Whenever the topic “career” comes up over dinner with my parents, it feels like we speak two different languages. The expectations from a job seem to be so fundamentally different that it can be exhausting to get a point across.

It is not surprising that our understanding of a fulfilling career is so different, considering how much the work world has changed, even just in the past few years. It used to be that financial security, decent working hours and the perspective of having your own office someday were enough to sufficiently satisfy the work force, but can that be enough for us, the so-called generation Y?

We are often described as the generation that does not cease to search for the meaning in life and consequently, we demand meaning in our careers. For some reason, so many of us still end up in corporate chairs with shiny shoes on our feet thinking, “How did I get here?”.

In this article, I want to share with you my very personal experience of the corporate world. I was enrolled in a dual study apprenticeship program for 3 years of my life, working for one of the world’s largest IT companies.

I can say from personal experience that if we follow the path of least resistance - make decisions that make our parents proud and society nod silently in approval - we will end up exactly there. Everybody will be quite pleased with our accomplishments, but we so very often feel like this is not the life we envisioned. I know that this is not a very popular opinion, because it sounds so spoiled, demanding and discontent. Shouldn’t we be thankful for the job we scored right after graduation? The career opportunities we are presented with? Shouldn’t we be responsible adults and contribute to society instead of taking on yet another degree or traveling the globe doing absolutely nothing productive in the traditional sense? I am sure that many of you know at least some of these arguments, as do I.

I’ve heard people talking about how quitting would look on my CV, so I stuck with my job, at least until I got my degree. And afterwards, I was very close to staying in the same company, even though I knew I didn’t like it. I knew I wasn’t thriving in my work, and I even doubted whether I was doing a good job. But on the other hand, there was the money, the expectations and perhaps even the inner fear of the resistance I’d face should I choose to swim against the current.

But I did. And at the end of the day, it came down to this:

The world has never been as unfinished as it is now. (And yes, I stole this from an advertisement). It is complex, we’re faced with the paradox of having too much and too little at the same time and, perhaps more than ever, the future is full of uncertainty. Nobody can tell us what our jobs will look like in 20 years or what skills we will need to possess.

To be the leaders of tomorrow, in this strange new world, we will have to be brave, open-hearted and passionate. Do we really learn this in some corporate job with ten hierarchy levels between the CEO and ourselves? Where we don’t really understand what we are doing and why? In order to really boost our impact on society, we must embrace the things we understand and that are within our grasp -the things which give us purpose.

But enough of the idealistic talking. To offer something practical here, I will share with you the questions I asked myself to fight my way out of the corporate chair. They can only point you into the right direction when answered in a moment of complete self-honesty and fearlessness. Take your time, you might not have all the answers today.

Is it time to leave your corporate job? Ask yourself these questions: 

  1. Do I justify my job to myself and others?
  2. Is my work giving me energy or draining me of it?
  3. Is there anybody I work with whose life I would like to have?
  4. Do I feel inspired by my work?
  5. Last but not least: Is my work in line with my personal values?

Do I justify my job to myself and others? 

This is tough. For me, admitting that I leaned my career ladder against the wrong wall meant having to step down a few rungs - right back onto the ground. That was scary and hard to do, being the ambitious, competitive person that I am. But if we put so much effort in searching for the bright side of our jobs and convincing ourselves and others that our work is actually “not that bad”, we waste energy that we could put to better use.

Is my work giving me energy or draining me of it? 

Do I like getting up in the morning? Is there at least one to do in my list that I look forward to each day? If there is no part of our work that truly excites us (and again, let’s not lie to ourselves), it’s time to make some changes.

Is there anybody I work with whose life I would like to have? 

In all seriousness, if we don’t have any role models to look up to in our current working environment, then why are we there? There is obviously no use in working your way up to a job you don’t want to have.

Do I feel inspired by my work? 

Do you feel like you can think freely, out of the box? Or do you feel trapped and patronized? If we spend too much time completing other’s people tasks, while ignoring our own thoughts on them and withholding our talent from the world, we forget what it even feels like to think for ourselves. That’s a dangerous place to be in.

Last but not least: Is my work in line with my personal values? 

In my story, this was the point where I finally cracked. With all the societal problems we’re currently faced with, let it be irresponsible use of resources, pollution of the environment, child labour, you name it… the world and society as a whole needs us, the leaders and decision makers of tomorrow, to decide what will stay and what will go. It needs us to come up with creative solutions and implement change. It can start through lifestyle choices, like by thinking twice about how we spend our money when we go shopping, but also by choosing carefully who, and for what, we want to work for.

It’s easy to give in to the overwhelming desire to hide. Embrace your possibilities first. If it doesn’t feel right, there’s a good chance it’s not. And even though you might lose a little in terms of initial salary or rank, you’ll gain a whole lot more in the long run.

If it is any consolation, I have come to realize that it feels much better to fail at something you love than to succeed in something you don’t care about.

Helena now works at boost

Originally published October 1, 2015

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