was written with the primary purpose of providing whoever worked it with a sense of purpose and fulfillment? Never. Jobs are designed to provide services and fulfill functional roles. Expecting a job to be designed with some type of higher purpose in mind is unreasonable. And this gets at one of the greatest misconceptions about teaching. While working with students is a passion for many and there are some intrinsic rewards, at the end of the day teaching is a craft just like any other. The job is functional as it provides a service, and the best teachers are those who approach it with a workmanlike attitude to consistently improve and perfect what they do. But the purpose of the job is never to fulfill the worker.
Another major problem is that even jobs that do provide the worker with a sense of purpose eventually fade out of life. We will either leave or be forced out. And if purpose is tied to work, then what becomes of us? This is where career advice can become dangerous. A young person who is told that his purpose is tied to his work and then fails at a job or finds his job unfulfilling is left with some serious existential questions. Purpose should transcend work. It spans all areas of a person’s life and should come from a place far less transient than employment.
I do not mean to sound down on work. I think work is a wonderful thing. It allows us to prosper and grow and develop nearly anything we want. It makes both society and the individual better. But it is not a place to find a reason to get up in the morning. That should come from within. Some choose to construct their own purposes for their lives, some find it in their religion and others have yet to give it much thought. Work is a place to express that purpose. It is a place for us to come and show both others and ourselves what we believe to be important and true about the world.
So if I could go back and give a younger version of my friends and myself some advice, I would recommend not putting too much stock in the job. Decide who you want to be first and what you want to do second. Work is a wonderful thing but a terrible god. Just find something you don’t completely suck at, approach it every day with the goal to improve, and use it to live what you believe is true.