Work. Hard work. Work ethic. Career path. Menial work. Temp work. Career ladder. Dream job…
We spend a significant amount of our lives applying ourselves to various efforts for which we are compensated, and contemplating the nature of those paid efforts and whether or not they match what we truly want for ourselves.
Life is short. We only have so much time to make a mark in the world, and each of us longs to do something that brings us pride; that brings us some kind of notoriety; that will outlast us when we no longer walk on the earth.
In former generations that was all more straightforward. Whether you spent decades working your way up through the ranks of an institution–a police department, a university, a law firm, a commodities company, a branch of the government–or you were an entrepreneur trying to build something from humble beginnings (including artists), there were more obvious paths to take to fulfill the longings for status, income, recognition, impact.
For anyone working today, this traditional framework holds less and less all the time. The internet and the devices connected to it have decentralized cultural capital. Corporations, universities, media, executives, public figures, and more, are no longer the kingmakers they once were. There are less dues to pay for self-growth and broadening one’s horizon of influence. This is surely a good thing.
The dissolution of the traditional framework of work was also undoubtedly catalyzed by economic collapse. The path of the PhD no longer had a reasonably expected outcome; more than one PhD-holder was forced to take an hourly job for which she was extremely overqualified. The reliability of paying dues has faded just as much as the dues themselves have.
Because of innovation and economic fluctuation, the marketplace of available and sustainable careers has shifted immensely in the lifetime of Millennials–the ones who have come to dominate the workforce. Work isn’t what work used to be.
This, too, may be a good thing. If the opportunities for a lifelong career are dwindling, there is likely less pressure to try and figure out what just the right one is that will cover the next 20-30 years of one’s life. A Millennial is apt to work a dozen or more different jobs in their lifetime. Maybe that will help find the right field to apply oneself too. I’m doing something much different now than what I was thinking I would be 10 years ago. And I’m sure 10 years hence will bring more surprises.
But without the traditional paths we’re also left in a bit of a vocational purgatory: many of us want the pride, success, income, notoriety, recognition, influence, but there aren’t direct ways to get there. In fact, I would suggest that we want all of those things with little effort at all.
Everyone thinks they’re going to be their own popular, highly-successful brand: the amateur writer thinks she’s going to become a New York Times Bestseller (which, ironically, probably doesn’t mean as much as it used to either); the maker thinks his Etsy is going to turn into the next great goods company, but even better than the rest; the food blogger thinks she’s going to be the next Anthony Bourdain or cookbook author or restauranteur; the musician thinks a couple clever social media posts of tracks and video is going to turn him into an overnight world-renowned artist.
Pick a field of interest, and you’d be hard-pressed not to find this kind of thinking going on. And once in a while it works out. There are some incredibly talented people who have become successful in a relatively short amount of time by taking advantage of non-traditional routes. But they didn’t do it without genuine hard work.
No one knows what it means to work hard anymore.
The roads to success are manifold now, and savviness certainly helps. The recent book Smartcuts by Shane Snow has some great insights on smarter self-growth and advancement. But there is still no replacement for actual, real, gritty, sometimes-tiring, coffee-fueled, midnight-oil-burning, scheduled, regular, perseverant, don’t-take-anything-for-granted, hard work.
Many Millennials have this weird existential crisis about the gap between life-dreams and where they actually find themselves presently. The tools for interaction and creation, the dwindling of tradition, the flattening out of authority over who gets to decide who’s doing something of value, the appreciation of things that were previously undervalued, are all more ripe than ever before. So the question for anyone dissatisfied with the work they do is: how are hard are you working for what you really want?
Do people still get manipulated, spit in the face, under-appreciated, ignored, rejected? Of course. But how much are you really pushing for what you are capable of and believe is possible?
You may have to be your own patron.
You may have to work in a sweaty, dirty job, or a cubicle, or serve food and drink–probably for less money than your abilities are worth–so that the rest of the day and into the wee hours of the morning you can invest yourself into what you’re genuinely amped about “doing for a living.” Nowadays, you could probably do just about anything you want to for a job, but only if you’re actually working hard for it.
Do you save your best energy for at least a couple hours of time every day toward what you really care about? Do you even schedule for a couple hours each day to do that? Or do you binge-watch some show you haven’t yet, toot around on social media, and tell your friends and family how you could have been that blogger-turned-author? Do you work your ass off in whatever your current employment entails–if only to remind yourself about doing hard work and that you’re not above it? Do you exercise and spend time outdoors to give your life balance and perspective? Do you figure out which new things you need to learn each day to get closer to doing the work you want to do full-time?
Life is short. You want to make an impact.
Do the work.