Why Seeking A Meaningful Career Is Bad Advice

IN: Business 101

Today, there are no flowery introductions, no background information to give and no anecdotes to tell (I’ll even spare you the details of the cute guy I met while white water rafting here the other day in Costa Rica)–today, it’s straight to the point:

You don’t have a career. What you’ve got is a glorified version of a job.

The term “career” is nothing more than a fancy linguistic trick designed to make you believe that what you’re doing is more meaningful than just some job, but in essence, they are the same: Whether you develop cutting edge proposals for high-value clients (ohhh, ahhh!) or you spend your days removing dirty plates from tables, you are, in both cases, performing a task in exchange for money.

But career just sounds so much better, doesn’t it? It implies that you’ve selected this path and therefore are engaged, dedicated and glad to be doing what you’re doing. More importantly, using the term “career” communicates your social status to others; it indirectly says, “I have the luxury of choosing the way I’m going to spend 8-10 hours each day. I even get a whole hour for lunch….suckaaas!”

Surely, the term career can mean that you’ve spent time training for Job Title X, and hence you are highly skilled.  An expert.   A specialist.  A professional.   But it becomes less attractive when, in spending so much time training for our “career”–otherwise known as a job we do because we like it (or thought we would) more than others–we use it to form our identities of who we are as people.

Ask someone about themselves, and they’ll default to a job-title description first, usually followed by where they’re from and what they’re doing, but not a lot on who they actually ARE. You are what you do” is a bunch of crap–I do not believe that we are a product of the tasks we perform, but rather in the experiences we’ve had. Therefore, perhaps instead of “you are what you do,” maybe it should read “you are what you’ve learned.”

But wait, isn’t the advice du jour “Do What You Love?”

By attaching our identities to the jobs we perform, in an effort to seek meaning for ourselves, we erroneously seek meaning in our jobs. At first glance, this seems like a noble & worthwhile goal; however, it’s reached a point in which it now backfires on us. Now, the only way we know how to find meaning is through the job functions we perform. We define ourselves by it, use it as a source of pride, sacrifice for it and devote our lives to it; as such, we become one in the same.

The problem with that is its potential to make us painstakingly narrow human beings. There are so many things that you are, and so many worthwhile things to explore and derive meaning from than some arbitrary task you perform.  A favorite quote of mine by United States author, Henry Miller:

“Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people.”

What inspired this post has been the last month I’ve been here in Central America.  Where I’m based out of, on the Central Pacific coast of Costa Rica, there is no such thing as a career. People work typically from 6am to 2pm, or from 2pm to 10pm in hotels, restaurants and any other number of tourist industries, and none of the jobs are particularly glamourous. However, they’re more than grateful to have one at all, and you never hear anyone complaining about having to go to work.

That said, they also don’t associate their self-worth with what they do for money, and tend to be less bitter because of it; to them, a job is simply what you do to survive, and there’s no other meaning in it than that. Instead, they find meaning outside of their work, in places like their families, friendships and social connections. Meet a person here and ask them about themselves, and they will never respond first with, “Oh, I’m a receptionist at X hotel,” but rather “I’m so and so’s cousin, I live over in X neighborhood. As a matter of fact, we’re having a birthday party for my grandmother tonight–want to come?” As an interesting side note, if I meet someone and ask what they do in Spanish, “Que haces?” they will tell me what they’ve got on their agenda for the day, NOT what they do for a living.  In order to find out where they work, I’ve got literally got to ask what they do for work, “En que trabajas?”  However, if I ask the same question, “What do you do?” in English, you know that I am asking about what you do for a living.  Yet another cruel linguistic trick that is highly reflective of our values.

I’ve observed a drastic shift in priorities, from those of the United States, and, frankly, despite the fact that many of the local workers here earn no more than $2/hour, I find myself envying them. They are free from judgments about who they are based on what they do for a living, and as such, are free from the pressure that we knowingly or unknowingly put on ourselves. They happily put in their 8 hours, and thereafter work is over–they are free to spend the remainder of their day engaging in activities they love with the people they love. No one brings their work home with them; no one is missing out on their daughter’s childhood in a vain attempt to work overtime; no one is stressed, hurried and frantically rushing through life. They are happy to just be, and are fully aware of how to embrace pleasure, and use that to find meaning.

The conclusion?

I’d rather have a job over a career any day…suckaaas.

P.S.  If you didn’t get a chance to see my latest guest post over at Josh Hanagarne’s site, The World’s Strongest Librarian, check it out–it’s completely off the wall and on a topic that I don’t usually discuss here:  Sex!