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The people with whom you work may never know how your career goals fit within the life that you want for yourself and your family
The 54th Super Bowl takes place this Sunday. This is one of a couple times in the year when my memory drifts back to my 20s and my earliest career goals. I often remember one anecdote in particular.
On a spring evening more than 10 years ago, I was in a local Blockbuster store, renting a movie. I had spent most of the past four years laying the groundwork for a full-time job in the NFL. As a college student, I had held eight different internship positions with various NFL teams and league organizations.
Fifteen months after graduation, I achieved my career goal: an NFL team hired me as a scouting and salary cap assistant. I worked on the sidelines during games. The team included me on chartered flights to our opponents’ stadiums. I updated the draft board in the team’s “war room” on draft day. I felt, perhaps, like some people do when they make partner. Or when their company goes public. Or even when they just receive an impressive title or unusually large bonus. In my case, the story ended with me walking away less than one year later.
While I was checking out the movie, another customer commented that he liked my team jacket. I thanked him, hoping to end the conversation there. But he then asked where I had bought it. Reluctantly, I mumbled under my breath that I worked for the organization. He told me several times how cool that is, and proceeded to ask questions about the players and my role for the next 10 minutes.
Growing up, I feel like I heard “follow your passion” more than any other career advice. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers gave me the impression that becoming stuck in an uninspiring job was the most regrettable career mistake. So I took this advice seriously. Starting early in high school, I worked on finding a career that sprung directly from my hobbies or interests. For me, that meant sports. I decided that, if I could become a NFL general manager, I “would never work a day in my life.”
This approach to work isn’t too different from the more common search for an ever-increasing income. We view each new position as a short-term sprint, at the end of which we’re sure we’ll be happier or wealthier. Under a sprint mentality, we justify the sacrifices we need to make to increase our probability of success. Sure, we’re not seeing our friends and family as much as we would like. Yes, our fitness and sleep are suffering. But pretty soon we’ll have the money and time to truly enjoy the rest of our life.
The “passion” narrative to which I subscribed didn’t show any warning signs when I started my sports business career in college. My work hours looked similar to other summer and part-time academic year employees. My paycheck (when I was even paid) wasn’t too different either. And most importantly to me, I — unlike many of my peers — felt proud and giddy that I was even allowed to walk the halls of organizations I had long revered.
Ultimately, my identity as an employee eclipsed every other part of me. I devoted almost any spare thought to how I could earn the approval of current and potential employers. Everything else became secondary. During my senior year of college, I passed up social events to research opportunities, tweak my resume, and send cover letters. When I still didn’t have an offer that spring, I felt more stress than I’ve ever felt in my life. The full-time job that I later received (after one more internship) relieved the pressure, but I had lost all perspective.
We know that prestige and wealth are seductive. An overlooked challenge, though, is understanding in the early-career period what you stand to lose in that pursuit. Most people in this life stage don’t have children and have spent the recent past on a college campus. Under these circumstances, devotion to an employer may seem benign, even responsible. I plunged myself into an unbalanced, one-dimensional life without an appreciation for what I might miss. While it’s never too late to change, many people fear that new start or don’t want to abandon the time they’ve spent. Yet, keeping your head down is unsustainable.
Our parents’ generation once dedicated themselves to one employer for most or all of their careers. Many could feel secure in their job stability and future pension benefits. As that system has unraveled, the path to financial stability has become less clear. I was fortunate in that I would have had numerous ways to earn a living after graduation, if I had chosen to pursue them. I also had the resources and support to recover quickly from any sub-optimal career goals I set for myself.
Even so, for almost everyone, educational and work decisions generally build upon one another. Intentionally or not, my kids will develop relationships, skill sets, and a salary trajectory in their first 10 years after college. These will determine their opportunities and life circumstances in the decades that follow. This dynamic is why the blind, singular pursuit of inspiring or high-income work is so problematic. If only due to human nature, we become creatures of habit and lock ourselves into a path that we may not have chosen under much different conditions.
And modern employment incentivizes employers to exploit these traits and objectives. I’ve held multiple positions in which a company promised a future promotion or raise that ultimately didn’t materialize. I have friends who continue to devote excessive amounts of time to work in the hope of earning a certain title or bonus. We tell ourselves that the situation is only temporary. We tell ourselves that our lives will be better once we achieve our career goals. The outcome is not entirely in our control, though. And we stand to sacrifice a lot, regardless of what happens.
The largest possible paycheck that someone can obtain *right now* has advantages. But it isn’t the key to a sustainable income that supports the goals you have in life. And searching for jobs based on what you feel passionately about likely isn’t the answer.
Someone might make more money in the short-term through an all-encompassing commitment to an employer. But you can’t achieve a diverse set of life goals if you live an extremely limiting life. And once you reach the point of burnout, you’ll need to switch career tracks on terms other than your own. You’ll have so much less creativity and energy to give in the years that follow that your chance of success falls in tandem.
This isn’t an argument to neglect your work or give anything less than your best effort. Rather, it’s an argument to work with focus and efficiency when you need to work. It’s an argument to understand your limits and the boundaries that you need to set. Strangers — and even some of your friends and family members — may never know the variety of goals that you set for yourself. You just need to learn to resist superficial admiration for the things that really matter.
Kevin Mahoney, CFP® is the founder & CEO of Illumint, an independent firm in Washington, DC that offers financial planning for Millennial parents. He specializes in navigating the new financial decisions that arise during our 30s and early 40s, such as repaying student loans, buying a house, saving for college, & investing for the future. In addition, Kevin also leads a financial wellness benefits program for Millennial employees around the country, including group speaking engagements.
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