This is the first in, hey, maybe a series of conversations with responsible adults. Format and questions are very much subject to change. If you’re a responsible adult who wants to share your advice, contact me!
In the first few moments of our Skype conversation, Viki told me, “I don’t feel like an adult with a career.” Viki and I met as English teaching assistants living in Nice in 2007; when we spoke on Thursday, I hadn’t yet heard about the heartbreaking terrorist attack. We didn’t even talk about Nice that much. Viki grew up and went to college in New Jersey. Like a lot of people our age, she spent her post-college years bouncing around, professionally and geographically, amid a global recession. After deciding to stay put for a while, she has spent the last six years working for a philanthropic organization in Geneva. Her responsibilities grew but still, she feels unfulfilled.
“I’m so unmotivated,” she tells me. “I’m not the type of worker that I’d like to be here.” (I hear this kind of thing a lot from some of the smartest and hardest-working people I know, and I hope to explore it more at some point.) With mental energy to spare, she joined Geneva’s improv and theater communities, acting in and directing a few English-language plays but mostly focusing on her three-year-old improv troupe. She shrugs that they may just be a big fish in a small pond, but they perform monthly at a pub, and that exposure has led them to further performances as well as invitations to corporate retreats and other team-building activities, including leading a workshop at the World Economic Forum.
Viki was always much wiser and more thoughtful than me, so has great advice. It starts with a book recommendation: Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra. She read it as part of a peer group of women leaders and says it helped her find the root of her disengagement. She is, she realized, motivated by working with people, helping them be happier and improve their lives. Philanthropy feels at a remove from that. Improv is closer. She hopes, at some point, to spend more time teaching improv workshops and developing that side business, but she realizes even that won’t completely fulfill her. It seems likely that she’ll always be multi-tasking, looking for new ways to express herself and help others.
We came of age during a major shift of what a career is, she reminds me. Like a town and a spouse, careers used to be lifelong commitments. “A lot of [our] expectations… all stem from this time when one job defined us.” Now, careers are expected to be mutually beneficial and, if not as temporary as millennials are stereotyped for, at least not so day-in, day-out eternal. The advantages are many. We can pursue new challenges and passions, make dramatic changes to our paths, and take risks that our grandparents never imagined. But the introspection, courage, and work required can be daunting, even moreso if you’re already in difficult financial circumstances.
Viki reminds me of the immense privilege it is to leave my job with no significant plan in place, one of many facts that makes me feel awkward writing about my unemployment in the first place. She asks my financial situation, which boils down to “I certainly can’t keep this nonsense up for long” but at least I don’t have a mortgage, car, or kids. She aptly points out that it’s generally possible to find some type of work if that’s what I need to do. I admit that it feels self-indulgent to relax this much. In my mind, even the productive things I’m doing (painting furniture, attending events about grad school, writing) are not “work” so they must be “relaxing.”
“Make sure that you’re not going back to work because you can’t think of anything better to do,” she says firmly. If I’m not employed full-time because of burnout and uncertainty about my next steps, I should really invest in myself and make deliberate choices about how to spend my time and what to do next. It’s a good reminder. For at least a little longer, I can make the choice to go to the pool for the afternoon or read a book, just as I’m equally deliberate about making time to explore new careers, apply for jobs, research grad school, or develop new skills.