I recently watched Esther Perel's TED talk on the secret to desire in long-term relationships, and if you haven't already seen it, I would actually forget reading the rest of this and going to check it out right now.
She talks about the unrealistic burden we tend to place on marriage (or long-term romantic partnerships) in a day and age where one person is suddenly expected to fill two opposing needs - our need for safety as well as our need for desire:
"We come to one person and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide. Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one. Give me comfort, give me edge. Give me novelty, give me familiarity. Give me predictability, give me surprise."
She discusses the couple's challenge to keep intimacy alive as they get further into the territory of the familiar (where, apparently, desire goes to die) and it resonated because it links to what I've noticed with the relationship that many millennials try to build with their careers.
Perel discusses how marriage used to be a contractual agreement - we'll share property, we'll share kids, we'll share a social status. Nowadays, it has shifted: the person you marry is expected to still remain your partner in all those things, but they are also expected to be your family and fantasy and anchor and adventure all at once.
Similarly, a job used to be a long-term arrangement whereby you provided skills and your employer provided compensation for said skills - end of story. Today's workplace seems to be much more than just a marketplace. For millennials, 'work' has almost taken on a spiritual obligation - it has become a place where we are meant to find meaning and redeem not only ourselves but also the world around us.
This may actually only hold true for the kind of person I meet through our member base - they're often in a fiercely competitive big city like London or New York; a well-educated young professional; far from the community where they grew up. They're intellectually curious and question traditional institutions and want to 'make a difference' but struggle with knowing how to do so.
The conversations I have with members often mirror the dichotomy that Perel discusses ("I want adventure, but also give me security"). I often meet the lawyer who hits pause to spend six months volunteering in Uganda and the banker who yearns to transition into start-ups and the advertising executive who moonlights with his food blog.
Their day jobs feed their need for comfort and security and the adventures they dabble in feed their need for transcendence and exploration. To try and reconcile the two into a single job seems to be a similar exercise to building a marriage where a partner is a best friend as well as an erotic fantasy. Possible - yes. A given? Not necessarily.
It is hard - if not impossible - to (immediately) generate a generous salary from volunteering, starting a business, or a blog. I meet a lot of high achievers who suddenly morph into anti-careerists. As Marilyn Monroe said, "A career is wonderful thing, but you can't snuggle up to it on a cold night."
Yes, she's right. However, a regular income is also necessary to survival. To deny that is to live in an adolescent fantasy world, and the question that often trips up a lot of our members is how to translate their fantasies into a reality that pays the rent.
They want a meaningful job, but what if they don't want to give up their 'quality of life'? They want the freedom of running a business but how can they do it without the risk? They want to switch industries but can they do it without starting at the bottom all over again?
The struggle often dissipates when we apply the same reality check that Perel applies to relationships: our day jobs were never meant to be the singular, primary source of meaning in our lives. Where one finds meaning is a deeply personal and unique matrix. While a job can strengthen self-esteem or provide a sense of belonging to an industry or field, it was never meant to replace endorphins, the loyalty of close friends, intimacy, laughing until your stomach cramps, or the feeling of gazing into a starry night sky.
Perhaps we are meant to have hobbies and passions that never translate into full-time jobs (at least not straight away). We have multiple selves within us. Some are lucky enough to reconcile the playful self and the working self into one role - others have a job in order to pay the rent and their true fulfilment comes from family, friends, and passions outside of their day job. To place too much pressure on our job to provide us with fulfilment that it was never meant to provide can overshadow the opportunity to find meaning in a range of activities and relationships.
When I think of the most fulfilled people I know, they enjoy their day jobs but they aren't enslaved by them. They also derive a huge amount of meaning and joy from their personal relationships. They exercise regularly. They have creative outlets but they also manage to pay the rent.
When I hear members complaining about their jobs, I've started to question whether it's really their job that is the problem, or whether it is a deeper feeling of invisibility and powerlessness that they struggle with in their lives outside of work (that job-switching isn't necessarily going to fix). They seem to be longing for a metaphorical neighbourhood that doesn't exist, for a holistic sense of feeling like they belong to their own lives.
Having said all this, I spend the majority of my own time with an organisation that exists to help people find work they love. I am not arguing that we should give up on the idea of love - if anything, I am a firm believer and fighter for love - for finding work you love - my point is that love is a journey that is made much easier when expectations are realistic.
By no means am I underestimating the powerful clarity that can come with feeling like you've found your mission, but in my mind, that is a different thing to a day job. They're related, but it's like true love and long-lasting marriage - one does not necessarily imply the other. And just like in a romantic relationship - the less pressure we put on a day job to live up to unrealistic expectations, the more we become able to enjoy it for what it is, rather than what we wish it could be.
For more about Escape the City, click here.
For more articles and books by Adele Barlow, click here.
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