Reflecting on my work-in-the-world (which, as ever, is a mysterious work-in-progress), three phrases formed a bright triangle in my mind:
1. Service: the core of life, wisdom in action, becoming yourself by stepping out of yourself
2. Dynamic Stability: a balance of flexibility and structure; having enough energy to engage in meaningful work inside “the office” and enough time and resources to pursue service and creativity in the world
3. Creative Sharing: art forged in solitude must find receptive hearts
I slowly realized that these three points are the essentials I need for fulfilling work. I’m going to focus here on the second point: dynamic stability.
This phrase comes from physics and is used to describe a moving system (like a bicycle or airplane) that can sustain external shocks without drastically changing course. Think of it as resilience in motion.
I think this is a good metaphor for what young people today are trying to do. In the midst of radical uncertainty and instability, we are trying to find our deep stability – but not stasis. We crave growth, travel, exploration. But we also seek a supportive structure in which to serve and share our creative endeavors.
More than anything, we are beginning to trust our intuition, which leads us to question the career moulds and life choices of past generations.
And yet, there is great confusion. How can we define ourselves and our aims when there are no models for the work we feel called to do?
I think the world is entering a time when each person will be required to have a vocation – a heartwork – not merely a career. And vocation is, by definition, unique to the individual. At the same time, the spheres of life that in the past have been separate – work, family, “me time” – will no longer be artificially carved up. Instead, people are looking for integration – a braiding together of our interests, commitments, needs, talents, and relationships.
This is going to require not only honest insight into our work-in-the-world. It’s going to require schools and workplaces to evolve into more supportive and dynamically stable spaces. I see many people looking for jobs that provide a sense of connection to real people, while balancing structured tasks with creative freedom. What used to be called “work-life balance” needs to evolve – and to merge. We need life balance, pure and simple. (Or not so simple…)
And now, let’s address the money question. Like many of my peers, I snapped up a number of unpaid internships. Maybe I imagined that one day, hard at work transcribing yet another interview, my journalist boss would tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘I’ve had my eye on you kid’ – and offer me a desk, a by-line, and a steady paycheck. I did get noticed, but always for a project, an assignment, not a stable, salaried job.
The days of internships turning into decades-long careers (in a modern twist on the straw-into-gold fairytale) are mostly over. And yet, students are still encouraged to work for free! Not only that, there is an unspoken fear that if you don’t indenture yourself while trying to pay off student loans, you will be passed over for a nonexistent job and fail to impress the powers that be.
I’d like to do whatever I can to dispel this myth. Of course, volunteer work and certain internships can be invaluable, if only to learn what you do not want to do ever. Better to find this out in a 3 month stint than to get hired and fired in short order.
At the same time, I feel indignant for sincere young people who enter organizations with such drive and passion, only to leave feeling angry and used.
So many of my friends (and myself) are still seeking an environment that honors our talents while giving us space to live, and money to live on. But it seems we are presented with a stark choice: spend all your time and energy working for an organization that may be more draining than fulfilling. Or, cut yourself loose and work freelance, trying to juggle a hodgepodge of projects, leaving precious little time or energy for concentration on long-term goals.
Since I graduated in 2011, I’ve pretty much taken the freelance route. At the beginning, I had hopes of a staff position – only to be told of hiring freezes and shrinking budgets. Naturally, there are jobs and paychecks to be had, but in a constricted number of fields, mainly IT, finance, and marketing. Those who choose a traditional profession like doctors and lawyers still have a chance at stable wages. And there are a handful of positions in NGOs and government agencies.
But if your heart leads you to the arts, education, human rights, or development, I encourage you to leave the safety of a “career track” and start building your own track – from scratch. Time spent in organizations must be balanced with time spent in the field, speaking with people, learning how to listen, how to see.
One thing I’ve learned over these past three years is to be both open and unshakable at the same time. What I mean is that you need to be absolutely committed to the core of yourself, whether that’s making music or teaching kids to read. At the same time, especially in the early stages of building your track, you need to be ready for growth and hardships and wisdom from surprising places. Don’t cut off possibilities because they look like detours. But also protect your time and energy from being scattered in a million different directions.
Every philosophy worth its salt has counselled “Know Thyself.” But when you are on the inside of this statement, peering out at the world with startled eyes, it can require every ounce of courage and faith not to back down and settle for the beaten track. Or to sink into the despair of comparison, and lose your way.
But inside this massive uncertainty and self-doubt we all face, we must remember the sole-shaped patch of dirt or pavement beneath our feet. This little patch of ground is a beautiful law. It is constant whether we have full use of our limbs or are quadriplegic. It is constant because it is a state of mind, not a physical place. Once we discover our internal poise and stance, firmly rooted but flowing, we won’t be so vulnerable to external shocks.
What used to knock us off our feet entirely will only sway us back to center again.