Growing up in Santa Cruz County, CA, I feel I had an early insight into the work/life dynamic. From my early memories of it, people in Santa Cruz County had a varied life. It can be a challenge to find decent paying work in the County so many people commute into Silicon Valley, and elsewhere, to find work. You also have a University, a few major companies, number of tourist attractions and independent shop owners, huge surf scene and subsequent industry, and State Parks. This is all to say that Santa Cruz, as I would imagine you could say about some other non-urban areas of coastal California, has a great diversity of individual's career aspirations -- some leaning more toward work while others tilt more toward life. Growing up in this environment, and constantly evaluating where I am on that work/life scale, has stuck with me to present day.
My parents were little different. My father, being incredibly smart and successful in his career, had plenty of opportunities to work in Silicon Valley but decided to focus more on the life portion of his own personal balance. As a result his commute has always been limited and, though one of the leading engineers in his niche, he has been able to maintain a balance between a healthy bank account and having enough play time to recharge.
However, I feel he is one of the few lucky ones. He found his job in the classifieds, interviewed, got the position and was able to grow with the company until he had a skill set vastly superior to others in the industry. He then marketed himself well (with the help of a good friend) and was able to be a part of a few other startups. He may not love every second of his day, but more often than not he is able to find more positives than negatives in his daily work. And, from what what I understand, he has a lot of autonomy in his work and is able to bring a high-quality product with a relatively low-cost to market. When you consider that he was kind of bouncing from job to job, I think he hit the lottery in many ways. I imagine there are people out there who spend far more time thinking about their careers with much less happiness and success!
In my youthful judgment, I looked at my parents' careers and thought they could aspire to more. At the time, I was incredibly focused on monetary success and, for lack of a better word, power. My slant at the time could probably be boiled down to some cheesy motto like: "Get out of Santa Cruz, Take on the world." I always had an interest in psychology, consumer behavior, consumption, personal growth and many other psychologically-related topics so I thought, since I perceived little money in Psychology, I would go to business school. (It helped that a few of the people I most admired were in Sales or had worked for Fortune 500 companies.)
At University, I enveloped myself in business. In fact, I really enjoyed marketing. (Note: I was an Integrative Marketing Communications major which coupled SDSU's Business and Communication programs.) The presentations, research studies, tactics, strategy, opportunities, possibility to change consumer behavior and the world were all fascinating to me. Even the Finance and Accounting classes were of great interest as I got a sense of how, in theory, the business world works. I didn't lose my interest in Psychology and ended up minoring in it -- "use my powers for good" I used to joke.
When it was time for me to leave college and enter the workforce, I had a good track record built up. I had undertaken numerous internships while in college, reached out to numerous professionals in an attempt to build my network, and had given considerable thought as to my future career and industry. (Utilizing internal assessment techniques as well as reaching out to friends, family, colleagues and professional contacts.)
So what was the problem? Multi-fold. My main problem, as I see it now, was that I only saw my future career options within the field of business. Growing up, I always knew my career would come down to either business or psychology (not to imply that they're not related) but at this time in my life, I was only envisioning business options. My secondary problem was that I had not factored in (nor was even aware of) some of the changes happening within "typical" white collar work. For example, changes in the global economy regarding globalization, downturn of markets and credit as well as more general changes such as increasing demands of corporations regarding specialization of labor and time commitment.
Matthew Crawford, in his book "Shopclass as Soulcraft", agrees. I've used some of Crawford's points below to accentuate my points. (I believe it is important to note that these traits are not ubiquitous in the business world. I've definitely worked with some amazing bosses and worked for some wonderful companies.)
Challenges in objectively and accurately measuring job function: Though companies increasingly look to bottom-line results to showcase individual performance, it is more challenging to break out exact contributors to these bottom-line results. As a result, performance and personal success is much more tied to the relationships of one's immediate co-workers which can be a crap shoot and come down to pure luck. Crawford goes on to say, "Managers have to spend a good part of the day 'managing what other people think of them.' With a sense of being on probation that never ends, managers feel 'constantly vulnerable and anxious, acutely aware of the likelihood at any time of an organizational upheaval which could overturn their plans and possibly damage their careers fatally."
Work moving more towards "rules-based" functions as opposed to "cognitive-based" work: Crawford says, "...the new frontier of capitalism lies in doing to office work what was previously done to factory work: draining it of its cognitive elements." I was able to experience this directly in many of my career experiences. Related to this is the meaning of the work itself. For me, much of the work left me feeling depleted and lacking energy; whereas, interacting with others in my volunteer experiences has given me as much or more than I give to it.
The lifestyle of an office dweller: Not only is it difficult to remain indoors from 8 AM -7 PM on a daily basis for an indefinite amount of time (rest of your life?), but the daily stress this "political correctness" can result in. As Crawford states:
"A good part of the job... consists of 'a constant interpretation and reinterpretation of events that constructs a reality in which it is difficult to pin the blame on anyone, especially oneself... In this sense the corporation is a place where people are not held to what they say because it is generally understood that their word is always provisional."
Related to this, these environments reinforce and support a host of undesirable traits. For me, I would much prefer to cultivate honesty, humility and positivity. Unfortunately, these traits do not have much of a ROI.
Daniel Gilbert discusses in "Stumbling on Happiness" that there are few ways to get out of a rut, regardless of cause. To do this, we can either alter the amount we participate in a given activity or how often we participate in the said activity. For example, if I were to fill my days eating cake and became saddened in my continual pursuit of cake, I could wait longer before eating my next cake and/or start eating something else other than cake. No other way to break out of a rut. Unfortunately, our economy is pushing employees to a point of further specialization of labor as well as demanding longer and longer hours. Like the housing build up of the 2000's, given little if any increase in real middle class wages, this is only sustainable to a point.
To say I had doubts in my career change is like saying Wilt Chamberlain slept with a few women. For quite a while I believed myself to be in, what Seth Godin describes as "The Dip" and that if I continued to pursue my path, I would be on my way to being one of "the best in the world". And of course, happiness would follow. However, I soon realized that I was not on this path, and was delving into deeper and deeper troughs. Of which, I was incapable of getting out of as my daily work continued to pile onto me, I was constantly focused on the micro, and I wasn't growing intellectually. I quickly understood that, to quote Godin, "one (I) must quit the wrong stuff and stick with the right stuff." I was falling off of a cliff and needed to re-evaluate my path and priorities.
Crawford quotes Talbot Brewer as saying: "[T]o take pleasure in an activity is to engage in that activity while being absorbed in it, where this absorption consists in singleminded and lively attention to whatever it is that seems to make the activity good or worth pursuing." Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this "flow". Whatever you call it, it is what I realized I needed to pursue, and entertainment marketing (as I knew it) wasn't it.
So, how did my Entertainment story end up? Um... If I were to grade myself, I'd probably give myself a "B". I was able to start out temping at a major studio, work my way into a full-time position, I continued to advance my title and salary, I continued to develop my career skill set but I became miserable. This said, I wouldn't change ANY of it given the amount that I've realized about myself.
Mental Health and Therapy Writer. As featured on Huffington Post, Vox Media and elsewhere.