About a month before I graduated college, it dawned on me that I needed to get a real job.
Even though I had 22 years to process this fact, it still blindsided me. Perhaps a lifetime in an educational system built for the Industrial Age had done little to prepare me for the reality of modern work. Or maybe I was just too immature to come to terms with it. Likely, it was a bit of both.
I remember sitting at a bar with my roommate when he casually asked me where I was planning to live after graduation. I had no answer. I just sat there staring into my $1 beer (college towns are the best), wondering how the fun part of life had flown by so fast.
So, I walked outside and did what any semi-intelligent, moderately privileged, and somewhat lazy 22-year-old would do: I called my uncle and asked for a job.
Three weeks later, I showed up to my marketing internship in freshly ironed khakis and a newly purchased Brooks Brothers dress shirt. I was given a tour, a laptop, and a cubicle.
I looked at my watch: 9:43 a.m.
“Oh God,” I thought. “I have to do this for 40 hours a week for the next 40 years, just so I can have enough money to pay for my crappy apartment.”
On the bright side, there was free coffee. And I only had to work 4.8 million more minutes until retirement.
Trading your time for money is a bad plan
This view of work is problematic for two reasons:
- Inherent to the transactional nature of this arrangement is the idea that you’d rather be doing something else with your time.
- You aren’t getting anything in exchange for your work, beyond a paycheck.
For most of my life, I viewed work as something you had to do. I don’t think adults explicitly told me this, but their actions spoke volumes. My parents (who, to be clear, gave me just about the best childhood imaginable) worked extremely hard and never complained — but they never said much about enjoying their work either. My father endured a lengthy commute for most of his career so my sister and I could live in a nice house and attend a good school. Most days, he left for work before the sun came up and he didn’t exactly do cartwheels out the door. I believe my mother genuinely loved being a teacher, but she would still count down the days until summer break. The message was: days we look forward to most are those when we don’t work.
Throughout our childhoods, many of us were told we had it good and were fortunate to not have to worry about things like work. How could this not warp our view of work? Isn’t it forgivable to want to avoid something that sounds like punishment?
For these reasons, I correct my kids when they say, “Do you have to go work today?” I always tell them that I “get to go to work.” I emphasize that my work is fun. Hopefully, this parenting move pays off and they grow up to be well-adjusted, happy adults. At a minimum, I hope it cancels out all the non-organic food I am poisoning them with.
Even if there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing with your time, selling your time for money is shortsighted.
Don’t get me wrong, money is great and your compensation is an important part of your career. But if the work you’re doing is not helping you learn new skills, grow in your career, and ultimately become more marketable, you have no safety net should your partnership with your employer end.
And it will end, it always does.
The new reality
For a long time, the “work for money deal” was pretty straightforward and mutually beneficial: In exchange for your time, you would keep getting paid until you retired (and beyond, in most places). But we all know that old compact is gone: employees jump from job to job, companies eliminate positions and use outsourced or contract labor, and loyalty — on both sides — is a thing of the past.
A lot of the career advice out there seems to suggest that in response to this new model of work, we should all just become free agents.
“Launch a startup in your garage!”
“Build your platform!”
That messaging is fine if you really want to do it, but working for yourself is not for everyone.
An alternative is to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset within the company you work for. In its most basic form, entrepreneurship is about designing, launching, and running a business. To adopt this mindset at work means running your career as if you’re running a business. It means being comfortable with ambiguity and risk. It means never overemphasizing revenue (salary) in the short term at the expense of long-term growth.
You still have a boss, of course, but you’re not solely focused on taking home a paycheck and keeping your bosses happy. Rather, you’re constantly making sure the work you do provides exceptional value to the company while also benefiting you and your resume.
Additionally, you’re not beholden to things like merit increase freezes and career ladders. Your career isn’t over if someone else gets the promotion. Using the entrepreneur’s mindset, you begin pumping value into a business that is your career and thus, you’re always well-protected.
Viewing work this way makes sense for everyone involved, but that doesn’t mean your employers will agree. In fact, many won’t. But that’s their problem.
Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and author of The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age, has a great quote about this mindset: “An employee who is networking energetically, keeping her LinkedIn profile up to date, and thinking about other opportunities is not a liability. In fact, such entrepreneurial, outward-oriented, forward-looking people are probably just what your company needs more of.”
In other words, if you’re working somewhere that doesn’t appreciate your entrepreneurial spirit, you should probably leave. And if you’ve been doing truly outstanding and meaningful work all along, finding somewhere to go shouldn’t be that hard.