It’s OK to Lead a “Small” Life

A recent Gallup study identifies a “Purpose Gap” among young professionals.

Posted Apr 16, 2019

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

In 2013, Bates College created a framework which they call the Purposeful Work program, to help students “seek and find work that aligns with their interests, values and strengths and brings them meaning.” In 2018, Bates partnered with Gallup to assess how well this program is working, leading to the April 2019 release of the Gallup/Bates study, “Forging Pathways to Purposeful Work: The Role of Higher Education.” In short, the study looked at whether or not purpose and meaning matters when it comes to work, and which factors most align with finding purpose in one’s work.

The results of the study identified what Gallup is calling a “Purpose Gap”: 80% of the college graduates surveyed said that it is very important or extremely important to derive a sense of purpose from their work, yet less than half say that they have succeeded in finding it. Further, the study found that graduates who align their work with their interests, values, and strengths are roughly three times more likely to experience high purpose in work. The study concluded that universities need to do a better job helping students to prepare to lead meaningful and engaged professional lives, and offer more work-related experiences to help students to “efficiently pursue a path to purposeful work.”

Maybe. Or maybe we’re putting too much pressure on these first jobs after college. Maybe work is just supposed to be work. Maybe universities need to do a better job of setting realistic expectations for both what meaning and purpose is and should be, and how and when an individual can and should find it.

If the average college graduate can expect to have 11.7 jobs before the age of 50, as the report cites from Bureau of Labor Statistics data, then perhaps the role of universities is not to help students to “efficiently pursue a path to purposeful work,” but to give students the tools that they will need to learn from and grow through the experiences that they will have post-college, not all of which will align with meaning and purpose. It’s a rather high bar to expect that any twenty-something will have a clear idea of who they are, and where they find meaning, upon graduation. Indeed, that’s the very point of these first post-graduation experiences: to help young people figure out who they are and what matters to them.

We each have different orientations to work, as a job, a career, or a calling. Each of these orientations is valid. One is not better, more meaningful, than the other. When we hold up finding meaning and purpose through our work as the be-all, end-all goal, we privilege that calling orientation in dangerous ways, making it seem “better than” the others. And when we define that as the expectation, then a large number of college graduates are going to find themselves squarely in the middle of that “Purpose Gap,” wondering where and how things went so wrong.

The truth is, not everyone equates “work” with “a calling.” And even if you do, the likelihood that you will find it in your first professional roles is slim at best. Do you remember your first job after college? Mine involved a lot of data entry and supporting other people’s work. And that was with a master’s degree. I assure you, there wasn’t a lot of meaning and purpose to be found, there. But I definitely learned a lot about myself, about work, and about being an adult, all of which helped me to make better choices, more intentional choices, moving forward.

We have entered into an era where, it seems, everyone is expected to live a “big” life with big goals. You’re expected to “lean in,” to “rise and grind,” to “live your best life,” to “fail fast,” to “hustle hard.” Lives are performed on social media, upholding unrealistic expectations for what a happy and successful life should look like. The young professionals I know who are most unhappy are the ones who are trying to live out someone else’s life and live up to other’s expectations, whether it’s their university's, their parents', their friends', or what they see on social media. They aren’t making choices based on their own values, strengths, and interests, largely because they haven’t figured out what those things are, yet.

There’s a line by Meg Ryan’s character in the movie, You’ve Got Mail, that’s always resonated with me: “I lead a small life. Well, not small, but valuable. And sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven't been brave?” This is the question that I hear many young professionals asking: am I choosing this job or this life because it makes me happy or because it feels comfortable and safe? It is, in fact, a false dichotomy. It’s OK to be happy. And, it’s OK to be comfortable. It’s profoundly OK to choose to lead a small life, in whatever way that you define that. A “small life” can still be a meaningful life, as long as it’s meaningful to you.

So here is my advice, for those who soon will be making that move from college to life and work after college, as well as for those who are already there.

  • Remind yourself, this is not the dream job. With rare exception, the first job, or the first five jobs, is never going to be the one where you find your life’s meaning and purpose. The first job is just that, the first one of many to come, at least ten more if the Bureau of Labor Statistics is right. This is where you start to figure out how to be a competent working professional, what you do and don’t like about work, and build some tangible experiences to grow your resume and to get you to the next role, which gets you closer to that “dream.”
  • Build in those reflective practices. In order to do all of that work of growing as a professional, you have to learn from what is happening to you. Seek out feedback from your supervisor and colleagues. Keep a running list of what you do and don’t like about your tasks, the organizational culture, and the ways that you are being managed. Set six-month goals for yourself to grow your skills and knowledge-base, and take active steps towards achieving those goals. Don’t wait for someone to do this work for you.
  • Seek out mentors and wise counselors. Find people who can and will help you to make sense of your experiences, give you objective feedback on your strengths and growth opportunities, and connect you to resources and opportunities. There is a whole universe of information that you don’t know about work, about life, and about what comes next for you. Don’t try to make these decisions on your own. Ask for help.
  • Play the long game. Finally, remember that you have a long career and a long life ahead of you. The goal is to increasingly get closer and closer to that thing you might call “the dream,” or “a calling,” or “living your best life.” Just because something doesn’t seem “meaningful,” doesn’t mean that it’s not “valuable.” And, always remember the words of a very wise young professional: “If something doesn’t seem meaningful, then put meaning to it.” You always have the ability to choose how you show up in your own life.

The work that many universities, my own included, are doing to connect students to lives of meaning and purpose is a worthy endeavor. But I would much rather see students and young professionals choosing to live lives of intention. Take ownership for the choices and decisions that you are making and the life that you are creating, intentionally reflect on what you are learning, and the meaning and the purpose will follow.