jobs in your twenties are a means, not an end

“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” -- Debbie Millman, Branding Consultant

stuck in the doldrums

“Why am I here, God?” I thought. “Why doesn’t anyone see my potential? I’m supposed to be a somebody, with good grades and a bright future, and here I am working at a dog food factory? What’s going on?” It was the summer going into my sophomore year of college, and as my friends went off to their corporate internships, I settled into the only job I could find, a line worker at a nearby dog food factory.

The trial-sized bags of dog food spewing out of the packaging machine interrupted my grumbling.  One, two, three, I started to count, putting twenty-five in a box and sending it through the taper. The only thing worse than the work was the smell of the cooking dog food, and I spent most days trying not to throw up. The clock taunted me on the wall as the minutes crept by. I hated the work, but needed the money, so I worked in the un-air conditioned factory all through the hot summer. 

Eight years later, I was long past my dog food factory summer. I had slowly worked my way into better, gotten a masters, and was now in a gleaming midtown Manhattan skyscraper. But I still felt the same way about my work. Despite all the outward differences, my complaints hadn't changed at all. “Why doesn’t anyone recognize my potential here?” I thought. “Here I am, 28, and the only thing I do is send out emails and complete basic tasks.” I stared out of the window every day, frustrated with my role. I was nearing thirty, and felt haunted by the fact that an entire decade had almost slipped by and I still hadn't found the type of meaningful work I was looking for. Will my life make an impact, I wondered, or will I be stuck doing monotonous work forever?

the question underneath our expectations

As you grow up, you can’t help but absorb expectations for your life. Work and career are at the heart of these expectations, and as young people, we get caught up in the optimism of having our entire working lives in front of us. This optimism leads to a confidence that your dream job is just around the corner and you will soon be making a major impact on the world.

You expect you’re twenties to be one quick elevator ride to the top of your career. But after a year, you realize you somehow got on the stairs. Then after five years, it feels like the stairs go down more than up. Your unmet expectations begin to burden you, and you wonder why nothing is happening? Just a few years ago your dreams and desires felt so attainable. Now, they seem distant and almost dead. You wallow in frustration and disappointment, both at yourself and God.

This is how I spent a lot of time in my twenties. At the heart of my frustration was this question: If I want to use my life to do something good, and God says He wants that good thing to happen, then why hasn’t He used me to do it yet? It’s a common frustration that gets at the heart of  the way God works in your life. We spend our twenties wondering, how do you align desires to make an impact and do important work with the reality of the low-paying jobs with little responsibility that most of us have?

letting go of unhealthy expectations

Many have the good desire, to varying degrees, of using their career to do meaningful and significant work. While this is a healthy desire, our hearts twist these goals into self-centered measuring sticks for success. Our minds feed off of the examples of 25-year-old tech CEOs, and we dream of following in their footsteps. Not that we need to be worth millions of dollars, but we all just want to be one step above our peers. 

We secretly hope we’re one of the special ones, a young person who comes up with a genius idea and effortlessly succeeds. These world-changers are admired by everyone by their abilities, achievements, and aspirations. If every generation has their prodigies, maybe that could be us?

But while Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg possess a powerful mystique, they distract us from how most people make an impact in life. In his book, Originals, Adam Grant distinguishes between the two ways people achieve success. There is the conceptual thinker and the experimental thinker:

Conceptual thinkers: These people make fresh insights through a-ha moments, yielding brand new ideas and technology. Conceptual thinkers often peak in their twenties, when they are still protected enough from established viewpoints to see new ways of doing things. Our society gives great value to this type of person, since they display genius behavior. Einstein, startup CEOs, and other phenoms fit this category.

Experimental thinkers: this type of person doesn’t yield fast insights or immediate accomplishment, but only creates important work after years and years of growth. Experimental thinkers don’t rely on flashes of insight, but instead progress incrementally through their life, building deep reserves of knowledge in their field. They achieve their best work later in life, when they have enough knowledge and wisdom.

Unfortunately, our society worships the first type, causing us to forget that most of us will travel the second path towards important work. We all eat up the ideas of overnight success, instant results, and painless growth, hoping that could be us, too. As the years go by, we grow discouraged that we haven’t had our flash of insight, and begin to believe that we’ll never find meaningful work.

life takes more than talent

This expectation to reach peak success in our twenties comes from a wrong belief that talent and ability are the major ingredients for achievement. This flawed assumption turns our twenties into a proving ground where try to show we have enough talent to be special. And so we live in a constant state of worry, afraid that if we don’t get our dream job soon, we’ll prove that we're nobodies and be doomed to a life of mundane work.

This attitude causes us to overemphasize talent in our twenties, not realizing that wisdom and acquired skill are much more important towards creating a successful career. Talent looks flashy, but wisdom and is much more important for long-term success. While Steve Jobs is revered as a genius in his twenties, his immaturity and flaws caused him to be fired and almost destroyed Apple. It was only in his forties, as Steve matured and grew, that he was able to pilot Apple to its full potential.

We're all so fixated on trying to prove our talent, that we won’t take the time for the slow accumulation of wisdom and skill. While talent is important, the number of talented people that never fulfill their potential shows that it’s not enough. Wisdom, whether it’s called soft skills, people skills, or emotional intelligence, is crucial in every line of work.

wisdom drives success

Despite being needed more than ever, wisdom is overlooked in today’s job world. While passion, youthfulness, and fresh thinking are good things, you need wisdom to navigate the complexities of a globalized world, whether it’s interacting with coworkers from different cultures or spotting new competitors in an environment that moves faster than ever. Companies full of talented people go bankrupt every day, not from a lack talent, but because they didn’t have the wisdom to build a profitable business.

This happens because most work decisions are not black and white, but a complex series of tradeoffs that create a lot of gray area. Wisdom is the ability to know what to do when there is no clear answer. Anyone can code a website, but it takes wisdom to know what features to include and which ones to leave out. Wisdom is needed in every field, to understand the complex problems that face each business and to know how to best solve them. The best business and organizations thrive not because they have the most innate talent, but they use their wisdom to apply their talent to tackle and solve the right problems.

it takes patience to get wisdom

It’s easy to grow restless when you feel stuck in mundane work, watching older coworkers miss opportunities and misread situations while your talent doesn't get utilized. But before you throw your hands up and leave, understand that your boss probably isn’t insulting your talent or ability, but instead giving you the time to build the general and specialized wisdom necessary to succeed.

General Wisdom: this type of wisdom refers to your ability to interact with and work with other people, especially those different from you. Many people struggle in their jobs because they aren’t able to do things like empathize with others, resolve conflict, connect with strangers, or even something as simple as showing up and working hard all day.

Specialized Wisdom: this type of wisdom refers to having knowledge of your specific industry. When you’re young, you don’t know much about the history of your company, sector, or business in general. It’s important to avoid the arrogance of thinking you’re better than people in the past, and to be diligent to learn what mistakes have been made in the past so you can avoid making them yourself.

In today’s world, where something built over decades can be destroyed in a single tweet, wisdom is more important than ever. If you want to do good work in your career, avoid the chatter around innate talent and focus on building up your general and specialized wisdom. Be patient, though, and give yourself the time it takes to accumulate this wisdom. It won’t happen overnight, but comes through slow and steady daily growth.

Being Patient Doesn’t Mean Being Passive

Being patient, though, is very different from being passive. So many young people spend their twenties pouting and feeling sorry for themselves, instead of using that time and energy to become a wise and thoughtful worker. Sadly, lots of people passively wait to get better, and it never ends up happening. While wisdom does take time to build, here are a few ways to speed up the process:

  1. Figure out where you’re not wise: the first key to becoming wise is recognizing that you don’t know very much. You have to be humble enough to admit you don’t know, before you can be open enough to learn from others. Ask yourself: what am I ignorant of in life?

  2. Seek out older, wiser people to talk through decisions with: When you realize you don’t know everything, start looking for trusted friends and mentors to help you work through decisions. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, but the first step towards wisdom.

  3. Study the past: Even though businesses and jobs were different, you can learn from the mindset and ideas of past business leaders. Understand that you’re not the first smart person who has tried to tackle a set of problems before, so read, study, and ask questions so that you will repeat the good decisions of the past and not the bad ones. Keep in mind that one of the greatest lessons of the past, though, is to not be chained to it.

  4. Take advantage of being able to make mistakes while the stakes are small: every person makes mistakes, but a major benefit of your twenties is being able to make yours while the ramifications are still small. If you learn from your mistakes, they will provide so much wisdom when you are later in your career and have more responsibility.

your current job is part of the journey, not the destination.

As I went through my twenties, I grew more and more frustrated that I hadn’t gotten my dream job yet. But understand that the role of your twenties is not to arrive, but to focus on the process of getting better. Every job you have is an opportunity to learn, grow, and develop the wisdom that you will need to be successful down the road.

It’s tempting, instead, to get frustrated with God. To think He is holding you back from what you deserve. We get angry, asking God why He’s so stingy and disinterested in our jobs and careers? After all, doesn’t He promise our best?

But as I wrestled with these feelings I realized that God knew how I felt. Jesus, God himself, spent all of his twenties sawing wood and sanding furniture as a carpenter in a little family business in an obscure village. The Bible says that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, not by going to fancy schools or being his society's version of a 25 year-old tech CEO, but rather through mundane, yet maturing, work.

Realize that every year and every job is a stepping stone towards your future. Drop your expectation that your current job has to be your dream job, and commit yourself to the incremental progress of getting better at every job. When you do this for years and decades, you will be amazed at the opportunities that will slowly open up as you go through life. Don’t let desire for status or short-term success distract you from growing in wisdom and understanding as God carries out His long-term plan in your life.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. -- 1 Corinthians 15:58