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Everyone hits a career crisis at some point in their working life. They start seeing what others are doing and the FOMO builds. Social media keeps them in touch with distant people who only report on the very best aspects of their lives. Some people breeze past career troubles and come out relatively unscathed. They have a good job, take a little look around at the alternatives, and either switch or stay put. But they do it quickly. Others spend years in the agony of indecision: stay or go, pros and cons, asking every person they know for advice. Still others get ousted from their role and are thrust into change and uncertainty. No matter how you get there, eventually you will get there. Why is that?
At least for the managers we know and work with, it’s less about what they should do with their career and far more about what they should do with their lives. Somehow, the two have been conflated. Existential crisis, not career crisis. This can only happen in a place of privilege – when all the basics in life are taken care of, it’s a luxury to worry about purpose. But people do. A lot.
A hundred years ago, most North Americans were raised in some sort of religious context. There were rules of behaviour and the purpose of life was spelled out and indoctrinated from a young age. They could reject their parent’s beliefs, sure, but at least there was a foundation in the first place. This is not so true today. In fact, people who grew up in the 1980s or later were indoctrinated with something like this:
School is your “job”. Work hard and get good grades. If you get good grades you can get into a good university where you can work hard and get good grades so you can get a good job that pays lots of money so you can work hard and get lots of money so in 40 years when you retire you can afford food and shelter.
Where is the passion or purpose in that? The research has been clear for decades – money motivates only so far as you need enough of it to do what you want to do with your time. And there’s the rub. Once a person is on an obvious trajectory to neither starve nor live on the street (acknowledging that anything is possible), what does one work toward next? When they have the house, the car, the vacations…how are they going to spend their time?
Time is the resource that is universally limited, regardless of the bank balance. How you spend your time is related to your purpose. But telling someone to find their purpose or passion can sound like flaky, navel gazing, new age drivel. And there are those that would say, “They have a good job, they make good money, they’re lucky. They should just get back to work.” It’s that attitude that is contributing to the mental health crisis in North America. Probably the addiction crisis too.
Why are we here? Existential crisis is nothing new. For hundreds of years philosophers have wrestled with the ultimate question (Douglas Adams included). These days it seems that there are even more people struggling with their purpose or passion while simultaneously students are encouraged to double down on STEM and “practical” education streams. There is a reason philosophy exists.
The good news is all the information you need is out there and accessible like never before. If you are struggling with your purpose, you can read the greats from history like Kant or Goethe. Or the writers that have built on those works to develop their own, Covey’s Seven Habits or _____. One classic purpose question: If I gave you $30m but you had to work 30 hours a week what would you do? A classic passion question: What did you enjoy doing when you were 10 years old?
Find yourself a good coach, do some reading or listening, and figure it out. If you have children consider working with them to develop your family’s values, purpose, and philosophy. Arm them with the tools to overcome their career crises. Because everyone has them and it’s the well prepared, grounded few that get through them quickly.
What’s your purpose in life?
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