by Brooke Allen
I am 61 years old and I have been doing paid work since I was 16. I’ve been a grocery clerk, camp counselor, film projectionist, sound man, light man, cameraman, freight loader, computer programmer, teacher, operations research analyst, manager, salesman, writer, consultant, and for the last 30 years I’ve been a securities trader and hedge fund manager.
Yet I have only once gotten work by answering an ad. Even then I was turned down at first, but it led to a different job six months later after I established a relationship with the hiring manager who had first said no. And I’ve never been asked for a resume until after I received an offer, and then only because HR always needs something to put in their files. I haven’t needed a resume to get work because my resume doesn’t reveal my work. I am my work, and to know my work you need to know me.
Here are some things I’ve discovered about finding worthwhile work that have helped me, and that might help you.
Lead a thoughtful life
The secret of a well-written cover letter is to learn to write well. The secret of an interesting resume is to have done interesting things. So do interesting things and learn to write about them. Ben Franklin said, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” You might do one or the other but it is better to do both; that’s what Franklin did.
Learn to think. Reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser is a good place to start. He says, “Writing is thinking on paper.” In order to think deep mathematical thoughts you must write formulas, and similarly you cannot think deeply about much else without writing words. Learn to think mathematically because otherwise you cannot say you know how to think any more than you can say you can drive a car but can’t turn left. Likewise, saying you can think without knowing how to write is like saying you can’t turn right. If you live long enough and you only go straight ahead, then eventually you’ll drive off a cliff.
Get your story straight
Resumes are your life in bullet-point form. The story of your life is more interesting than can possibly be expressed with a list of sentence fragments. Skip the resume and write the story.
Good stories also have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In your case, you are in the middle.
But in the middle of what?
To figure that out, write your story so far. This isn’t a what-I-did-last-summer exercise, so stay away from “first I did this and then I did that…” Good stories have a plot and a theme. What has been your plot been so far, and what is your theme? Make your story interesting and uplifting. If you haven’t been able to do that yet then keep at it because your story is interesting and it is uplifting. Your story doesn’t need to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it needs to inspire you, and it will inspire you once you find your theme and where you are in your life’s narrative arc.
If you need help then you might consider finding a “narrative therapist.” Frankly, I don’t know much about this brand of psychotherapy and theWikipedia entry sounds like a bunch of PhDs began using big words for simple concepts so that they could charge more and get an insurance company to foot the bill. That said, their motto is plainly put: “The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.” I say amen to that. Problems are the spice of life, so stop fretting about them and figure out how to weave yours into a compelling story.
A cheaper alternative to therapy is to take a memoir writing class. I did that. It wasn’t life-changing, but it was life-revealing. Another good book is Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, also by William Zinsser. The idea is that, while facts are facts—and you don’t want to mess with them too much—crafting the story of your life is not an exercise in reporting. It is about creating a narrative, and the difference between a news report and a narrative is meaning. It is your job to invent the meaning of your life and then fit that meaning in among the facts.
If all else fails, you can try Zinsser himself. About a year ago I was stumped on a project. Then I read this on Zinsser’s blog: “Many younger writers have taken me as a mentor. They just look me up in the Manhattan telephone book. ‘I know how busy you are,’ they say, assuming that I spend every minute writing at my computer. I tell them I have many ways of being busy, and this is one of the ways I like best.”
So, I looked him up in the Manhattan telephone book and wrote to him about my plight. He invited me to his apartment. I brought sandwiches and he helped me debug my thinking. He is a good man.
William Zinssser is in his 90s, and he told me that much of his life has been spent giving people permission to become who they are meant to be. Of course, with the possible exception of your parents, spouse, kids, and boss (plus everyone else vested in the status quo), it is easy to find people who will give you permission to be who you are meant to be. Hell, I give you permission and I don’t even know you.
But who are you meant to be?
Find your purpose
When I was a teenager, my dad told me that it is a sad fact that very few people know their life’s purpose. The funny thing is that he never told me his purpose even though it always seemed like he had one. I didn’t think about it much until three weeks into engineering school when I realized I didn’t want to be an engineer so I started acting depressed. Luckily, a philosophy professor spotted me and said, “You’re just having an existential crisis.”
For those of you who haven’t had one yet, they occur when two things happen: 1) Nothing comes to mind when you ask yourself, “Why do I exist?” and 2) You realize that getting drunk is just a delaying tactic.
So I transferred to Rutgers University to study mathematics. My dad’s purpose had a lot to do with being a sculptor and very little to do with making money and that meant I had to work between 25 and 35 hours per week to pay for it all.
Working helped tremendously, and not only because it left no spare time for an existential crisis. Harvard professor Richard Light says inMaking the Most of College that students make the most of college when they work their way through. While he reports this as a fact, he doesn’t explain why it is true.
The reason has to do with purpose, and as highfalutin as my professors were, the best were only good at impressing upon us the need for a purpose, but offered no clue as to how to get one. I did not find purpose in school, but I found it in my work. My initial motivation for taking a job usually had to do with making money, but invariably I came to realize that while nobody needed my homework to be done (no matter how interesting it was), the stuff people paid me to do had to get done (regardless of how boring it was). Being needed felt good and that gave me a sense of purpose.
My overeducated Western peers
About eight years ago I set a personal mission for myself: To be of meaningful help to “my people” who I identify as Overeducated Westerners. Over the millennia, for most people and most species, the goal is simply to survive long enough to reproduce, and that provides the greatest and most compelling life theme of them all.
But recently, and particularly in the West, there are a bunch of us who have grown up with such abundance that we fear obesity more than starvation, and our lives are so cerebral that we must schedule time at expensive gymnasiums just to get our bodies moving.
By “overeducated” I mean that we have been trained to—as a friend puts it—“self-actualize all over the place.” We think we are a failure if we’re not living at the tippy top of Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy, which posits that only after one’s physiological needs are met do we have time to worry about our safety, and once that is secured we can pursue love and belonging, which will give us self-esteem, confidence, and the respect of others. Only then can we begin to become all we are capable of.
But instead we’ve turned Maslow’s famous pyramid on its head, and in order to deserve the respect of others (or ourselves) we must be self-actualizing 24/7, and without that it can be hard to have either self or other-esteem, which we need to attract friends and lovers. Think about how many people you know who’ve mastered self-actualization skills (creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, morality, and acceptance of facts) and yet they aren’t safe (no savings, no healthcare, no secure job) and the bottom-most physiological aspects of their lives are a mess: they have a terrible diet, a lousy sex life, poor sleep habits, and it is not even clear they have breathing and excretion down pat.
Wait a second! That could be me. Let’s change the subject.
Purpose isn’t in the work, it’s in the worker
I have told you my mission, but I have not told you my purpose, and that is because a purpose is not a goal but an approach to one’s work. Let me illustrate the difference with an example.
A few years ago I knew a guy I’ll call Fred who seemed annoyed every time I’d run into him. Eventually I asked him what was wrong and he said his job was stupid. He’d had a string of important positions at big banks but now he was working for a small firm that was helping a department store in Mexico City sell appliances on time-payment plans. He was used to making multi-million dollar loans to rich people and, and although he understood the mission of the business, he felt that his new job was beneath him. I suggested he read The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. In it, Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto, says that in most non-Western countries capitalism is only for the rich. It is not capitalism that allows a society to flourish, but rule of law and equal rights for all, including the right to access the capital markets.
I ran into Fred again a few months later and he seemed particularly chipper. I asked if he had changed jobs and he said that he hadn’t, but he had read de Soto’s book and now he realized that he was playing a vital part in helping poor people prove that they could be trusted with other people’s money. He felt good because he had found a noble calling in his work. He was doing the same work, but now it had purpose, and so did he.
The purpose shortage is worse than the job shortage
Fred was representative of people I meet in two ways:
- They feel their work lacks purpose.
- They aren’t thinking about it the right way.
No matter how boring your work is, it can give you a deep sense of purpose if you need to do it to keep your kids from starving. But it can feel pretty hollow if the only reason you need the marginal dollar is so your kids can upgrade to the latest iPhone or get into a college with a sushi bar. Of course you might not feel that way right now, and in that case take a break and think about it. When it starts feeling hollow then come back and we’ll continue.
One young graduate of a top liberal arts college told me that in high school she had a strong sense of purpose because she was working to get into a top liberal arts college. But things fell apart when she got there she lost the feeling because she didn’t know why she was there, or what would come next. After graduating she dabbled in a few things but nothing floated her boat, so she decided to get her master’s in education and become a high school math teacher.
That might have solved her need for purpose, but what about her students? I learned about the arc cosine in the 10th grade, and even though I’ve used mathematics professionally my entire life, that is not something I’ve ever needed to know. But we all need to know how to find purpose, and it sure would be nice if our teachers knew how to teach that. It feels as though our lack of purpose is a can, and we’ve built massive institutions dedicated to kicking it down the road.
Economics is about shortages
Economics has been defined as the study of scarce resources. Even though air is more useful than gold, economics deals more with gold than air because air is everywhere and gold isn’t. On the moon, economics would be about air.
When something is in high demand and short supply then people become obsessed with getting it, whatever “it” is. Back when food was in short supply we invented agriculture, and we called it an Agricultural Economy. Then we invented machines and this allowed us to mechanize farming and free up people to make more stuff. Food was plentiful but stuff was in short supply, and we called that the Industrial Economy.
Eventually, our basements, attics, and garages became stuffed with stuff, so we invented computers and started filling disk drives with bits and bytes. We called that the Information Economy, but information without understanding is more like data than knowledge. So we ramped up research and higher education to make use of all that information, and that got us the Knowledge Economy.
Some people think we are still in the Knowledge Economy, but they are wrong because economics is about scarce things and these days knowledge is free and ubiquitous; find me a piece of knowledge you cannot find on the web for free and I’ll put it there just to prove my point.
Other people say work is scarce, but it isn’t. There has never ever been a shortage of work, although often there is a shortage of money to bribe people to do some of it. Besides, most people who want paying jobs have paying jobs. What they don’t have is a burning desire to do the work for its own sake. And the reason for that is that they cannot see a point to it all. In short, their work lacks purpose.
The Purpose Economy
So if purpose is the scarce thing then it would seem reasonable to call ours the Purpose Economy, and as luck would have it, someone just has. On April 2nd, The Purpose Economy will hit the bookstores. It is written by Aaron Hurst, who was the founder of the Taproot Foundation, which helps professionals donate their services to non-profits. He is now CEO of Imperative, which offers visitors to their website a tool for identifying their purpose.
I sat down with him recently and he told me that he wrote the book in order to expose the tremendous economic and social opportunity he sees in what he calls the “purpose gap.” By addressing this purpose shortage, he is building a platform to help professionals understand what generates purpose for them in their work and then re-craft their jobs around that.
I have read an advance copy of his book and I can recommend it if you want more “how to” advice the subject. If you cannot wait for the book you might watch the author give a talk.
One thing I’ve learned: Skills count, but a reason to get up in the morning counts more.