Six years ago, the tech bubble had burst, the economy was stalled, and 9/11 had radically altered the nation's mood. At that moment, my Fast Company article and my book — both titled What Should I Do With My Life? — were simultaneously published, triggering an enormous response. The vast majority of my readers said they were inspired to challenge their thinking, though others pushed back against the article's thesis.
Six years later, every other bubble has burst too, and the economy is even more stalled. So the question is, with the benefit of six more years of perspective, What can I add?
Generally, when people see the question "What should I do with my life?" it conjures an image of deep introspection that is implicitly self-indulgent — the guy who quits his job in a bout of career ennui, who lies around on the couch wondering where he belongs or spends his precious savings traveling abroad to find his purpose, while his friends and family mutter, "How pathetic! You were lucky to have a job — any job."
But my original article flipped that. It argued that with the economy in a tailspin, it was economically unsound to have millions of drones shuffling to work every day doing jobs they didn't care about. The economy would never get a kick start if our workforce was uninspired. The article — a manifesto, really — suggested that the way to get business going again was for the workers to do something they cared about. They would work extra hard and innovate their way out of this black hole.
I had no statistical evidence to back up this suggestion. But I did have anecdotal support. One example: Michael Dell once invited me to a meeting with several CEOs on the topic "What do employees want?" The CEOs took turns describing all the benefits they provided and how they gave out free M&Ms on Wednesdays and appeased their employees with stock options and free parking spaces. My point was essentially that employees don't want M&Ms; they want to love what they do. I thought everyone would laugh at me, snickering "How indulgent! How naive!" Instead, the roomful of CEOs stood up one by one to agree: The value in their companies came from the employees who were motivated to be there. One passionate employee is worth 10 dispassionate ones.
This seems simple, yet over the last six years I've realized that the question "What should I do with my life?" still triggers some major misunderstandings. So let me bust through a few of the major fallacies that people project onto this dilemma.
Myth 1: People are the architects of their own change.
Extremely few people quit because of career ennui. Rather, most are pushed into change: They're laid off or can't make ends meet or have at-home family demands or find their new, postmerger boss to be an absolute ass. They are not naive idealists.
Myth 2: All it takes is passion.
I call this the Modern Dream Machine Industry. Media companies have made a killing selling content — number-one example: The Secret — that makes false claims that you can just dust off your fantasies and live your dream. This is selling transformation irresponsibly. Some said my book did that, but I think it couldn't have been more different. It wasn't a fantasy; it examined the lives of a thousand real people and told the stories of 50.
Myth 3: Your dream job has no sucky parts.
I call this the Fallacy of Intrinsic Fit. There's this notion that you should love the mere act of what you do so much that just by virtue of it being Monday morning and you're at work, neurotransmitters of joy will drip on your brain all day. That is not how real people do it. All jobs have things you hate about them. But real people feel fulfilled enough by the overall purpose that the crummy parts are worth it.
Myth 4: You'll love the job for the job.
There's an old parable about the three bricklayers who are working all morning. When they get a break, one guy asks the other two, "Why are you doing this job?" The first guy says, "I'm doing it for the wages." The second guy says, "I'm doing it for my wife and kids." The third guy looks up at what they've been building — a church, a place to get in touch with one's highest self — and says, "I'm helping to build a cathedral." Most people hear this parable, and they think the third guy has the right answer. But that is not the lesson of the parable. All three men have a sense of purpose — a "cathedral," if you will, whether it be spirituality or family or self-sufficiency. They're all good. They're all "right" answers. The real lesson of the parable: Notice what no man answered. Not one said, "I just love laying bricks." Doing something for the sheer love of it is not what real people mean when they say their work provides a sense of purpose.
Myth 5: There is "the one."
There is no one perfect thing each of us is meant to do on this planet. If someone says there is, throw a glass of water on that person. For each of us, there are dozens, even hundreds, of careers, any one of which could provide a sense of meaning and goodness. The biggest mistake is being seduced by the myth that you're looking for the right answer, as if there were only one. For most people, a "calling" is not something you just know the moment you see it. It's something you grow into by having an impact on your organization and your community. In the terminology of engineers, one enters a phase of "positive feedback experience," which makes you feel good about being where you are.
Myth 6: You don't know what you want.
Don't tell me you don't know what you want. Of course you know what you want: fulfillment, connection, responsibility ... and some excitement. The real problem is figuring out how to get it. Which is hard. Of course it's hard. It's supposed to be hard. If it weren't hard, you wouldn't learn anything along the way.
If you don't know how to make the best of a bad situation, you will never get there. If you are not willing to put up with some shit work, you will never recognize that a good opportunity is staring you in the face. If you are not willing to be humble and repeatedly be a beginner in new areas and learn the details faster than the next guy, you are not capable of transformation. Only by embracing these realities will you be able to answer the question "What should I do with my life now?"
A version of this article appeared in the April 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.