The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The career ladder to nowhere

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I went to a liberal arts college, which is to say I majored in film studies, studied abroad in Cuba and took Intro to Dance senior year. Making career choices has proved difficult ever since.

After graduation, I could write a 15-page, shot-by-shot analysis of David Lynch’s film "Mulholland Drive" and tell you the difference between cage-free, free-range and pasture-raised eggs. But I soon realized college had not prepared me for the job-finding process in the slightest. I moved back home to my parents’ house and spent the summer after graduation freaking out—which is what I imagine many new college graduates will be doing this summer.

Since I had no idea which “career ladder” to climb, I eventually moved to the place where all my friends were moving (Brooklyn), and got a job that matched my college major (film), which is what I thought I was supposed to do at the time.

In the nine years since graduation, I’ve had eight drastically different jobs, lived in six cities in two countries, and gone down four career paths. Needless to say, I’ve never once seen this elusive career ladder everyone talks about. But I do know that whoever invented the ladder has been freaking 20-somethings out for a long time.

Where do you get on the ladder? Is there one in each city in the world? What happens if you want to try two different ladders at the same time? If you hop off for a detour, do you have to start back from the bottom, or do you get to return to the rung where you left off?

As insufferable as this ladder mindset can be, it has somehow maintained its stranglehold despite its decreasing relevance. Only 27 percent of college graduates have a job related to their college major, and more than 90 percent of millennials expect to stay in a job for less than three years. Yet 20-somethings are still erringly being told to figure out their (single) calling, find the perfect first job in that field, and then maintain a linear career trajectory.

Well maybe I’m not the example to follow, but I’m 30 years old and I’ve already had numerous different “callings,” from being Big Bird on Sesame Street to being a sports writer to making movies to being an Obama campaign organizer. And I’m currently doing none of those things. Two years ago, I left my most recent career—working for the federal government in Washington, D.C.—to write a book about finding meaningful work.

While some traditional career experts (and my parents) might say I’ve been drifting, my curiosity has given me a wide range of work experiences and helped me discover what I care about, what I’m good at, and how I want to serve others. I’ve learned that taking purpose-driven risks, like making the switch at 25 from scouting locations for independent films in New York City to working as a field organizer for the Obama campaign in rural Indiana, allowed me to find work that was both personally fulfilling and had a broader impact.

Careers, like life, do not move in a straight line. They especially do not move in a straight line in today’s economy, where technology is rapidly shifting the job market and the unemployment rate for Americans under the age of 25 is nearly 15 percent, which is more than twice the national rate. At the end of 2007, I stopped doing film production work in New York City, partly because I was tired of spending my days and nights surrounded by chain-smokers on set, and partly because I had no choice—very few films were being made due to the recession.

I’ve accepted that there is not only one answer, and that the “perfect job” may not exist for me. Rather than a ladder, I see my career as a pond of lily pads extending in all directions. There is no one way “up,” just a series of opportunities and mini-experiments that get you closer and closer to discovering what’s meaningful.

Despite the bleak economic landscape, a recent study found that 90 percent of college students are optimistic about their ability to find a good job when they graduate. In addition to being optimistic, they are idealistic: roughly 70 percent said it was important find a job that allows them to do what they love, while only 20 percent said it was important to find a job that pays well.

The traditional metrics of adulthood like home ownership and retirement savings are increasingly out of reach for the average college graduate, who faces some $33,000 of student loan debt. So in some way this has prompted our generation to come up a different definition of success, one that has less to do with money and more to do with fulfillment.

When I worked in government I had a fancy job title, a competitive salary, generous retirement benefits and job security. On paper, I had it all. In reality, I was miserable. I wasn’t energized by the work I was doing. Being tied to a BlackBerry for 14 hours a day and trying to get memos approved in a large bureaucracy drove me to the point of burnout. I even came to hate NPR, because I associated it with the panic attacks I’d have when my alarm clock woke me up to it in the morning. The pressure to climb a lucrative career ladder, and one that didn’t really reflect who I was, caused me physical and emotional pain.

A recent Gallup report showed that the majority of American workers are disengaged at their jobs—and that one-fifth of those workers are so disengaged at the office that they’re actively undermining their co-workers’ work. I didn’t want to get there.

I’m making significantly less money as an author than I was when I worked for the federal government, but I’m infinitely more fulfilled doing work I love that reflects my interests and allows me to empower other creative young people. Given my track record, in two or three years, I may find something else that sparks my curiosity and inspires me to leap to another lily pad. And not only is that perfectly okay, it’s also the best way I have found to intentionally build a career that matters.

This article is adapted from Adam S. Poswolskys book, The Quarter-Life Breakthrough.

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