Career Advice for Millennials

My career’s been pretty weird. I devoted myself to technical theater in high school, taught myself to make YouTube videos, studied literature in college, interned as a corporate recruiter, started a resume editing business, spent two years managing researchers at an investment bank, launched a podcast, then leapt from finance to education for a job doing web development and marketing at a university startup accelerator. Now I’m leaving higher ed to help run a talent management company for web creators. Phew.

These moves look kind of random when I list them out like that. But what if I described my new job as the natural next step for someone with (1) a long record of making stuff online, (2) a knack for taking care of creative folks’ logistical hassles, and (3) experience in both traditional business and startups? Suddenly my weird grab bag of jobs looks more like a path that I designed intentionally and that has a logical conclusion. The difference is just narrative: how you frame, think about, and retell your own story.

All of my peers describe themselves using commas. “Writer, bookseller, amateur baker”; “engineer, cook, haunted house designer”; “receptionist by day, cosplayer by night”; “video producer, transmedia writer”. We see our hobbies, passions, side hustles, and creative projects as important parts of our lives, inextricable from what we do to earn money. Taking control of our narratives is our response to an economic climate that forces so many of us to make compromises in the kind of work we do.

Embracing a hyphenate identity is not just a self-defense mechanism — it’s a smart career decision.

Back in my finance days, my colleagues would frown when they interviewed people with vibrant lives outside of work. They assumed that creative hobbies, side businesses, and web projects would prevent a person from dedicating 100% of themselves to their job. Which… yeah. Giving all of yourself to a single job is pretty much impossible. You’re never supposed to mention family, friends, TV, sports, or art? Sounds like a boring office to work in! And even if you could make your job the primary focus of your life, that would be pretty dangerous. The role could be boring, fit you badly, run out of things to teach you, turn out to be a toxic workplace, or change or get eliminated while you’re in it.

Attention, employers: we’re never going to be just one thing. And let me tell you why that’s the luckiest break you’re ever going to get.

Copywriters are easy to find, but how about a copywriter who co-hosts a podcast finding a perfect job at a radio station? How about a former PhD candidate in history with a bunch of friends in the tech world who ends up working as a researcher for a video game developer? How about a yogi/nurse who teaches patients to stretch better and whose side gig as an instructor flourishes when she gets a reputation for teaching yoga to folks recovering from injuries? Wouldn’t a former surgeon turned addiction counselor with a childhood interest in serial killers make for an incredible detective and — oh, wait, now I’m just describing Joan Watson.

Think about your jobs, projects, skills, hobbies, and goals as ingredients in the most well-stocked kitchen pantry of all time. What recipes can you make by mixing things in unexpected ways? What new ingredients could you add to make more combinations possible? Taking stock of your whole array of ingredients, not just the jobs listed on your CV, helps you see new possibilities for yourself and your work. Job hunting becomes grocery shopping: an expedition to find some new ingredients that complement and enrich what you already have at home.*

Never apologize for your manifold selves. Embrace your plurality. Embrace your weirdness. Contain multitudes. Aspire to be a kitchen pantry that inspires with its very existence.

Then come back and tell me all about it. I can’t wait to see what you’ll do.

Originally published in Manda Jobs, a newsletter in Portuguese about Millennials and work.

* For more on this approach to career decisions, see the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You.