Q: I am a typical late-20s cubicle-working dude. I make enough money to support the life I have and save a little bit each month like all those financial-advice columns say. However, I’m wildly unsatisfied with my work. And truth be told, I’m not particularly great at it. I’m by no means a “bad employee.” I show up on time, get stuff done, actively avoid talking about people, etc. But I’m a mediocre, possibly even below-average, worker. Naturally, I know that I need to find a new job, but I’m having trouble systemically deciding “what I want to do.” I read a few career-change books: useless. I wandered through career-change Medium posts: even more useless. I even attended one of those evening seminars on finding the right career: useless and 70 bucks evaporated. Can you give me some actually useful ideas? — Arlington, Virginia
A: Who among us has not been in the type of job so unsatisfying it prompts an existential crisis? I’ve had two of them in my first 13 years in the full-time workforce, so rest assured you are not some implacable freak, Arlington. There are some people who have this magical power to let their job pay the bills without dictating their happiness, but I am not one of them. From the sound of it, neither are you.
So how does an ambitious person who sucks at boundaries between work and life figure out a career path? I’ve always been too cheap to drop $70 on a seminar in part because I’ve had the same allergic reaction to the blogs and books that you have. Those things, and so much of society at large, tend to treat jobs as if we live in a Richard Scarry book: Each town has a firefighter and a doctor and a construction worker and a teacher; pick your life from that list. But the oceans are rising, robots are coming for all of us, and entire industries are dying out, so making decisions based on a 1970s preschooler’s understanding of the world seems ill-advised.
The best advice I ever received on how to figure out what to do with my life was this: Ignore job titles and company names — everything except the daily tasks you want to do and the skills you want to build. Make a list of the parts of your current and past jobs that you’ve liked the most, and the least. Think of the last project you heard about that made you wildly jealous. Think about what parts of your life do make you feel satisfied and why, and then think about what kinds of jobs use those same skills. Talk to friends and trusted colleagues and mentors about what you’re best at and listen to their assessments. Then talk to even more people about which combinations of skills line up with which types of jobs.
Maybe this will all add up to a job that uses your existing education and skills or maybe it will point to something entirely new. If it’s the latter, find a low-commitment way to try it out, whether through a night class or a shadow day or anything that doesn’t involve student loans or a total life upheaval. The need to pay rent most likely will keep you from quitting your ill-fitting job right away, but the knowledge that you’re working on a strategic exit plan with long-term payoff should help prevent you from going fully crazy.
You can lead a horse to diversity, but …
Q: I work for a large company based in a rural part of the American West. We have a new chief executive who has made diversity a top goal, yet we continue to hire white men or women, including two senior executive positions with “diversity” in the titles! When we hold public events, it is generally four or five white males and a white woman or two onstage. Recently, an event was so blatantly white that a few members of the audience questioned our organization about diversity. The CEO stumbled through a reply that sought to show we get it but also didn’t overpromise on action. As one of the few employees of color, I have been asked by the CEO for my feelings about diversity issues. If I’m honest, and therefore critical, I may sound like an opportunist, because an easy solution would be to promote me into a leadership position, or assumed to have sour grapes because I’m not already in one. I have kept my mouth shut, but it feels cowardly. I have let my feelings be known in small ways, serving on search committees and raising the diversity question there, and volunteering for public assignments. Should I speak up, or should I assume the company’s non-action over nearly two years and a dozen new hires is my answer? — Washington state
A: You’re telling me that companies sometimes talk a big game on diversity and then never back up those words with action? Seems hard to believe, but let’s go with it.
The CEO has asked for your honest feelings, so you should feel absolutely free to provide the critique he or she desperately needs to hear. It certainly is possible that you’ll be seen as bitter over your reassignment, but if that’s their assumption, keeping your lips zipped won’t change that. “I am concerned that we have hired a dozen white people since making diversity a company priority” is a sane and fact-based thing to say, and if your bosses are determined to interpret it differently, that’s not on you.
But! If the CEO’s intentions smell fishy, you also have every right to engage in a little self-preservation. There’s reason to be suspicious. A 2016 study by two University of Colorado management professors found that women and people of color who advocate for other women and people of color in hiring processes are penalized on their performance reviews. (Advocating for diverse hiring had no effect on white men’s evaluations.) More broadly, the burden of doing the hard work to create and maintain a diverse and inclusive workplace falls disproportionately on people from the groups being marginalized.
Accept the CEO’s invitation to discuss the issue, say explicitly that you’re not in a position to single-handedly solve it yourself, and see if anything changes. Mention the conversation to some white colleagues, too, in the hopes that they can be subtly shamed into showing some leadership. If they aren’t willing to put in real effort, you have no obligation to try to save them from themselves.