No Matter Your Age, Work Should Be Meaningful. Bestselling Author Bruce Feiler Has the Roadmap You Need
"So many of us were pushed to board the 'should train,'" says bestselling author Bruce Feiler. "You should do this. You should feel that. You should define success in this way."
Feiler believes that one of the most oppressive aspects of the "should train'' is that we must decide on one career when we're young and carry it forever. No longer, he believes. Today's most significant change in the US is people seeking to shift their work lives to have more meaning and purpose. This is the premise of Feiler's new book, The Search: Finding Meaningful Work in a Post-Career World. In this illuminating read, he interviews hundreds of people across the country about what purposeful and fulfilling work means to them—and he offers readers a roadmap for how to find work you love.
"The big insight that I learned while working on this project is that the people who were happiest at work don't just climb, they also dig," Feiler tells The Sunday Paper. "They do this personal archaeology to determine the story they want to tell right now—and then they set out to tell it."
A CONVERSATION WITH BRUCE FEILER
In writing this book, you discovered a new way to think about success. How so?
Since the dawn of America, we've been telling a certain story about success—that success is all about climbing. It's about pulling up your bootstraps, going from rags to riches, getting to a higher floor, a bigger office, and a greater salary. That story helped build America, but it's about only one kind of person chasing one type of dream.
But our great opportunity now is that we don't have to chase just one type of dream. Each of us gets to chase our dreams. And for some people, that might be that traditional story, but others might value service, giving back, self-expression, or prioritizing their family.
Of the many people you interviewed for your book, you wrote that "everyone had wings they wanted to spread." What are you seeing in terms of people wanting a shift in their work lives?
I see the most significant change in work in a century—and the numbers are staggering. America is at a true turning point in work. Seventy percent of us are unhappy with what we do. Three-quarters of Americans plan to look for new work in the next 12 months. A million people a week quit a job, which is a third of the workforce. Another third is renegotiating and rethinking where they work and how they work. Maybe they don't want to go into the office every day. Perhaps they want a mix of different jobs. This is unprecedented.
Why is this happening?
First, a new generation of workers is leading this change. They are younger, they are more female, and they are more diverse. The number one thing I've learned while working on The Search is that fewer people are searching merely for work. More people are searching for work with meaning. That is the opportunity. The challenge I also discovered is that we need to be taught to identify what brings us meaning and our purpose. What is it that we want to do right now? In The Search, I try to offer a toolkit for doing just that.
How do we start to find work we love?
Finding work you love involves focusing on your own work story. That work story begins deep in your life. It starts with values you attached to work that you learned from early role models and expectations that you adopted from your family, culture, and background.
So the essential act here is to do three things:
- First, figure out where your work story began.
- Then figure out where you are right now in your work story.
- Then ask where you want to go in the future of your work story.
So it's past, present, and future.
For the past, I would recommend asking yourself two questions:
1. What were the upsides and downsides of the work story you inherited from your parents?
I've been asked this question a lot. The number one upside people learn from their parents is the value of hard work. The number one downside is the peril of overworking because it strains the family, and often people sacrifice their happiness. By asking yourself this question, you begin to see what you're bringing to the table that you may need to be aware of.
2. Who was your role model as a child, and what did you admire about them?
Maybe this was a celebrity, teacher, or family friend. You may have liked a teacher because she was kind and helped people. Or an actor because they took risks and were very creative. Or a sports figure because they worked hard and chased their dream. This offers important insight into your story because it's, in effect, the first choice you make about work.
For the present, I would recommend asking yourself two questions:
1. At this moment in my life, I want to do work that _____.
This answer can be beneficial because maybe the answer to that question is you're at a moment in your life where you want to prioritize salary and benefits because you want to provide for your family. Or you can do work that allows you to spend more time with your young children. Or, if you're an empty nester, you may want to do work that will enable you to put your needs first. Our great opportunity now is that you don't have to make that choice only when you're 21. You can make it every few years for the rest of your life.
2. I'm at a moment in my life when ____.
This allows you to ask yourself: Where am I right now? Maybe you're of an age where you grew up with the expectation that you had to choose a "career" when you graduated from college and do that for the next 50 years. That was an absurd burden to put on young people. And we don't have to follow that anymore. We can change whatever we want, for whatever reason that we want. So then, let's turn toward the future.
Then the final step is to ask yourself these two questions:
1. My purpose going forward is ____.
This allows you to start to see where you want to move forward.
2. The best advice I have for myself right now is ____.
This is an interesting question because when I asked people who gave them the best advice, it wasn't family, colleagues, professionals, or friends. Three-quarters of people said the advice they found most helpful was trusting yourself. We don't need a kick in the pants or a slap in the face. We need a pat on the back. So the point of this whole exercise is to go inside yourself. Listen to your yearnings about work because that will give you the best opportunity to tell the story that you want to tell.
Bruce Feiler is the New York Times bestselling author of seven books, including Life Is in the Transitions and The Secrets of Happy Families. You can order his latest book, The Search: Finding Meaningful Work in a Post-Career World, here. Learn more at brucefeiler.com.
Question from the Editor: What does meaningful work mean to you, right now? We'd love to know in the comments below!