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We’re moving from a means-based economy to a meaning-based one
Author and speaker Bruce Feiler on defining success on our own terms
“The people who find the most meaning—and therefore are the most successful on their own terms—they don't climb. They dig. They go looking inside of themselves.”
Author and speaker Bruce Feiler has spent years collecting and analyzing life stories from a variety of Americans—people of different ages, income levels, and across all 50 states. One recurring theme he noticed: more and more people are searching for meaning in their work. Bruce shares his observations with host Elise Loehnen and explains why the notion of a linear career path is outdated.
You can catch the complete episode (1 hour, 3 minutes) on Spotify.
Modern careers aren’t linear. We often think of careers as being linear: climbing the proverbial corporate ladder for more power, wealth, and status. Maybe this scenario was more common when people stayed with one company for much of their working lives, but it’s no longer the case. Continued high rates of voluntary turnover and general work dissatisfaction across the board reflect a big shift in our expectations for work and our desire for meaning and significance. Bruce describes this transition as one from a “means-based economy to a meaning-based economy.”
The average person goes through 20 “workquakes” over the course of their lifetime. Workquakes are moments of change or instability that prompt reevaluation, like starting a family or becoming ill. They often begin outside of the workplace but change your relationship with work. Women, younger generations, and diverse groups tend to experience more workquakes.
People have as many as five types of jobs at a time: main jobs, side jobs, care jobs, hope jobs, and ghost jobs. We conventionally only hear about the first two—your primary work and the side gigs done for love or money—but the other types aren’t new by any means. A care job involves caring for another being: aging relatives, children, even a pet. A hope job is done with the hope of leading to something else, like writing a screenplay or creating a podcast. Finally, there are ghost jobs, which aren’t jobs in the typical sense. Bruce describes them as the invisible activities that consume time and energy, like battling discrimination, staying sober, and worrying about your finances.
“One of the reasons that we have these multiple jobs is that they are a way for us to cobble together meaning,” Bruce says. You might rely on one job for a stable income and benefits but pursue another for self-expression. These jobs don’t always fit into a narrow, predictable career trajectory.
The most popular business books of the last century were all written by and about the same type of person. Think books like How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Power of Positive Thinking, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and What Color is Your Parachute? After counting the names mentioned in these books, Bruce found that the majority of their stories—631 out of 689—centered around white men.
Bruce, himself a white man, isn’t criticizing the authors, but points out how their cultural dominance has skewed our perceptions of professional success. “The story we've all been sold is a limiting story,” he says. “There are many more stories. The challenge then is how do you identify what's your story? What is it that brings you meaning?”
Your work story is your narrative for finding meaningful and fulfilling work. In his research, Bruce noticed that our goals and expectations for work are heavily influenced by our parents. He advocates digging deeper with a “meaning audit” to define success on your own terms. Bruce asks Elise the following questions to invite this introspection:
What’s the first word that comes to your mind when you hear the word “work”?
What were the upsides and downsides of work you learned from your parents?
Other than your parents or other family members, who were your role models as a child?
Complete the following sentence: I’m in a moment in my life when…
Knowing about your family history prepares you to navigate the ups and downs of life. This comes from psychologist Marshall Duke, whose work Bruce wrote about for The New York Times in 2013. According to Marshall’s research, there are three common family narratives: ascending (”Started from the bottom, now we're here”); descending (”We used to have it all, then we lost it”); and oscillating (”We’ve seen ups and downs”). Children raised with oscillating narratives tend to have greater self-esteem and psychological resilience.
Bruce brings up Marshall’s work to reinforce the idea that you don’t need to follow a stable, linear life path to achieve success. Facing doubt and uncertainty helps us grow.
I’ve been chewing on Bruce’s work story questions since listening to this episode, specifically the one about what lessons about work I’ve learned from my parents.
My parents ran a restaurant before I was old enough to remember. I don’t know much about it, only that it was named Ten Square. What I actually remember are the jobs they held through most of my childhood and beyond, long after the restaurant closed. Both immigrants from Taiwan, my dad spent 14 years as a machine operator for Velcro, and my mom nearly 20 as a Walmart associate.
The messages about work I learned from them were lessons in working hard and taking what you can get. A job was a means to an end, not a source of fulfillment or purpose. You did not negotiate for anything more; you always did as you were told.
This is the backdrop for my work story, one I am still very much trying to define. I so appreciate Bruce and Elise’s conversation for the reflection it inspired, and its reminder of how privileged I am to even be in this position today—thinking about work as providing more than a paycheck.
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