I WOULD VENTURE to say that when it comes to questions about life, your career, what you want, and what you think will make you happy, you probably have your head in the sand.
Most of us twenty-somethings do, actually.
This isn’t by choice of course, because, career-wise, most of us crave unique work experiences that challenge us, give us a sense of purpose and belonging, reward us with a good standard of living, and offer periodic recognition that makes us feel proud of what we’re doing day-to-day.
But the reality is that most of us are not finding, taking (if we do find them), or creating (if we don’t find them) jobs that fit that description of the work we dream of. And ever more rapidly, our talent is being immediately funneled from university graduation into narrow channels that our career centers present to us during senior year. These options are usually a limited selection of “prestigious” and well-paid consulting and investment banking jobs, currently consuming up to one-third of the graduating classes of America’s elite universities. Most of us didn’t go into college thinking we wanted to be consultants or bankers, yet we’re graduating into these jobs in huge numbers.
Something is at play here. We are making the obvious, comfortable choices when we know better.
This is because we are confronted with a huge systematic challenge that is genuinely painful to address: The directionless drive our decades of education unknowingly instills in us (and the cut-throat pace of extracurricular involvement that accompanies already fierce classroom competition) actually renders us vulnerable to the aggressive and well-funded marketing tactics of a handful of America’s major corporations that sell us their options as the logical next step in our high-achieving lives. In other words, they see us as hamsters in excellent condition, innately attracted to the idea of just a bigger wheel.
And that’s how our ideals are getting stifled. We are signing up to go to places where we cannot even think clearly about the important questions that we should be asking as freshly-ordained professionals: What makes me happy? Is happiness the #1 objective? What do I genuinely do well (not in the areas where I used to get As, but in the areas that were never even tested)? How can I be a better citizen? What does that mean? How can I work to help others? How can I challenge customs and authority that need to change?
We need to go somewhere else and do something else that gives us more than a minute to think about all of this. We need to overcome these big challenges with a healthy dose of two things: intent and chaos.
What I mean by intent is that we need to actively allocate time and energy into surveying what is possible, rather than probable, to accomplish in our careers and consciously fight the fast-paced nature of an education and employment system that is otherwise dictating our futures. We need to seek out a wide-open vantage point and examine the world, finally, on our own terms. To get our heads out of the sand.
It has to become our mission to discover what our real talents and interests are and align them with the greatest challenges we see in the world today — before we free-fall into the first open rung in America’s corporate ladders. If we stay focused only on what we are already familiar with or passively exposed to, we close ourselves off to the opportunity to learn about problems in the world that we didn’t even know needed solving, the very problems that we may be the ones best suited to solve, the very problems that may spark new career paths chosen with true purpose and perspective.
The best way to achieve this, I think, is to plot a “descent into chaos” — a leap into full abandon of what you’ve always been told or even genuinely believed would make you happy and successful; an excuse to explore new ways of living and thinking and really try them on for size. This doesn’t necessarily mean to quit your job and run away from society, traveling until your last $50 in the bank account tells you to go home. Rather, it means that you establish a plan to meaningfully interact with the world in the way that will break you free.
The “chaos plan”, whether engaged at home or abroad, should force you into unknown territory to learn, start things from scratch, and overcome personal and professional obstacles. I can’t tell you exactly how or when or where to take this journey; I can only tell you that you must. Everyone’s idea of “chaos” will be different. Everyone’s readiness to chuck out old ideas and values will be different. Everyone’s creative genius, when let loose to find a new way of life, will be different.
My choice involved stepping away from my easy/obvious/comfortable job in New York City and moving to Nigeria and taking a risky/uncertain/unconventional job that set me headfirst into a whole lot of chaos over 2 years (and counting) and 5 different continents. It hurled a sledgehammer into my ideas about the future, job opportunities, international development, family, my education, my own self-confidence, people and places themselves, concepts of growth and justice and service, global politics, the energy crisis… the list goes on. After 2 years, this constructive “descent into chaos” has melted me down and given me new raw material to rebuild my life with. Heck, maybe I’ve realized that opening myself up to this journey in the first place meant never going back.
The “chaos plan”, however you choose to go about it, is yours and yours alone. Though I can tell you it should probably involve travel. It should probably involve packing up and moving out and over and away. But it should also involve sitting very still and listening — to yourself, to others, and to the world. It could involve taking a random job in a place you’ve never been in an industry you’ve never heard of, staying home to write a novel for 6 months, or opening a small business. Or it could mean quitting your job to teach yourself how to make films or pottery. But it must involve taking risks. It must make you legitimately scared (not like going sky-diving scared, but the kind of scared you get when you think about starting a controversial blog or walking across China or leading a demonstration in your hometown… or moving back in with your parents and doing some very unglamorous job). It should involve genuine service to others (please don’t go sign up for a 3-week volunteer program in Peru; maybe try spending a few weeks gathering old clothes from friends and delivering them to the homeless people on your street). It should involve intense intellectual exploration (dedicated time daily to reading and writing about great novels). It should involve as many deeply personal conversations with friends, family, and strangers as possible. And it must involve your heart, not your head, as much as possible.
This is a call for us, as twenty-somethings with all the promise of our lives ahead of us, to take the time to travel farther — literally and figuratively — and to think deeper. We cannot accept the places we fall into or the obvious choices presented to us in our immediate environments. We must go now and create space for ourselves to engage with the world.
And by taking the time to explode our boundaries and perspectives with intentional chaos, we build the courage to rebuke norms and engage in a life-long journey of self-discovery. That courage, that new spirit of adventure, will in turn unearth the unique and meaningful careers we’ve been craving and shape the rest of our lives with ideas, experiences, and values that are ours because we chose them. We chose them as the things we held on to when we introduced ourselves, at last, to chaos.