It is somewhat ironic that growing up, we're taught never to put all our eggs in one basket. Yet we proceed to float down the river of modern education, as it strips away the gifts of childhood–our intrinsic desire to learn and be curious–before it shoves us down the career path of least resistance.
Finding meaning in a system that incentivizes profits over purpose requires the courage to rethink what we know about work.
To start, eliminate the notion that you must choose a career path. It is better to say that we carve one. Only by curiously navigating the ebbs and flows of interest can we become who we truly are.
Carl Rogers called this the curative force–becoming our potential. Today we know it as self-actualization.
Abe Maslow popularized the idea in the 1940s when he published his motivational theory, the hierarchy of needs. Although his work is widely known, it is often misrepresented. First, with a pyramid that Maslow himself never drew. Then, by a common explanation where needs in the hierarchy work like levels in a video game: unable to move to the next level without first satisfying the former.
It would be more accurate to say that levels in the hierarchy are dependent on each other. Maslow described our basic needs as deficiency needs. Since we need them to survive, they take psychological priority. Higher-level needs, like self-actualization, were defined as growth needs.1 While we don't need them to survive, they play an important role in well-being.2
Because the motivation to achieve basic needs is what predominantly drives behavior, we typically lack the psychological bandwidth to focus on anything else until we meet them. Hence, the hierarchy of needs.
This is why work is such a powerful social construct. By granting us the means to fulfill our basic needs, we finally become capable of becoming our higher selves. In this sense, work is the vessel for a meaningful life.
But reality poses a cruel challenge. We're so often torn between doing what we love and doing what we need to survive. We choose a career path for security while we quietly wish for more.
The problem with security today is that change is the only constant. Technology shapes the world faster than we can live through it. In consequence, traditional careers paths have become fragile.
I now understand what the dean of science-fiction, Robert Heinlein, meant when he said, "Specialization is for insects."
Whether you blame technology, capitalism, or modern education, the future is burdened with a paradox. On the one hand, we should thank specialization for the technological progress it has afforded us. Countless hours of research and tinkering by scientists and engineers has created a world only science-fiction foretold. On the other hand, technology makes life easier and humanity more prosperous. But it is the rapid speed of technological progress itself that has made career paths fragile.
I was 13 when my father was laid off. The financial crisis hit the media industry hard, forcing a publishing company to lay off their only staff photographer.
For many companies at the time, cutting costs was a matter of survival. But it was technology like the internet that enabled them to grow out of it. They could now outsource the very work my father was doing at a fraction of the cost.
My father was forced to adapt. With a family to feed and bills to pay, he had to learn to work for himself–no easy feat for photographers. Luckily, he loved to learn. My father learned and continued learning until he ultimately became the master of his craft he is today. To this day, he's always learning something new.
While my father's story serves as fuel to my drive, it also demonstrates the inherent flaws of specialization: the further you travel down one path, the harder it is to turn back.
Today, the uncertainty of career paths is astronomically high. While entrepreneurship is useful, it's not the key idea we should take away from my father's story. Rather, the key takeaway is in the trait he shares with the great leaders and geniuses of history.
In his famous lecture, "You and Your Research", Richard Hamming describes it as the trait that enables the greatest minds of our generation. He says that the great people of history–those we call geniuses–like Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Leonardo Da Vinci were not geniuses in and of themselves. They were geniuses because of the things they did, and they did those things because they learned how to think in a particular way.
What enabled my father to adapt wasn't his entrepreneurial ability. It was his understanding that learning was the key to overcoming the challenge set before him. My father was a lifelong learner. Once realized I inherited the same trait, the flood gates opened to a world of possibilities.
Learning empowers us to see the world with new eyes. It enables us to become masters at our craft and boldly navigate change. Learning empowers us to live a meaningful life–to self-actualize beyond the grips of a career path.
Unfortunately, modern education has wired us to be learning resistant. We're taught to think linearly and forced to memorize concepts that we'll never use again. We're taught that learning is a chore and that our interests are less important than the core curriculum. Thereby creating a system where people leave happy–happy they never have to do it again.
Thankfully, even the most deeply ingrained habits can be unlearned.
It took me many years to come to this understanding. I sometimes wonder what my life would be like had I realized it sooner.
Maybe that's all a genius is: a matured prodigy.
But self-actualization is not exclusive to geniuses. We can all find sustained meaning in life. It is simply a matter of becoming a lifelong learner.
Your work is a vessel. You are the captain of your ship. You may follow those before you or you can carve your own path. What I can tell you for sure is that the winds will someday blow in a different direction. When that day comes, will you have learned to change course?
- Maslow, A.H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50 (4), 430-437.
- Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), 1069–1081.
- Greene, Lloyd & Burke, George. (2007). Beyond Self-Actualization. Journal of health and human services administration, 30, 116-28.