By Andi Smile
It took me 28 years to find my reason for being – my ikigai – which the Japanese say is found at the intersection of what a person is good at, what a person loves, what the world needs, and what a person can be paid for. I have been reflecting on what it took to reach that point and the hurdles other employees like me are facing as we try to overcome legacy perspectives, adapt to the present environment, and prepare for the future.
Every generation is born into a season, which implies there are four generational archetypes. I recently spoke with Jessie Newburn, a multi-generational specialist, who explained the Strauss-Howe generational theory and described how Millennials were born into the “Fall” season – a time of harvest. That context helps me better understand why my highly educated immigrant parents raised me with the idea that I can be whatever I want to be, so long as I have financial stability.
By fifth grade, my future career aspirations were memorialized below my chubby-cheeked yearbook picture and did not waver until the summer leading into my senior year at Georgetown University. “Future: Attorney” endured the tech bubble, the financial recession, the burden of student debt, transferring universities, college career counselors, influential professors, and a solid LSAT score.
However, all it took for cracks to emerge was for me, an intellectually curious rising college senior, to stop blindly following the conventional path and start asking questions. It resulted in a financial analysis of my future and life-changing conclusions.
It will come as no surprise that my research in 2011 demonstrated that the financial recession and growing prevalence of technological innovation meant that historically ‘safe’ or ‘ideal’ careers were being disrupted. Armed with nothing more than my spreadsheets and dozens of articles, I ‘broke my family’s heart’ in September 2011 when I announced I would not go to law school but instead enter the workforce after graduation.
Dealing with their disappointment was difficult, but it was no match for the confusion of figuring out what I wanted to do with my life once my single career goal was erased from the board.
I began applying to anything that seemed even remotely feasible for a finance and international business double major with a proven interest in entrepreneurship and strong communication skills. By April I received three job offers that spanned the spectrum: international consulting, consumer finance, and brand marketing strategy. When I tell the story today, people always respond by exclaiming, “but those jobs are so different!” Yes, they were, but it highlighted an important point: I demonstrated transferable skills and capabilities.
In 2012, the best way to decide among career choices was to seek advice from professionals who knew me well. Unfortunately, this was a fallible path because lessons of the past were becoming increasingly irrelevant.
I received advice that centered around job stability and income growth. None of my trusted sources ever asked me to reflect on open questions like: what might enable or inhibit your ability to perform optimally, what might you “love or loathe” about the work, how likely is it that your uniqueness will be appreciated? People like Professor William Damon from Stanford Universityhave recognized that “purpose endows a person with joy in good times and resilience in hard times,” so why are people still failing to consider the importance of purpose when selecting their careers? Marcus Buckingham, author of Nine Lies About Workand leader of People + Performance Research at ADP Research Institute, explained the phenomenon during his interview on the Good Life Project.
“We are pushed into career pathways that aren’t right for us because the world of work is impatient with uniqueness… human uniqueness is seen as a bug because it’s harder to manage.” Uniqueness may be perceived as counter to the model of economic prosperity that has existed for generations, but Buckingham explains that it is “not capitalistically sensible to have 84% of people worldwide not feeling fully engaged at work.”
Buckingham’s observations resonate with me strongly, and clearly also with the majority of people worldwide. I still remember the day when my manager at the multinational cosmetics company where I worked told me “you just need to know when that garage door has closed” while motioning a closing door with her hand. I was asking for permission to present to the cosmetic brand for which I had worked during the previous phase of my rotation program my strategic recommendations for an interactive store pilot, and what she meant was that I shouldn’t concern myself with anything outside the purview she had assigned.
Even though it hurt to be stonewalled back in 2013, I feel a small sense of consolation knowing that the idea I had back thenturned into a reality six years later (“inventory-less” stores are also becoming popular). What might I have been able to accomplish at my company in an alternate reality where the “garage door” didn’t close, where lateral thinking was nourished?
How much potential revenue are companies losing because middle-level managers are stretched too thin to recognize and encourage innovative employees?
When sources like Forbes quote the cost of employee turnover ranging from 30% to 400% of annual salary for entry-level to highly-skilled employees, respectively, it is clear that there is a high price to pay for frustrating high-potential employees.
To be clear, the problem was not that someone made a poor decision in hiring me or that I made an uninformed decision in deciding to work for them, but rather that the tone at the top of the firm did not trickle down. Many managers who influence daily decisions are either stretched too thin, and do not have the mental energy necessary to entertain out-of-the-box thinking, or simply do not have the growth mindset necessary to encourage innovation. After nearly three years of rotating through different teams, finding permanent placement in a group that seemed promising on paper, trying to “manage up” and seeking guidance from mentors, I realized that confidence means knowing that stepping away is not a sign of failure but rather a show of strength after making a concerted effort.
I transitioned into Finance in January 2015, but the rollercoaster ride continued. At first, things seemed promising since I had an incredible manager who encouraged each person’s uniqueness and enabled me to drive revenue-generating campaigns, but then the company went through a reorganization and round of layoffs. In the years since, I jumped ship right before the second round of layoffs, worked for three different managers, and finally found my ikigai.
Finding your purpose feels enlightening, but it also marks the beginning of a new journey. The process that follows enables employees to make more informed decisions and provides companies with the opportunity to hire engaged workers who are less likely to suffer burnout and who behave more profitably.
Achieving this outcome requires a balance of supportive environments and technology, like Eightfold’s Talent Intelligence Platform, that streamlines the development of purpose-driven employees.
How to Find Your Ikigai
Societal influences play a large role in shaping people’s purpose, which means that achieving one’s potential is an interactive process. Strategic evaluation of career trajectories is demanding, but fortunately thought-leaders are drawing attention to the benefits of a more considered approach, and the idea that “busy does not equal productive.” Jerry Colonna, the “CEO whisperer”, reflected on his career in his book Reboot and expressed the realization that he “mistook motion for meaning.”
People are recognizing the value of purposeful work, but what does it take to channel that openness towards revenue and income generating objectives? It requires a combination of supportive community and enabling technology.
In a world where the half-life of learned skills is estimated to be five years, parents need to play the crucial role of helping their children stay centered, open-minded, and not overwhelmed by myriad education options or the paralyzing fear of choosing a career path that is not sustainable. This represents a deviation from the way many parents have guided their children in the past, whether it was laissez-faire or a strictly hands-on approach. Professor William Damon, author of Path to Purpose, recognizes that “[parents] are used to giving [their] own opinions on any topic, and are usually ready with advice based on [their] own experiences”.
Unfortunately, the pace of change means that those experiences are probably irrelevant and could hurt children more than help them. “Listening is harder than lecturing … but it is a mistake to think that young people can thrive over the long haul unless they find personal meaning.” The energy and resilience that purposeful individuals can marshal will be an essential antidote to stress and burnout as lifelong learning and adaptability becomes as essential as a college degree.
ACTION ITEMS FOR PARENTS:
(1) Rely less on your experiences and ask questions about the current trends in education and work so that you can learn alongside your child. The research likely will benefit you directly, too!
(2) Practice active listening with your children, regardless of how young or old they are. Give them the confidence to believe they are capable and encourage them to rely on you as a sounding board.
(3) If you do not have the time or energy due to other responsibilities, then seek out school counselors or friends in your network who can fill this role and mentor your child.
Radical self-inquiry will be the best gift you can give to yourself, whether you are 15 or 95 years old. It will send you on a path of discovery, but you will need support – from family first and foremost, and from friends where available – especially since we live in a world where it is easy to get lost in the field of opportunities. For those of you who are skeptical about embarking on this journey because your influencers think “purpose” is a four-letter word, you are not alone. Our parents and society have funneled us toward “safe” careers because that was previously the primary objective, but the fourth industrial revolution has changed the game and other variables are ripe for optimization.
Personally, I wish I had questioned my “Future: Attorney” rather than be dazzled by people’s compliments that I “will make history as a lawyer.” I would have realized that there are many other career paths for an articulate person, and that I didn’t really want to spend my life arguing or litigating. I had had enough of that in my childhood! Having this epiphany at 24 was even more powerful than reading articles that explained why “going to law school is the worst career decision you’ll ever make” because it helped me understand that there are many different ways to apply my uniqueness.
ACTION ITEMS FOR INDIVIDUALS:
(1) Engage in radical self-inquiry by asking yourself questions like, “how am I actually doing right now?” and unpacking yourself rather than just automatically going about the tasks of every day.
(2) Lean on trusted people – your parents, siblings, significant others, friends, or community – to be your sounding board and to answer questions about what makes you unique.
(3) Create constructive hypotheses about yourself and test them one by one until you identify a trend in the results.
(4) Understand the role that Artificial Intelligence plays in learning and development, and leverage online resources like Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, Skillshare, GetSmarter, etc., so you can explore new skills without committing extensive time or finances.
Artificial Intelligence is automating repetitive tasks and funneling people toward higher-level thinking, which consequently influences managers’ roles and responsibilities. Unfortunately, this change further challenges managers’ abilities to juggle their own work and their responsibilities to their team, and likely increases the risk of burnout. Carmen Simon, a neuroscientist who specializes in memory and decision making, explains that the brain makes decisions in one of three ways: based on reflexes (innate memories), habits (repeated and rewarding), and goals (stimulated by new information). These three categories are organized in order of increasing cognitive energy usage. “Given the choice of the brain to think or not to think… it will choose the latter because it conserves energy.”
Is it any surprise, then, that managers, especially newer ones, stick to what they’re good at (representative of their reflexes and habits) rather than drawing upon the cognitive energy necessary to manage the demands of their best people? This helps us understand that bad managers could be well-meaning people who are stretched too thin or do not have the cognitive energy necessary to engage in goal-oriented behaviors with their teams. Unfortunately, the problem will only get worse as technology continues to replace our habits (low-level, repetitive) and force us into the higher order tasks where humans have a competitive advantage!
ACTION ITEMS FOR MANAGERS:
(1) Inventory your tasks and responsibilities at work and at home, then categorize each one as a ritual, habit, or goal. Numerically rank each goal-oriented item by level of importance. Identify the items which fall to the bottom of your list every time and reflect on this with your senior manager.
(2) Do you have one-on-one conversations with each of your team members on at least a bi-weekly basis? How many of your direct reports have a clear understanding of their purpose within your team and their trajectory? If your answers are no and less than 100%, then first communicate this awareness to your team (honesty goes a long way) and work together to close the gaps.
(3) Explore how talent intelligence companies like Eightfold leverage Artificial Intelligence to synthesize information about each employee and candidate, and meet the ever-increasing pressures to develop and manage a more sophisticated workforce.
A company’s reputation is formed by the sum of its parts. The entity’s purpose is defined in its early days, and the brand evolves as it grows since diverse perspectives are added to the mix. Regardless of a company’s size or when it was founded, executives and managers always ask how they can find and retain the “best” talent. Unfortunately, the “game is now different… fundamentals of how we worked, how we designed organizational architectures… is now up for grabs because… [companies like Amazon] release a new product every 11.6 seconds.”
After offering this mind-boggling statistic, John Seely Brown, an organizational researcher, honed in on the importance of collaborative learning and summarized the problem as a movement from stocks of explicit knowledge to flows of tacit knowledge, which aligns with the perspective that companies need to focus on candidate and employee capabilities rather than specific skills. An important indicator of employee value will be his/her enthusiasm around learning, while candidates for managerial positions should be able to demonstrate adaptability as well as sustained energy levels in times of uncertainty.
(2) When the half-life of skills is five years, it is essential that companies inventory their current talent and seek to reskill them rather than hire skilled workers from a pool of new applicants. Eightfold was created with this trend in mind and is built for internal mobility so companies can close the talent gap and focus on doing what they do best!
Andi Smile is a Millennial with experience across finance and consumer goods industries. Like 44 million other Americans, she graduated with crippling debt and it has informed her perspective of education and work. It also motivated her to encourage thoughtful conversation around the ways our emotional and financial well-being are intertwined, and how our careers represent a foundational part of our wellness.