Are Careers Dead?

06/08/2015 09:22 am ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

I'm standing between two men, and we're looking out at rural Wisconsin. Red and white barns polka dot rolling golden hills and the high noon sun casts no shadows. A spring breeze blows gently across the tall grass, and I tuck the front of my flannel into my jeans. Behind us, a trout stream massages its way through the soft earth, and we turn in unison to face it when we hear the splash of a jumping fish. When nothing else breaks the surface, it becomes clear one of us has to say something. The moment is ripe for either something awkward or something profound. The man on my left, a coffee roaster, sips from his mug and bravely breaks the silence, uttering: "I think careers are dead." From the corner of my eye, I see the man on my right, a concrete craftsman, nodding in agreement. A fish finally jumps, I suppose to show it's agreement, too.

This nugget of riverbank philosophy stuck with me, "careers are dead." What an incredible thing to imagine. If careers were dead it would mean we would then be in a world where vocation was thriving. People could live their passions instead of working towards retirement. Money, while still relevant, could stop being hoarded and could instead be circulated as currency for exchange. Meaningful and purpose driven work could re-emerge as the cultural ideal, overtaking it's predecessor: arbitrary, relatively purposeless, and income driven careers. The economy could grow as our people's sense of wellbeing skyrocketed. It could be okay to become the broker, the banker, or the oil tanker, but it would also be okay to become the butcher, the baker, or the candlestick maker.

But of course, the coffee roaster, concrete craftsman, and the jumping fish were only being dreamy and optimistic. This is obviously not the state of our country. In my travels around America, I observe our post recession workforce and see careers are very much alive, but the people entrenched in them are not well. There is rampant job-hopping, unemployed and overeducated millennials in piles of debt, ever climbing divorce rates, and the evolution of the "quarter-life" crisis. People are commuting, ladder climbing, and building 401k's, but they are forgetting to enjoy their lives along the way. America appears sick with uncertainty and sadness, and the reaction to this can be observed everywhere. We are in the midst of a "wellness boom," but it's becoming clear that we're only treating the symptoms, not the source.

America, what we need in our lives is more joy. I'm not talking about the misguided principle our country was founded on, "the pursuit of happiness" In fact, I think the concept that happiness needs to be pursued is causing many of our wellness problems. It implies that happiness is always running away from us, and that we need to keep run after it and beg it to stay -- often we do this by bribing it with lots of money. We thereby make happiness expensive and buy into the illusion that happiness can be bought. We choose what work we will do based on how much money we will make, because we will use the money to make us happy. It's ridiculous, but we're infected with a strange type of career cancer and it is keeping us ill. No amount of meditating, downward dogs, or green juice is going to fix this.

We need to recognize there is a difference between our happiness and our joyousness, because we've been confusing the two and are making self-destructive decisions. Think of happiness like you would think of a drug. It can be purchased easily at first, and it may be fun as hell, but before long we need more and more doses to feel the same effects. It gets expensive, exhausting, and there are horrible hangovers. Now think of joyousness as the feeling you'd have watching a sunset after a day where you consciously participated to the absolute fullest. We can't buy the beautiful sunset we're watching, but nonetheless, there is this incredible, hair raising and skin tingling feeling we have earned. Joyousness is an achievable state of being; one we can experience continually by listening to our intuition, tending to our souls, and living the lives we feel called to live. It is sustainable, attainable, and is available to us when we choose to be our authentic selves.

Career-focused lives are a distraction from our vocations in the same way happiness is a distraction from our joy. Careers are not dead, but America, I'm afraid that if we don't kill them off, we will never fully live.