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Bruce Feiler on Finding Meaning in Non-Linear Careers

Erik Anderson

Every week one million people in the U.S. quit a job, and 70% of Americans are unhappy with what they do. This trend didn’t begin with the pandemic or the “Great Resignation,” as some media coverage would have people believe. ** ** Job turnover has risen every year except one for the past twenty years, says New York Times bestselling author Bruce Feiler. Though the pandemic marked a turning point in how we work, Feiler says our mental schemas about work have long been wildly out of touch with reality. While working on his forthcoming book The Search: Finding Meaningful Work in a Post-Career World, Feiler interviewed hundreds of people to better understand how they think about what they do. He recently joined Round to share what he learned and below are four key takeaways:

Life’s not linear and neither is work

Since the industrial revolution, psychologists have divided life and work into predictable, linear stages, treating individuals’ journeys like products on an assembly line. After completing their education, we enter the workforce, marry, and climb the ladder in their chosen field — there may be disruptions here or there, but modern life generally follows this set pattern. Wrong, Feiler says. Disruption is the rule, not the exception. In his research, he found that we experience a life disruption — anything from quitting a job to weathering a natural disaster — every twelve to eighteen months. On average, we spend half their adult lives in periods of transition and flux.

Life transition is a skill that can and must be mastered

The average person goes through a “workquake,” a period of instability or re-evaluation in their work life, every 2 years and 10 months. But the frequency varies by demographic: millennials experience workquakes more than Gen X, Gen Z experience more than millennials, women more than men, and diverse workers more than non-diverse workers. Workquakes are unsettling but the transitional periods that follow create opportunities for change and growth. We often think of challenges in life — losing a job, receiving a difficult diagnosis — as periods to grind through, times to buckle down and show resilience. But sometimes, Feiler argues, fixation on returning to an imagined linear path can blind people to the possibilities disruption creates. From a woman whose cancer diagnosis led her to leave her husband, find a new job and stop yo-yo dieting, to a combat veteran who turned to painting as he adjusted to civilian life, “lifequakes” and “workquakes” create space for a change of direction, allowing us to shed old habits and experiment with new ones.

Strong professional networks are key during “workquakes”

We don’t go through life transitions alone. We go through them with colleagues, mentors, spouses, family and friends. In his research, Feiler asked people going through “workquakes” where they got the best advice. The most frequent answer was not family or friends, but people in their professional networks — and three quarters of the time the person giving advice affirmed what the other person already felt they should do. “It turns out what most people need is not a kick in the pants or a slap upside the head,” Feiler said. “It's a pat on the back.”

Forget your path and focus on what gives you meaning

“The idea that at 21 you're going to pick something and do it for the next 50 years — that is blessedly dead,” Feiler said. Today we don’t live on a linear path, don’t have narrowly defined careers, and certainly don’t have just one job. (Fewer than half of Americans even have a primary job anymore.) The complexity of contemporary work presents challenges but it also offers an opportunity to rethink what work is and why we do it. In Feiler’s reframing, people have up to five types of jobs — from primary work to side gigs, to unpaid work caring for a loved one, to that screenplay you’ve been banging out on the weekends, to invisible time sucks like discrimination and poor mental health that consume as much time as a part-time job. As I reflect on my career, I viewed my early career path more linearly. However, it has evolved through a series of “lifequakes” and “workquakes”, some propelling me forward, some setting me back, others just bumping me over to another path. Feiler’s research and perspectives have helped me think about that with a new lens, putting me in a position to embrace the next transition I encounter. We live in a messy, job-juggling world but if we break away from a linear mindset and embrace life’s fluctuations, Feiler says, each of us can write our own story about work — a story about finding meaning, not just reaching one rung higher on the ladder.

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