This wouldn’t be such a challenging reality if most of us weren’t raised to believe something wholly different. I grew up hearing that rewarding professional opportunities came as a result of hard work and merit. There were rules to the game and we needed to learn how to play. Learning how to play meant believing in the rules. First and foremost, we were to have faith in the integrity of the design of our educational and economic institutions, not the people and communities who made up those institutions.
As a blue collar kid growing up in small town Maine, I received the message “just get to college and it will all flow from there.” It wasn’t entirely false, but it was incomplete. From what I’ve heard from my middle and upper class peers, the message they received was something closer to “get your foot in the door of a good company, pay your dues, work your way up that ascending ladder.” Both of these messages/stories involved a ladder.
Everything’s changed now. When the economy went bust, the bottom fell out of both of these stories. It isn’t that ladders don’t exist anymore or aren’t useful. We’re just beginning to pay attention to how well those ladders are made, who’s making them and why, and whether or not we even need a ladder to get where we’re going. As we’ve struggled to find our way back as a country, more of us are getting that there is no going back; there’s only going forward. The new economy will look very different from where we’ve been. This is truer for some of us more than others. It's particularly true for entrepreneurs, knowledge workers, and creative professionals.
But for most people entering the job market or changing careers, the key idea now is to make your own way. When I give talks on career design for young people who wish to make a difference in the world, I begin with a reference to the Spanish poet Antonio Machado who wrote “Wanderer, there is no road. The road is made by walking...” because this is what it feels like to chart new territory, to go about things so differently than we ever thought we’d have to. There really is no path. With every step, we help create the new economy. This isn't easy work we're doing, but it's exciting.
Machado’s words speak to a new level of personal agency required of job seekers at any age. For folks of relative privilege, jobs no longer land in our laps quite so often. For people who haven’t enjoyed much access to good jobs (or the jobs they want), inequity persists, but the world is a bit more open now. While we each need to take more initiative, we aren’t alone. This new system we’re building is one in which the quality of our relationships make the difference, not corporate structures, nonprofit mission statements, or an association with a heavy-hitter brand. All of us are being challenged to pay attention to our networks and relationships and, as a basis for these ties, our deepest hopes for ourselves, our communities, and the planet.
What does all of this mean for the individual job-seeker or aspiring leader? Continuing to improve the economy and the job market will require sound leadership at the highest levels of business and government. Of course. But it can, and I think absolutely must, also mean each of us bringing a different approach to our work and taking better care of our work relationships. The “jobs of the future” are coming through authentic community now, not career development offices, or staffing and recruitment firms. Not unless they understand and operate from this principle.
My mentors growing up were right and wrong. "Just get to college" wasn’t quite right, but rewarding work opportunities do flow from the relationships we make in a community of motivated, curious individuals. For job seekers and would-be entrepreneurs, I recommend this: To the best of your ability, show up where you feel called to show up, be who you are, and build genuine relationships. Good things will come. Go after the position you want, even if that position doesn't quite exist yet. And while you’re at it, throw away your old ideas about power. It’s still a new century and everything is opening up.
[Note: For more on ladders, what to do with them/not do with them, and resources along these lines, check out Jocelyn K. Glei's "Are You Ready To Be Lucky?" over at The 99% from Behance, a website/magazine dedicated to making ideas happen. For more on cross-sector relationship building, read "Networking A City" over at Stanford Social Innovation Review, a case study on The Barr Fellows Network here in Boston.]
Lex Schroeder is a writer/speaker on leadership, mindful work, and creativity. She is a Partner at Wisdom Exchange, a Research Fellow at The Lean Enterprise Institute and a Connector for Boston World Partnerships.
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