The single most memorable line we read this year came from an essay by Carolina Sosa, who lives in Centreville, Va., and will attend Georgetown University. In writing about her father’s search for a job, she described the man named Dave who turned him away.
“Job searching is difficult for everyone, but in a world full of Daves, it’s almost impossible,” she wrote. “Daves are people who look at my family and immediately think less of us. They think illegal, poor and uneducated. Daves never allow my dad to pass the first round of job applications. Daves watch like hawks as my brother and I enter stores. Daves inconsiderately correct my mother’s grammar. Because there are Daves in the world, I have become a protector for my family.”
Vanessa J. Krebs, assistant director of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown, who reads about 1,400 essays year, told me that when she first received my interview request, the phrase “the Daves” immediately jumped out of her memory bank.
Though Ms. Sosa might easily have become embittered by her encounters with the Daves, Ms. Krebs said that she was moved by the fact that the essay concluded with the desire to pursue a career in public service, even if she wasn’t exactly sure where that desire would take her.
“This is a starting point, and she is still figuring that out,” Ms. Krebs said. “A lot of people think they need to have all the answers already. Or they feel like they do have it all figured out.”
Other memorable moments emerged in an essay by Martina Piñeiros, a Chicago resident who will be attending Northwestern University.
“Fatigue and two jobs had ruined who both my parents used to be, and I began to value the little time I had with my mother more than ever before,” she wrote. “This little time could not make up for the time I spent alone, however, nor could it assuage the envy I had of the little girl my mother looked after. She, though not my mother’s daughter, had the privilege of having my mother and her delicious cooking all to herself; I would always get the leftovers. She also had the privilege of having my mother pin her silky blonde hair into a pretty bun before ballet classes while my dad wrestled with the hairbrush to pull my thick brown hair into two lopsided ponytails before dropping me off at the bus stop. But I couldn’t blame the girl for depriving me of my mother; her parents had also been consumed by their jobs.”
It is rare that any teenagers write well about what it is like to have more money than average. Most don’t even try, for fear of being marked as privileged in a world where some people resent those who have it or are clueless about it. Yorana Wu, who lives in Great Neck, N.Y., and will attend the University of Chicago, wrote about her father, who spends much of the year in China, where he opened a canned fruit factory when Ms. Wu was 8 years old.
“That was the first year a seat at the dinner table remained empty and a car in the garage sat untouched,” she wrote. “Every dollar comes at the expense of his physical distance.”
While she has her tennis and music lessons (and expresses mixed feelings about the affluence that allows for them), she speaks to him in five-minute phone segments when he is away.
“He is living the American dream by working elsewhere,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims, my fellow reader, observed. “There is a cost to this choice.”
We published a pair of essays about what it means to navigate two worlds simultaneously. One, by Annabel La Riva, who is also the subject of a video feature, discusses the distance (in more ways than one) between her Brooklyn home and her Manhattan church choir, where her love for singing began.
In another, Jon Carlo Dominguez of North Bergen, N.J., discusses his choice to turn right out his front door, toward the prep school he attends, instead of left, toward his neighborhood school. When the two schools meet on the football field, he writes, some of his classmates shout, “That’s all right, that’s O.K., you’ll be working for us someday.” His response is to tutor his local friends with his used test-preparation books, share guides to lucid dreaming and pass on tips he learned from Dale Carnegie.
“Every single day he is making a choice, and he is conscious of the costs and the benefits on both sides,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims said. “The way that he addresses it is beautiful. He’s trying to bridge that world and be that bridge.”
One of the 10 or so essays that Mr. Lanser, the associate dean of admission for Wesleyan, read about work this year was set at a Domino’s Pizza store in Forestdale, Ala. Adriane Tharp, who will attend the university in the fall, is the author, and her rendering of the lineup of fellow misfits who were her colleagues there is something to behold.
There is the pizza maker from Pakistan who looks like Bob Dylan and sings folk songs from his homeland; the part-time preacher who also delivers pies; and Richard, the walking “Star Wars” encyclopedia. One woman has worked for pizzerias for over 25 years and is about to apply to college.
“The point of the essay is not to tell us that she needs work or doesn’t,” Mr. Lanser said. “What she wants us to learn from this is that she is able to embrace difference and learn quite a bit from those differences.”
I offered him the opportunity to disabuse overeager parents of the notion that admissions officers at competitive colleges devalue work experience, and he laughed. “We think there are valuable life skills and people skills to be gained in the workplace,” he said, adding that he personally believes that everyone should work in the service industry at some point in their lives.
Rob Henderson’s service was to his country, and his essay was ultimately about what the United States Air Force did for him.
Of his time as a foster child, he wrote, “I was compelled to develop social skills to receive care from distracted foster parents.” He was finally adopted, but his parents quickly divorced (the adoption came up in arguments before his father cut off ties) and eventually found stability with his mother and her partner, at least until her partner was shot. An insurance settlement led to a home purchase, which ended in foreclosure.
After high school, he enlisted. Eight years later, he’s still deciding where he’ll attend college in the fall. “I’ve accomplished much over the last seven years because the Air Force provides an organized setting that contrasts with the chaos of my upbringing,” he wrote.
Ms. Lythcott-Haims felt herself rooting for him, and she added that his essay was a good reminder that the United States military is a beacon for many young adults, even with the high risks that may come with their service. “This is one way you make a life in America,” she said. “It’s more common than we realize. And he is self-made.”Continue reading the main story
It was 2am and the last batch of pies were in the oven. I’m in charge of all of the pies for our family Thanksgiving meal each year, and this year I volunteered to make the pies for my girlfriends’ family meal as well. It had been a long day of baking six pies, and it was finally coming to a close.
As the last pies finished baking, two of my uncles and I enjoyed the last of our beverages and found ourselves deep in contemplative conversation. The topic: Why do we work?
In most families it might be a simple conversation: to make money and support our families. But we had just the right combination of personalities in the room to dive a bit deeper.
Uncle #1 absolutely crushes it in his career as a data solutions salesman. He is also what we in the South would call a “God-fearing man.” He and I share a belief in God, which framed one aspect of the conversation.
Uncle #2 is one of the most intellectually curious people I’ve ever met. From fly-fishing to flying a plane to investment strategies, he’s a modern day renaissance man. He and I share an interest in mastering new skillsets and exploring new paths of thought, which framed another aspect of the conversation.
When we first asked the question, “Why do we work?” it was in response to the shared acknowledgement that ultimately all we need in life is a group of people we care deeply about, food and water to survive, and something productive to occupy our mind and body. Productive, in this case, meaning interesting or challenging.
I posited that, technically, we could have these things by moving a small group of family and friends into the countryside or wilderness, keeping a small shelter, farming and/or hunting for food, and counting on one another for entertainment. So, again, why do we work?
Uncle #1: “Because God wants us to.” Or, in other words, the Christian faith instructs us to.
Indeed, this can be confirmed through reference to the Bible:
“We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tired of doing what is right.” (2 Thessalonians 3:11-13, NIV)
Cool, so on one level, faith-based individuals might work because their faith tells them to. However, the conversation did not end there.
“My entire career I worked with a specific number in mind. I knew exactly how many days I needed to work in order to save enough money to retire comfortably with my wife,” said Uncle #2. Or, in other words, he worked to earn money so he could provide for his family and stop working.
I won’t get into the geeky details here, but suffice it to say that research shows no correlation between pay and engagement at work. Or, in other words, more pay does not make us more interested in our work. (You can start down the rabbit hole of research here.)
However, this is only true once we are able to meet our basic needs with the amount of money we are making. Let’s call this the minimum effective salary, defined as the amount of money we require to meet our family’s needs for food, shelter, clothing, and saving for a reasonable retirement age.
For most people this ranges somewhere between $45,000 and $75,000. We work for money up to the point that we meet our minimum effective salary.
In some cases, we cruise to retirement on the back of money alone because switching jobs would be too costly (either monetarily or in retraining, etc). But in other cases, the conversation goes on.
There are countless examples of people in the world who have all the money they need for their natural life (and that of their entire family), and yet they continue to work. Uncle #2 is an interesting example – he works actively on his marina board of directors, as well as taking on leadership roles in the community.
This is where I chipped in. “I think part of why we work is to be surrounded by great people. My ideal situation at Living for Monday is to build a business that supports a team of 10-12 incredible people who love working together everyday.” Or, in other words, we work to build community.
This is the point where we transition from meeting minimum requirements (faith and money) to optimizing the way we work.
When a college graduate looks for her first job, she mostly wants to be able to say she has a job and can pay her bills. I believe all of us wake up somewhere beyond that stage and realize that we can choose the people we work with based on the organization we decide to work for.
Working to build community is where organizational culture begins to matter. In most cases, you can do the exact same work but experience significantly higher levels of fulfillment, engagement, and productivity with your job solely based on the people.
Gallup’s research shows that managers can impact the vast majority of reasons why employees leave their jobs. They’ve also shown that employees who have a best friend at work experience a whole host of benefits.
Imagine having 10 close friends at work, as I would love to at Living for Monday in my ideal situation… It would be incredible.
So, we work for community.
Uncle #1 chimed in, “That’s interesting to hear your ideal scenario for Living for Monday. The people at my current job are much better to work with than my last job, and this job is a much better fit for me.”
“Exactly. But another reason I work is to learn. I like to see how far I can push my potential. I constantly create new learning opportunities in my workflow so that I can satisfy my urge. I read, I attend conferences, I take on new training, I seek out new skills independently,” I said in return.
Or, in other words, we work to learn and explore our potential.
This too is about optimizing our work. If our work allows us not to be idle (according to faith), make our minimum effective salary (to provide for family), and work with great people (optimize for community), then we look for ways to be challenged.
You can see our desire to grow across the world. Quarterly financial projections, annual raises and promotions, urban sprawl, and space exploration are just a few examples of our inherent bias towards growth.
At work, we want to make meaningful progress towards mastering tasks that are both interesting and challenging. Dan Pink describes the research behind our desire for mastery and learning in his TED talk on the science of motivation. (He covers similar material in his bestselling book, Drive.)
For some of us, work becomes a way to be continuously challenged, to grow into our potential, and to regularly learn new things.
Beyond all of this, I think our work comes back to one thing. After we’ve fulfilled our faith-based belief in our responsibility to earn our keep, after we’ve met our minimum earning requirement, after we’ve built a community of inspiring people through our work, and after we’ve found work that challenges us to learn new things…
We seek impact.
We want to know that our lives have significance. The vast majority of us, once we reach this level of awareness and aspiration, measure that significance in the way we impact other people. We derive great meaning from the impact we have on others and the way we see that impact effect create a ripple in the world.
At the end of the day, this is where Millennials focus our career energy – on deriving meaning from our work. In a recent New York Times article, the authors defined a meaning mindset as consisting of three things:
- Seeking connections
- Giving to others
- Orienting to a larger purpose
As Millennials, we may not recognize the faith-based mandate to work as much as past generations (whether this is good or not is for another day). We have, on average, been provided for as has no other generation before us. As a result, we may take money for granted and focus on it less in our careers (stats show we may need to get our act together on saving and investing). Social media and the connectivity of the world give us more and more outlets for building community (although we might argue that it results in less and less in-person community building). Knowledge is more accessible than ever through MOOCs, blogs, podcasts, traditional publications now free on the web, and a million other outlets (the real skill is sifting through the information to actually learn something new).
And so when we’re asked why we work, it’s not hard to see why we want to make an impact. Or why we want meaning.
Yes, we want to be given responsibility. Yes, we want to move up in the ranks. Yes, we want autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Yes, some of us want to start our own companies. Yes, we want the tools, relationships, and access to power necessary to get things done. Yes, we might even want to make more money from time to time.
But at the end of the day, when you ask a Millennial why we work… It’s simple.
To make an impact.
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