Why So Many Struggle Finding a Job or a Calling

Yesterday, Michael Lewis referred to a job as a 9-5 gig that offers security and a chance to pursue a life outside of work. He referred to a calling as something that so excites you that your life becomes completely wrapped up in that work. Each involves trade-offs. He said that many yearning for the benefits of a calling are not willing to bear the associated costs.

Here's today's question: Why do so many young people, upon graduating college, have such a hard time finding a rewarding job or a calling?

One explanation: Because to find a job or calling you need to know what you like to do, and by the time you graduate from college formal schooling has eroded your natural radar for detecting things which genuinely excite you.

Think about it…You've just graduated from college. You have just spent the last 17 years of your life in a formal schooling environment non-stop. As a young child, through to adolescence, into your early adult years, an authority figure has been telling you what to read, study, and write, and then judging it good or bad.

Confusion new Take learning how to write. 99% of the writing you do in school involves offering answers not questions. A teacher gives you an essay topic, and you write about it. Over and over again. Yet, the real word rewards those who themselves can ask the right question. Coming up with an essay topic is 99% of the work — yet teachers rarely make you do this. One reason I encourage folks to don pajamas and start a blog is it forces you to create not just respond. Each blog post starts with you, a bottle of Scotch, and a black cursor blinking menacingly on an empty white screen.

Then there's the formal school philosophy promoting breadth not depth, weaknesses not strengths. If in school you found yourself unusually interested in a particular topic area, you couldn't really pursue it seriously since you had all your other classes to manage. I.e., if you found yourself a math whiz, it's the rare school that will seek to nurture this precocity. Instead, they said if you finish math early, get on with your English, biology and basket-weaving homework.

When parents reviewed your report card, did they ever say, "Wow – an A+! Why don't you continue to focus on that and maybe you can become really good at it?" No. They probably stroked their hairless chin, nodded solemnly at the A, and then pounced on you about the C. Whereas the real word rewards those who can discover and build upon a couple core natural strengths and interests, in school you're taught to pursue a broad balancing act and shore up weaknesses.

So there are two intertwined dynamics in school that I think contribute to the aimlessness of new college grads: an entrenched habit of rule-following (the real world has no clear rules and no clear authority articulating them) and the promoted philosophy of "be pretty good at lots of things as opposed to extraordinarily good at one thing."

Bottom Line: Formal schooling dulls one's exploration of natural interests. To ask yourself what you naturally enjoy and excel at, and then pursue it vigorously, would detract from the balancing act and contradict the authority structure. Unfortunately, asking yourself this very question is the key to a rewarding real-world career!

21 comments on “Why So Many Struggle Finding a Job or a Calling
  • I see your point, but I also think that taking a variety of courses exposes you to the things that may become your passion later.

    When I was in Business School, I took Econ, did very well and loved it. Maybe, as you suggest, I should have switched majors right then and studied Econ. Or maybe I should have continued with my Info Systems degree, as I did.

    Either way, without the broadness of my class requirements and electives, I wouldn’t have even been exposed to the Econ class to be able to consider it. I can always go back for an advanced degree in Econ if I decide it is really my calling.

  • I absolutely agree that broad exposure can set off lightbulbs of
    interest…..by being forced to take a certain class you may find you love
    it. The problem is that it¹s hard to pursue such an interest in any kind of
    depth in school. Also, I think many people have a hard time translating an
    academic interest into specific real world careers that draw upon such
    interest. Somewhat different topic….

  • Ben, you’re dead on. Well done.

    The first point you made is I think the most important: people don’t know what they want. It’s a fundamental problem as people move through life and it extends beyond just careers into relationships, business, and life in general.

    Even if you don’t know what you want, which is totally fine for most young people, the system doesn’t allow enough exposure to randomness for you to figure out what you want. I think the best thing young people can do is expose themselves to as many random situations as possible and try on as many different “hats” as possible.

  • Exactly “the Fox or the Hedgehog” conundrum…Guess we’ve been through this before. But this has been your best.

    Ben, recognize the political twist. Formal education systems are designed by the State education authorities to pointedly target the bottom of the pyramid leaving the top to fill by upward displacement. As they see it, the broadbrushed majority have a better chance of making it by themselves (in one field or the other) so that they don’t come back and squat on dole.

    It’s for the successful hedgehogs to bring out their best, create something of value and feed the foxes with jobs and welfare.

    Then there is the reality. The world has large enough room for mediocrity while excellence has just some obscure corners. It’s enough if you make do, rather it’s convenient for the leadership to run its full term without having to field too many probing questions from the thinking highbrows.

  • I couldn’t agree more with you on this Ben! And it seems that irrespective of which part of the world we turn to, the education system, the whole shebang of it, seems to be the same pale rudimentary [correct me if it’s not so and sounds overly generalized]. I’ve had an inkling a lot years back that western system would be more accommodating and natural-talent nurturing – having grown up in shades of socialist education in a developing world and being all into places that are considered being the ivory towers of higher edu. around the globe – but reading your commentary here and many times earlier also, I’ve come to believe things might not be much different there too.
    Can we do something effective about it on our level…
    (I’ve been putting little efforts on this though, in someways)

    Further the gap between real-world “employable” skills and what the classrooms harbor for the students remain brazenly big.

    On a different note, I must mention one point Michael referred near the end…that it would be far more comforting for career-starters to “stop thinking of what the world had to offer you, and start thinking a bit more about what you had to offer the world”… I mean I remain a little amused that most blokes of my age wish in long term they could become the “CEOs of some Xyz”, instead of talking in terms of what impact to the sector/field/community they wish to tender. Isn’t it relevant, Ben?

  • I actually flunked out of college early on, too many days dawning pajamas and a bottle of scotch, and was forced into the real world. I loved animals, so I became a zookeeper. I’d always been good with my hands so I built houses, I was good with people so I became a restaurant manager. Nope, none of them fulfilled my calling. Then I got into computers, I liked that! It challenged my mind and it is impossible to know everything (sort of like spirituality) so I would never get bored. Now that I knew what I wanted to do, I went back to school, received my bachelors in IT and am now finishing my MBA.

    Someone mentioned recently that in some other countries, students are required to attend some type of trade school after graduating high school. Apparently this helps them discover what they like, seems like a good idea.

  • Two points interest me. The first is that college — as oppose to earlier stages of schooling — can be a phenomenally efficient machine for creating extraordinary focused talent. By declaring a major you are saying, in essence, I want to spend four years spending a significant portion of my time each week being taught a subject by handful of some of the world’s experts. For a lot of topics, there is no easier way to build such skill. (Consider, for example, the overwhelming percentage of award-winning American novelists who came out of a creative-writing major in college and one of just a handful of top MFA programs…training, training, training…)

    Second, I’m interested in the notion that there is a calling out there for most people. My experience with my peers’ post-college quest is that a lot of angst comes from this feeling that things don’t match some platonic idea of always being engaged. An interest counter approach is lifestyle-centric: what do you want your day to day life to be like, then find the work that gets you closest.

  • You’re actually arguing in favour of the kind of homeschooling I used to do and advocate (my kids are in school now for practical reasons).

    When kids and young people have the time, space, resources and support to identify and pursue their talents, fascinations, passions etc, that’s the best kind of learning they can do.

    I now believe this understanding will revolutionise college learning rather than children’s learning, because most families don’t have the stamina or resources to offer homeschooling of this kind, whereas most young people at college are paying thousands of dollars to be taught to jump through hoops without asking questions.

    Having said all that, when I was a student at Cambridge University, we did have to write all my own essay titles. It was a very genuinely educational course (Eng. Lit), based on finding things out for yourself, choosing your own subjects to a wide extent. American education is unusually and extremely prescriptive, from a European POV.

    (more to say, I’ll try to blog about it)

  • I think peer pressure has something to do with it as well. I was very good at math in high school but never seriously pursued it, partly because all my friends were into artsy stuff. Not that they told me not to study math, it’s just that they all were “cool” and ergo anything they did was cool too.

  • I believe there is another important psychological aspect to finding a calling or career that hasn’t addressed. Everyone says they want to find their calling or a great job-there is a social expectation to- but not everyone puts in the necessary effort to actually find it.

    Part of that may be simply lack of knowledge of the process as you described above. However, to many people finding a calling or a rewarding job might not be important enough to expend the effort to actually find one. I think it was Arnold Kling who wrote a post around the idea that everyone is equally good at prioritizing just that some people are more honest about their priorities. Many people place higher priorities on family so they move back home where there may not be as many opportunities. Or people may just place a high value on leisure.

    Of course where people develop their priorities is at least partly a function of their environment which brings us back to school…

  • Right – declaring a major is the closest thing we have to “going deep” in an area. Some issues with this premise are: a) depending on the college, a “major” isn’t that significant in terms of % of coursework, b) usually it’s 2 years not 4 years focused on it, right?, c) people have to select a major without a lot of prior background or experience going deep on anything.

    To your second point, I agree stress comes from feeling like you’ve fallen short of the ideal — an ideal which is overplayed and might not even exist.

  • Ben: Great blog. I’m currently coaching seventeen(yes, 17)in a freebie for a firm with which I also have a large project. Actually, I’m doing research–and asking them questions just like yours today. Some found their vocation early on. They had support and freedom to experiment. Still others tried one vocation, and liked bits and pieces of it, but wanted more. Still others are searching.

  • Great post, Ben.

    I would like to add a couple of reasons:

    1) A lot of times college students simply don’t know what they’re getting themselves into — e.g. they don’t really know what management consulting and investment banking are. And corporate recruiters simply put on a show when they’re presenting on campus.
    In the recruiting game, perception is not reality. Unfortunately, a lot of young, idealistic students bought into the marketing by the large firms who have a recruiting machine on campus.

    2) Peer pressure and “herd mentality”. One of your commenters mentioned business school. I attended a top business school a few years ago, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. Even you’re not interested in banking/consulting, you still be under a lot of pressure to “conform” and try those career paths. People think you’re a loser if you’re not on the banking/management consulting tracks. I think some undergraduate business programs have similar peer pressures.

    I now have my kids now. Here is what I’m doing:

    1) let them find their own voice (the one or two things they really love to do 24by7)

    2) have them to take on a variety of internships/apprenticeship early on so that they know how the working world works

    Again, thanks for the thought provoking post!

  • Great post! Most important topic of all, i.e., what kind of human capital will you have?

    I was SO lucky to have 8 yrs of Montessori “education” (freedom to explore) at the start of my “education”. That kept me from becoming another brick in the wall AND gave me a love for learning that I could use in HS, college and the PhD.

    Remember that a State education give you what serves the STATE!

  • Ben,

    I think you’re spot on with your bottom line! Formal schooling tends to beat the ‘experimenter’ and the ‘curious dabbler’ out of us.

    The early 20s are a great time to relearn how to be curious and explore the world on your own terms, not those of some uninspired teacher going through the motions.

    You won’t know something’s your calling until you try it, so the best approach is to experiment with many different paths until one hooks you.

  • I don’t know, I think it’s up to each individual to work out their own questions AND answers and while I don’t doubt that institutionalised education has its drawbacks, blaming the ‘system’ seems a little… lame. Truth is we like the mind-numbing pap of conformity & inertia – it’s warm & cozy & secure, that’s why we create, gravitate towards and stay in those institutions. There’s a certain herd mentality to complaining about the herd mentality. If you want to be different, go out and be different, don’t sit around complaining about what’s stopping you from being different.

  • I graduated college last year, and I’m still amazed at how many of my peers (and younger) take forever to find out their “calling” or career. I guess what I’m amazed at is how many people are still telling young people that they have to pick their career at age 17 and stick with it, without telling them what really lies ahead: most 50 year-olds are still figuring out what they want to do next (and that’s not a bad thing, per se).

    While unfocused career-hopping is never good, focused and strategic exploring should be encouraged (!) not just allowed. If society accepted that the process to figure out your passion or ideal career is long-term and needs to weigh a whole slew of important factors, then young adults would probably find out sooner.

    The other topic this relates to is that our college system doesn’t encourage risk. Like in business, we should be taking risks and throwing ourselves into a profession, instead of waiting until end of junior year to do an observational internship. Risk, fail, learn about yourself, and keep moving on. That’s real education.

  • Interesting piece Ben.

    I’m 45 and I begun life in Europe without a university education. It was my choice to pursue my sport rather than an education. I loved computers (IT), but I hated my IT teacher and he hated me. I flunked my IT A’Level …and Economics too.

    After an unpaid international sporting career I sat down at 30 and established that my dream would be to write for a sports magazine. I did a few writing courses but the trouble was, there was only one magazine of its type in my country. I did a low cost correspondence course a launched a career as a copywriter. Two years later I became the editor of the sports magazine and five years later I was global (unpaid) communication director for the world governing body of the sport.

    That magazine role was my passion fulfilled, by it paid poorly. It was however the spring-board to the IT career that I had dreamed about as a teenager and I began working for a company for free and learning from books.

    Years later, I’m 45 and I have worked as an independent management consultant across the world and most of my work is in Europe and the United Arab Emirates these days.

    I help governments and global companies and I command ridiculous fees, but I say this not to boast. I say it to illustrate the fact that whilst a formal education is great, it is not necessary to do well in one’s chosen career.

    In between the sweet sounding story above were many years of financial struggle, dozens of dead-end jobs and thousands of job applications.

    The interesting thing is, my career is still evolving and I am also still pursuing other interests.

    If you want something enough – formal education or not – you can have it.

  • Couldn’t agree more. I think the formal education system really needs to be changed. I think the current system of breadth and all works, but only up to a certain point. It works for the basics (we all need to have basic reading/writing and math skills, for example), but past a certain point – maybe elementary school – it doesn’t work.

    I’m really glad to see more and more people talking about these issues, because I think it’s really important and needs to be rectified.

  • Very well said indeed… I do feel, though, that there is a little more to formal education. One of the things that my formal education gave me, was the resources and platform to explore and “ask questions”.

    While I agree that the method of teaching itself and the education system as a whole doesn’t encourage such explorations as you mentioned, formal education system does provide the infrastructure for it.

    Whether a person utilizes this to help figure out his/her calling or explore new areas, and ask question, is what really matters. Unfortunately the education system and the society is doing nothing to encourage such behaviour.. And many times because of the mechanism in place for grading and appraisal, many students are forced to leave their creativity and exploration so that they can get that peice of paper which the society values so much..

    I just think that the issue is far larger than just formal education, and we shouldn’t blindly blame just the formal education system, but also all the other things which are also the cause..

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