The Two Decade Cycle That We All Inevitably Break…But What’s Next?
Much like every other 20 something year old who is striving to launch their career, and is trying to find a path among the constant bombardment of opportunity, I struggle…hard. On a seemingly daily basis, my brain churns through thought after thought, analyzing how each decision I make aligns with the future I hope to have. A series of judgments are made on if it’s a “should” vs a “want”, and how the decision wraps up into the interconnected web of life priorities that I’ve established for myself. Sometimes I get lucky. The stars align and I have a metric to track myself against. Maybe it’s finally receiving a hard earned promotion, being presented an accolade at work, reaching a milestone with my girlfriend, or hitting my fitness goal.
These brief moments give recognition to my efforts and provide that “notch on the wall” quantifying my growth. However, far too often it’s the opposite. Ambiguity looms over my progress, and it becomes difficult to measure how effective I am at executing on what is important to me. To be frank, it’s maddening! How do you assign value to the decisions you make, when you don’t have a way to measure them? Maybe it’s just my analytical personality, grasping for a semblance of quantifiable results, that perpetuates this incessant frustration. Either way, I’m starting to accept this new reality — or at least trying to. A day at a time, putting forth effort to continuously learn and grow myself so that I can thrive in this space without as much friction. As are many of my colleagues/friends who I’ve discussed this with, which leaves a question unanswered in my mind:
How do we better prepare the next generation for what seems to be an inevitable reality?
Before we get ahead of ourselves, I think it’s pertinent to determine where this challenge stems from and I have a theory that begins with education…
Looking back at nearly two decades of schooling, I realized that my life had been methodically outlined into a series of yearly cycles. Every August marked the start of each new school year and like clock work, the cycle began: Get assigned a syllabus, do the coursework, get periodic feedback about how I was doing, take a final exam, and receive a grade that summarized my accomplishments.
With every passing year, I rinsed and repeated this process. At anytime, I knew where I stood academically — I had complete control. From start to finish the expectations were outlined, grades showed me how I was performing, teachers provided instantaneous feedback on questions, and course plans structured how each class contributed to the next. After 17 years of education, I was essentially a pro at being a student. Eventually this chapter of my life came to an end though and with my Mechanical Engineering degree in hand, I entered the workforce for the first time as a salaried, full-time employee. My career, as I understood it, had officially begun. Unbeknownst to me (and what seems to be many of my friends), I had a MASSIVE gap in my skill set. No one had taught me how to handle the ambiguity of life. I had dealt with it in various magnitudes throughout my education, but what I didn’t know was how to address the sustained ambiguity on this large of scale.
As most first job experiences go, I found myself ambitious for growth and mentally exploring what it was that I wanted next. Thoughts rolled through my mind about what exactly I was going to do with my life, and how I was going to make an impact on the world. The endless stream of questions eventually started to pile up in front of me and two things became alarmingly apparent:
1.) I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life…
2.) Even if I did know what I wanted from my life, I had no clue what steps needed to be taken to make these ideas a reality.
What made these realizations even worse, is that I’m not alone in drawing these conclusions. A common thread that I’ve seen throughout my peers, is a deeply rooted undertone of anxiety centered around similar thoughts. When extrapolated to the national level, it’s staggering to realize how many other people are engaged in this common struggle. Last year 70% of high school graduates signed themselves up to head off to college, continuing their cycle of education, and there-by adding to a growing list of individuals who are at risk for the very same outcome. So it begs the question about what can be done to ease this transition and provide the tools/resources to enable each individual to create actionable plans for their future?
There is a large portion of this struggle that is a natural and an unavoidable reality in life. Without it, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to have the level of growth that has come over the last four years (gray hairs included), and in many ways, it has been a “right of passage” as I begin my journey into adulthood. The struggle forced introspection, inherently developing a deeper understanding of who I am. Even better, many of the my positive life habits were formed due to the pressures I placed on myself during this time. As I became more comfortable in this space, I found that the harder I leaned into this desire for change, the more I realized my potential for creating it. To tie it back to my engineering background, innovation comes as a response to a need. The caveat to this being, you must understand what the need truly is.
Today, in order to manifest the change I want for myself, I understand that I must visualize it first. For me personally, I’ve determined that manifestation is delineated into two silos:
I was asked a question a few years back, a question that I had always presumed I knew the answer to: Who is Bryan Karr? It seemed rather trivial at first but when I was asked to write it out on paper, I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure where to start. Up until this moment, no one else in my life had asked me to articulate these thoughts into a formal summary; not even myself! Somehow, in my mind I was certain of so many “things” and aware of countless experiences that had shaped my perception of the world. Yet I couldn’t summarize it into a one page synopsis. A well of anxiety pooled up in my chest, as my self image came crumbling to the foundation. I walked away defeated, self conscious, and with a monumental problem to solve.
A few days later, I took a moment to readdressed the question. It resonated with the common theme of my life at the time, disarray. With all of life’s uncertainties, tumultuously cascading through my mind, I knew I had to find something to slow it all down. I tried a laundry list of self help tools, essentially throwing ideas against the wall and seeing what stuck. Although taking a deep breath, closing your eyes, and meditating until your thoughts stop racing around is great for some people, I kept finding that I needed something a bit more tangible to supplement how I cared for my mental state. Before long though, the list was reduced down to a select few items and below is what I’ve discovered thus far:
The Role of Business, Mentors, and Leaders
When it comes to mentors in my life, I’ll start by saying that my parents have been invaluable life coaches. I know for a fact that I don’t thank them enough for listening to me ramble through my thoughts over the phone, or for the gentle nudges they provide to keep me on track with my life goals, or for simply just being present in my life. I’m blessed to have such great parents and with that being said, I’ve witnessed first hand how this luxury isn’t extended to everyone…so thanks Mom and Dad! Moving beyond them, I’ve realized that my career offers the most promise for mentoring and personal development. I have a lot of thoughts on this topic but one in particular stands out.
The most valuable time in our days for creating progress toward our goals, is spent at work. We spend at least 30% of our adult life working, and these critical hours are when we’re at peak productivity, consuming a large portion of our energy for the day. The way I see it, we spend 30% of our life at work but this 30% represents 70–80% of our “productive time”. With this perspective, our career’s are an essential element of our personal development and should be leveraged to provide growth towards whatever our goals are. Compassionate leaders and effective mentoring programs are proven methods for facilitating this development in the workplace, yet time and time again, organizations fail to deliver this necessary resource to their young professionals.
So far, I’ve been lucky to have found individuals who champion my success. I can think of three people who over the last two years offered mentoring in my career. I pushed hard within the walls of my current company to build a reputation (however small it may be), and feel as though I earned the opportunity to sit down with these people. To a certain extent, I believe that this is a luxury to be earned. As with most good things in life, it requires a level of hard work and dedication. It would be egregious to assume that people are going to expend the effort to go out of their way to help you, without some indication from you that you WANT their help in the first place. This being understood, if you’ve showed that you’re invested in what you’re doing and shown aspiration for growth, then why don’t organizations have useful programs setup to accommodate this?
I have my ideas, which I’ll share in another article, but my short answer is I don’t know. Companies like Google, Apple, and various other technology firms have provided a proven structure for how to effectively invest in their people. C-Level executives and LinkedIn influencers continue to share their leadership success stories for the rest of us to learn from. Stacks of books have been written, studies have been performed, and theories have been put into practice, yet the majority of organizations have fumbled their attempts to implement/execute this strategy. I can’t speak for human resource teams and executive leadership as to why this has been the case. What I can say, is that until organizations are capable of motivating their leadership at all levels to engage with their employees growth in a productive and intentional way, it’s up to us to forge our own path forward. Below are the steps I’ve taken to engage people in my organization:
The cycle breaks. Ambiguity settles in. We move forward.
These are three truths that are unequivocally true for each and every one of us. If you’re in your 20’s and reading this, know that whatever your struggle is, it’s real. Know that you’re not alone in dealing with it, and know that you have the power to manifest the change you want in the world.
Put in the time to truly get to know yourself! Explore your personality and how you engage with the world around you. Feel your feelings, explore your thoughts, and own your life. Find people who you align with, and ask for their help. When given the chance, return the favor.
For many of us, this cycle is already broken. We’ve experienced what it feels like to drift into the ambiguity of our lives and now it’s up to us to find a way to make it easier for the next generation. Hour by hour, day by day, we’ll change things for the better. I’ll see you out on the battlefield of life…
Authors Note: This is the first in a series of articles, which walk through my thoughts and experiences about creating the life I want as a young professional. I’d love to hear your thoughts too and what you find challenging in your own life.
The Two Decade Cycle That We All Inevitably Break…But What’s Next?
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