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For Recent Grads (and the Rest of Us): Welcome to the Occupation

09/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

With all due respect to Forrest Gump, the unpredictability of life calls for a more visceral metaphor than a box of chocolates. More akin to Pandora's problematic little cache, in its extremes life doles out events that force the issues of unpredictability and personal growth, opening wide with all sorts of experiences that force us to respond, react and reach into our own depths for wisdom. As new grads settle into the work world with varying levels of hope, desire, ambition and "let's do it better", no matter what metaphor you use to communicate the unpredictability of life, it bears remembering that there is single major determining factor to the quality of life as you experience it: attitude.

The New York Times recently reported that among the bright minds in our nation's B-schools, when it comes to top priorities in job selection compensation has fallen off the top of the pile. My knee-jerk assumption in reading their lead in was, "Of course, work-life balance...." But not so fast, knees. The real jerk into reality is that these new best and brightest have the audacity to value "Challenging Responsibilities" more than anything else. Oh, yes they did.

Weighing in at 64%, challenging responsibility ranks a full 16% more important than compensation (48%) and 19% more important than work/life balance (45%). All other attributes, such as contribution to society, ethics, travel and collegial interaction, rated no higher than mid-20s. So much for playing nice in the sandbox.

Young bright minds among us aren't really any different from the rest of the clan. We're all quick to say "Yes, I can" to the idea of hope and audacity, as our souls fall back asleep and we click on the next high ranked YouTube file. Take the greening of the planet: despite our collective desire for the earth to continue to be the lovely little bluegreen place it is, only with the current fuel crisis are serious strides being taken towards conservation. With respect to work, the general population has repeatedly been studied for widespread apathy when it comes to where we make a living, with Gallup, Towers Perrin and the U.S. government all chiming in with startling statistics. It seems we'd all like to feel challenged by our responsibilities. But wait a minute: isn't life itself a challenging responsibility?

Bearing in mind Pandora's lesson to "be careful what you wish for", and that we can't exactly poke the bottom of the truffle before biting in, the notion that there is some magic project or perfect challenge that will validate our professional existence or work-life is troubling. That we can order up challenge and responsibility and expect it to come in a picture-pretty form, complete with movie-like narrative in which the protagonist is landed with a huge challenge, faces brief uncertainty, then triumphs to save the company amidst applause of colleagues and superiors alike is more than a little removed from what challenge and responsibility mean.

The folks at Merriam-Webster say that in this context, challenge means a summons that is threatening, provocative, stimulating, or inciting; an invitation to compete; a calling to account or into question; a sentry's command to halt and prove identity; or a stimulating task or problem. Oh, and the word they use to describe responsibility: BURDEN.

My friend and organizational development expert Dr. Judith Bardwick has written many titles on workplace engagement, most recently One Foot Out The Door. In One Foot she looks at generational views on challenges at work and her research shows that boomers generally don't have this preoccupation with navel-gazing on whether or not the challenges experienced make the mark or not. With boomers collective memory of pre-war joblessness and wartime concerns, simply having a place to go to make money to feed the kids was a pretty good challenge to have solved.

The even-more-ancients agree. Mystic poet Rumi says there are a million ways to kneel and kiss the ground. In The Bhaghavad-Gita, the hero laments that his family is about to slaughter each other in a war. The "challenging responsibility" for him is to choose how to respond. God in the form of a taxi driver says to him (loosely translated), "Hey buddy, in life it really doesn't matter what you do just that you do it wholly, with your entire being, fully IN, no whining allowed". We're talking Dharma here - getting into agreement with your life EXACTLY AS IT IS. Drawing wisdom from a more contemporary example of genocide, psychologist and holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankel's writings on life in concentration camps revealed that no matter the situation or circumstances, it is the search for meaning that brings meaning. That IS the challenging responsibility.

Although some say attraction strategy will land you a Ferrari, challenging responsibility can't be ordered up picture perfect from a helicopter-parentlike universe and delivered into our laps without a lot of challenge and responsibility attached. That means BURDEN, PROVING ONES IDENTITY, COMPETING and all those other words the folks at Merriam-Webster mentioned. That you will be challenged and feel responsibility/burden by work and life is certain. That you see responding to life as a challenging responsibility is up to you.

It's a great reminder for us each to stay tuned for some exhilaration and torpor -- along with every emotion in between. Life's unpredictability being what it is, the key is choosing where you land in that spectrum. Got a boring first job? Go figure. Your boss seems out of touch? Too bad. Feel like your talents and intelligence are going to waste? Boo hoo. In the words of Jim Morrison, "no one here gets out alive". In the interim, your challenging responsibility is to be fully present and responsive as you move through each and every day.