It's graduation season and everyone is terrified their futures aren't going to pan out the way they expected. In a season which could be filled with excitement and celebration, many will choose instead to obsess over their unmet expectations and grow spiteful toward the world for not managing to serve up the perfect career path.
I remember accepting my first job offer and feeling embarrassed because it wasn't what I hoped it would be. It was a nine to five and it was in an office building - gross. Even the car allowance, healthcare, matching 401(k), signing bonus and cell phone plan couldn't make up for how thwarted I felt. I always imagined my life would amount to something more, I remember thinking each morning. And I hated wearing slacks.
I still hate wearing slacks.
Unfortunately I didn't shirk this petulance until I was almost a decade removed from college and went to work for myself. Throughout my twenties with each career change I imagined how my new life would solve all my problems. My new employer would finally utilize all my skills evenly, never call upon me to improve my weaknesses, and I'd feel productive, energized, motivated, and aligned all the live long day.
Instead, I went on to be a mostly a mediocre teacher, a whiny consultant and a disappointing strategic hire - unable to understand why things weren't panning out the way I hoped they would.
I met a graduate student for coffee the other day who is trying to figure out what to do next. A PhD program perhaps? Go into the workforce, then go back to school maybe? There are several options available to them - yet much of our conversation focused on what they expected from their future and how they want to engineer a path which doesn’t include work they don’t enjoy.
There comes a point in a person's life when they realize they can't say things to younger people anymore without sounding like an old person trying to say things to younger people. I thought I had a few more years of relatability, but alas, the sun is high in the sky over the barren fields once blooming with my knack for being hip and kindred. I now sound like an old person - and I want to give the same advice old people once gave me.
There are all kinds of strategies I could run through from writing 100 hand written thank you notes a year to conditioning oneself to wake up earlier than everyone else. There are plenty of books to read and podcasts to listen to about self-awareness. There's the urgent need for mentorship and intentional community one must attend to posthaste. It's important to have a daily practice of reflection and to catalogue strengths and weaknesses. More experiences of varied types are better than picking one path now - and one must remember no one path is permanent or wrong simply because it eliminates other paths.
Today, however, the one thought I wish I could deliver to my younger self is simply: gratitude.
In our desire to get what we thought we were supposed to get from our lives we miss the opportunity to give what we were meant to give with our lives. By striving to become significant we begin to lose our ability to understand what makes a life of substance. Through our pursuit to prove our worth by climbing a certain ladder we confuse being a person with authority and being a person of authority, as my father says.
The second we remove gratitude from the equation and replace it with expectation we make room for all the maladies most of us suffer from the rest of our lives: jealousy, dissapointment, depression, lack of purpose, boredom.
The secret to unlocking our potential, creating opportunity for ourselves and finding fulfillment is to remember our attitude in the present matters more than the alignment of our plans for the future.
I love this NPR story on actor Terry Crews:
When his NFL career ended, Crews and his family relocated to Los Angeles to be closer to the entertainment industry. "If you're broke, be broke near what you want to do," Crews said. "Because you can be broke anywhere!" Before delving into acting, Crews found steady work as a security guard on Hollywood movie sets, an experience he still cherishes. "I remember telling my wife, 'This is a wonderful job, because I get to be around it," Crews said. "I was happy. And if [my career] would've ended there, I still would've been happy."
Luckily for Crews, his career was just beginning. His contagious enthusiasm and sheer magnetism attracted the attention of actors, directors, of casting directors alike. "When you're that happy, you don't stay where you are," Crews said. A friend offered him the opportunity to attend his first audition ever — a role on televised game show Battle Dome — and he got the job. Parts in blockbusters Training Day and Friday After Next followed soon after.
When we can be grateful for everything we can survive anything. Especially during challenging seasons, if we can be thankful for the opportunities we're presented to grow, we grow. By recognizing we were never promised an easy life and learning to be grateful anyway is the stuff of truly purposeful living.
And fulfilling work.
Goodness, I love what Crews said: "When you're that happy, you don't stay where you are."
For another shot of wisdom, Seth Godin never disappoints with his ability to say something meaningful despite the noise. In Linchpin (a must-read for younger folks entering the workforce) he tells us:
“Transferring your passion to your job is far easier than finding a job that happens to match your passion.”
When we're grateful for what we've been given and learn how to bring our unique perspective and zeal to our responsibilities, we create for ourselves what we wanted all along. We have to make our careers work - they don't work themselves. Even the most unfulfilling work presents us the opportunity to be imaginative in the ways we serve others and make meaningful contributions.
In the movie Bull Durham, Kevin Costner's character, Crash, says it best as he's coaching Nuke, a rookie pitcher, on giving baseball interviews: ”I'm just happy to be here, I hope I can help the ball club."
When we're grateful we can grow up to be great.
Repeat after me: I'm just happy to be here.