The True Value Of Work (II): Of Insane Career Risks

November 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

photo by mikep

I previously wrote about my views towards working and how people view work in general here

“Are you telling me you hate your job?” I asked.

“Yes I hate it! I’ve hated it for the past twenty years of my life!” he slammed his fist onto the glass surface covering the rosewood oriental table.

Like a calm Hindu cow, I poured my uncle another glass of water, listening intently. He was proud to have been able to pay for the upkeep of his family, he said. Property ain’t cheap in Singapore, but he bought his family a house with a nice, small front yard no more than six months ago. Together with that nice car of his, I’m sure he wasn’t having any fun paying these things off.

The Singaporean dilemma: Working in jobs you don’t like, buying things you don’t need, simply because that seems like the path everyone is taking towards happiness and success in life. How exactly did he define success?

One of my favorite posts by Brett McKay of the The Art Of Manliness is ” 7 Lessons in Manliness From The Greatest Generation”. While my dad and uncles are Baby Boomers instead of the Greatest Generation, I could see so many of the values they might picked up from their dad, my grandfather. (Granddad passed away before I was born, so I wouldn’t know) Values that I began to appreciate; like how they embraced challenges in life, being humble, and being frugal. Its the kind of stuff that keeps a man’s feet on the ground, and gives  sports successes like Rafael Nadals, and the Warren Buffets around us with the motivation to go through their day-in-day-outs, and win.

The twist lies in its career advice. Brett says of the men who fought in World War II:

In war, these men had learned to focus on the objective at hand and not give up until that objective and the mission as a whole was accomplished. When they got home, they carried that focus over to the world of work. They didn’t fall into the fallacy that Mike Rowe has been busy denouncing, that you have to find “your passion” to be happy. They could find happiness in any job they did, because they weren’t just working for personal, self-fulfillment; they labored for a bigger purpose: to give their families the financial security they hadn’t enjoyed growing up.

The issue I have with advice like this is how willing  it was to sum up the varying experiences and attitudes of a generation, and the connection between not giving up on one’s mission or work with not having to “find your passion” weak. In fact I would argue that people who do find work that they love doing tend to focus and persist much more than those who don’t.

Last Thursday night, my values were challenged directly for the first time with my uncle. I was questioned about my experimenting with jobs, and not focusing on one job for good. This wasn’t the first time I was hearing the “Gen Y, grow the fuck up and stop dreaming” tirade. If anything, it made me realize the amount of unhappiness some men have to endure, wanting and expecting everyone else that comes after them to go through the same hell they seem to buy themselves into.

We live in a modern world where it no longer seems financially smart nor career-savvy to dedicate ten to twenty years of your life to a company that might cease to exist in five years time. Frequency of boom-bust cycles are shortening. Where once people saw long-term loyalty to a company as the perfect career-safety net, having multiple sources of income and building a strong and varied personal skill set would be a lot more logical.

Tamara J. Erickson, a McKinsey award-winning author wrote on the Harvard Business review that many Gen Ys view their twenties as a time for “exploration and experimentation — a time to try out multiple jobs, learn as much as possible, live in new locations for awhile — laying the groundwork for making some more focused choices in their thirties.”

“I hate your generation. I know your generation. You’re all the same. Selfish. Pampered. Not willing to make sacrifices.”

Guess my uncle wasn’t in a really good mood…

The Singapore that Lee Kuan Yew helped to shape is beginning to grow beyond what her people had to do to survive the fifties, sixties, and seventies.  I wondered if my uncle’s words showed an unease towards change: changing economies, jobs, technologies, societies, a changing Singapore.

“If you don’t start settling down into a job now, it will be too late for you by the time you’re in your late twenties.”

This one I find even harder to believe. Again, this is based on the assumption that one has to work in a company for the long term to gain financial and career safety, and that jobs are far and few between during these times. To that, Tamara J Erickson says:

Gen Y’s stand to benefit from many fortuitous trends — not the least of which is an extraordinarily long life expectancy. This year may feel like a blow but keep it in perspective — you will have lots of time once the economy picks up. Keep a positive perspective and use this time to your benefit.

Many well meaning friends and relatives question decisions to experiment  and taking time off to travel. They suggest plenty of opportunities to do it when one has established a career and is financially stable. What are the chances we’ll be doing that when we’re older, earning big salaries, laden with responsibilities, but unhappy with our lives? I am forewarned by the brightest minds in academia and entrepreneurship:

And then there is the most dangerous risk of all –  the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.”

– Randy Komisar

Your early twenties are exactly the time to take insane career risks

-Paul Graham

7 Lessons in Manliness From the Greatest Generation

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