On our generation and finding purposeful work

In the past few days, I blazed my way through “Work on Purpose” by Lara Galinsky and Echoing Green, devouring the stories and winding pathways of the five social entrepreneurs profiled within.

This book is a reflection of our generation – slightly confused, constantly searching, never settling, seeking meaning. For Generation Y, work has been transformed from a simple means of supporting oneself to an opportunity, a blank space which we can paint with our passions and imbue with our spirits. Work is no longer about plain sustenance, but about creativity, innovation, and possibility. And most of all, our generation seeks a deeper purpose for our work. Helping large corporations make more money is no longer satisfying; being a cog in a robotic machine is deeply unsettling.

But you have heard all this before. The way the Millennial generation views work and meaning and life and purpose is nothing new to you. We have been inundated with blogs and articles examining my generation’s characteristics in painstaking detail.

Yet, many see my generation as entitled–we feel like we are above grunt work and endless spreadsheets and paying our dues. We do not want to settle for something we don’t love. And yes. Perhaps this quest for meaning reeks of entitlement. But aren’t we all working towards a world where our children have the freedom to pursue their passion for a living? And isn’t it a good thing– no, a great thing– if this generation springboards from entitlement into a generation of social change leaders? And this, indeed, is what is happening. We are experiencing an unprecedented movement of young people passionate about tackling deeply entrenched social problems. And I would argue that our entitlement is, in part, what has allowed us to do important work. What has freed us up from the need to focus only on salary, allowed us to pursue work for reasons beyond supporting our families.

Work on Purpose echoes this quintessential quest that myself and many of my peers are undergoing. What is inspiring, and different, about this book is its painful honesty. The social justice leaders profiled did not follow a linear path to doing good work. Indeed, the roads they took were often winding, painful, and confusing. Most of them did not find their ideal job doing game-changing work that also harnessed their valuable skills immediately after college:

“Although the words and actions we absorb in our homes profoundly shape our ideas of what is important, when it comes time to start a professional life, we often put those early experiences aside. They can be overshadowed by the desire to earn a good salary, the pressure to follow a particular path, and the need to satisfy competing demands from our families, our peers, and ourselves.

Few people fall immediately into jobs or paths that satisfy all these desires, let alone stem from what they think is meaningful. Most people…wander or take misguided turns.”

Cheryl Dorsey

Cheryl Dorsey, President of Echoing Green, did not find her place in the world until 38! She spent time meandering, learning, falling in and out of graduate programs and ill-fitting jobs. She went to medical school, got an MPP, and even enrolled in a history graduate program. None of them seemed to click or truly ignite her passion — she did not want to be a doctor or a policymaker — but she kept seeking. She found the right place once she joined Echoing Green. She got there eventually. And it’s a lesson to all of us that we can find the right fit — we may just have to exercise a bit of  patience and refuse to give up in our quest.

Along the way, we must ask ourselves certain questions:  What moments from your childhood shaped what you think is important? When in your life have you felt out of whack? In those out of whack periods, what was out of balance? What would you do if you were not afraid of failing? When have you felt in the zone, like you were doing exactly what you should be doing? What is your issue or cause to own?

Why do you do what you do?

Ultimately, Lara Galinsky comes up with a powerful formula: heart + head = hustle. The perfect career lies nestled in this combination: passion and love for what you do and your mission (heart) and the utilization of your concrete skills and talents (head). If you find work that allows you to harness your professional skills to your fullest potential while also allowing you to do something you love & feel strongly about, you have stumbled upon something truly magical.

This is the journey of our generation, and future ones. My pathway seems blanketed in fog for now, but at the same time I know where my feet are taking me. I am asking myself the questions that matter, while knowing things will become clearer with time. This book gives me faith that I, and you, will eventually find that magical balance that sets things in motion to change ourselves, and the world.

We just have to have a little patience.

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6 Responses to On our generation and finding purposeful work

  1. tatiana says:

    I generally don’t like discussions and observations about generations. When I look at “gen y” I don’t see myself. I see other people. I see the people who aren’t plagued with issues of oppression as many of the loudest voices in “gen y” tend to be white, middle/upper middle class, heterosexual, etc. I see the “status quo” – not equal representation. Whose voices are being heard? Articles about “gen y” seem to steer into ambiguity, making wide accusations that aren’t applicable but to a few. I don’t like to call myself “gen y” and generally avoid it whenever I can.

    That being said, some of the observations listed in your post are about human evolution. Humans haven’t progressed very far as a species, many of the problems we face have been around for centuries. The only real differences are the tools we use to kill each other with, with the invention of A-Bombs and H-bombs, institutionalized oppressed so minute that few people actually believe in a “post racial” America.

    Anyway – the conversation about work is a long time coming in our Species’ evolution. How we defined work was centered around the type of work that was available, and people can only make choices that they know exist. There have been people who did what they choose to do and loved it, just as “gen y” is purported to be. But there are just as many “gen y” who choose to be “cogs” as there are individuals who choose not to be. It’s about what you choose to focus on; our reality is multidimensional, not singular. Discussions of generational habits are almost always singular, not multifaceted, or layered with individual choice.

    I hate “gen y” because everyone says “we”. I don’t want to be included in other people’s dialogue; I just want to have my own. I didn’t always know what “gen y” was, and often long to go back to a place where I didn’t. I’m not part of a generation; I just want to be myself – not an individual boiled down to age and stereotypes.

    The struggle for Self is something humans will always contend with, or if not always, then for a rather long time. I don’t think “gen y” is so unique, though many prefer the opposite. The people who “give” me these “gen y” characteristics are those older than me, who seem displeased with whatever younger folks are doing. Adults are forever eager to disparage young people, wondering why they lack adult habits and ideals. This will potentially happen (and in some cases, already is) with “gen y” in regards to “gen z”. It never ends; so why is “gen y” so unique in its problems?

    It’s not.

    Anyway – this tends to be my general response to “gen y” discussions, observations or what have you. I’m not “gen y”.

    • Akhila says:

      Great comment, thanks for the insight Tatiana. I agree that narrowly defining Gen Y is not that helpful. I think my point was not to say that people of my generation are the only ones going through this struggle to find meaningful work, but that many of us ARE indeed undergoing this struggle and journey. You are too, from what I have seen. And like it or not, you are part of this generation simply by virtue of your age ;).

      Question for you: Do you really disagree with the idea that many people are our age are looking for meaningful work rather than being cogs in a machine? Do you NOT feel that way at all? I am curious, not trying to argue. Just wanted to know why you feel you do not fit in to this generalization (which it is, of course).

      I agree that people of other generations also are seeking meaningful work, but I still think the calculus has changed a bit. While many of my parents’ generation have generally had to work primarily to support their families, I feel like many of my peers are putting a greater focus on “passion” and “meaning.” I don’t know. Maybe I’m completely off here because I don’t have statistics or research to cite right now. So I could be totally wrong– but I do feel like service-oriented career paths have become much more common, and more likely possibilities over time. I feel like 20 years ago, it was much harder to build a nonprofit career, than it is now.

      My broader point was simply to say that we don’t need to give up if we don’t find our ideal work right away. We have time to figure things out and to find our purpose.

      • tatiana says:

        ” And like it or not, you are part of this generation simply by virtue of your age ;). ”

        NOOOOO *changes birth date on birth certificate* :3

        “Do you really disagree with the idea that many people are our age are
        looking for meaningful work rather than being cogs in a machine? Do you
        NOT feel that way at all?”

        I haven’t given it great thought, I suppose, because I haven’t been using the same terminology to discuss what I’m going through. I want to find work that I am good at and that makes me happy. But I don’t think this is generational, since many of my older relatives are doing the same thing. Plus, I think many people long to be happy, and some people are addicted to work – which can make some kinds of people happy too I think. But, I can’t speak for other people – which is why I also dislike gen y discussions. I don’t know what other people want or what they’re going through. The sample size for gen y seems so specific yet marginal that it’s not an accurate depiction of anything really. Looking mostly at white, middle class youth to talk about an entire spectrum of people isn’t very efficient. It also doesn’t help that many of the people who talk about gen y fit into this category.

        How a person perceives work is based almost entirely on how they grew up; what kind of work your parents did, how much money they earned, and how they felt about working. It’s about background, and saying that all – or a majority – of gen y is looking for meaningful work implies that many people have similar backgrounds that would lead to this conclusion. Again – this brings me back to the discussion of privilege and access.

        So, I wouldn’t agree that all of generation y is looking for meaningful work. This is too gross a generalization. I think that the people who are often highlighted in gen y discussions or who “like” being gen y fit that description. But to suggest that it applies to millions of other people seems to ignore our individual backgrounds.

        So for example, to find “meaningful work” implies that you come from a background where a) you can even a job and that b) your survival is already settled. But if you’re stuck in a mentality where meaningful work = famine/not having enough money to get by, then you’re not going to focused on that. Which again, is an issue of class and race/cultural upbringing.

        • Akhila says:

          No, of course I don’t think our entire generation is necessarily looking for meaningful work. I just feel like there has been a greater shift towards that as the non-profit sector has expanded, and the supply is slowly meeting the demand. Certainly, I think there is even greater demand than supply still, and this has led to more and more young people starting their own nonprofits, organizations, and initiatives. In previous generations, we simply didn’t have the same types of opportunities in universities: to go abroad, participate in service learning trips, focus on studying human rights/development issues in the classroom, etc. We now have so many fellowship programs to reward and train the next generation of social entrepreneurs. 10, 15, 20 years ago we simply didn’t have this infrastructure. It was more about getting a stable job, and of course, people wanted a stable job that they liked, but besides that the philosophy was about getting a stable job in a company and being loyal to that company for 10, 15, 20 years. The calculus for work has simply changed as more and more people are getting paid jobs in the nonprofit, social justice, community-based, development, human rights, etc fields. These “fields” simply did not exist in the same way 20 years ago, and the fields are growing in conjunction with increased demand from our generation.

          I’m not saying everyone wants to contribute to social justice efforts, but I do feel like the opportunity to pursue this type of work is vastly increased for and by our generation. I am of course speaking for myself and do not claim to speak for all of my peers. I know there are many, many, (vast majority) of people who do not feel this way. But what I am trying to say is that overall: the percentage of people going into social change-minded careers has perhaps gone up.

  2. Weh Yeoh says:

    Whenever I think about purpose and work, I’m always reminded of this outstanding YouTube explanation (do yourself a favour and take 10 minutes out of your day to watch it). What are the things that motivate us? It’s not money – it’s mastery, purpose and autonomy. I have to agree with tatiana though – these aren’t necessarily Gen Y traits. I think they’re more human traits.

    Here’s the vid: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc

    • Akhila says:

      Thanks Weh! Awesome video — I completely agree that mastery, purpose, and autonomy motivate us far more than money. All the money in the world can’t convince someone to stay at a job they hate. (Well, in most cases at least!) I also agree that these are human traits – but I guess I framed it within “Gen Y” because I feel like many people my/our age are going through similar struggles with their pathway at this point in time. So, the book and message imparted within really struck me as highly relevant, and especially so to people of our generation. Not really trying to state that *only* Gen Y feel this way about work, though!

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