The Challenge of Not Having a Challenge

Posted on Feb 4, 2015 in Work | 4 Comments

I’ve been slowly working my way through The World is Flat, a book by Thomas Friedman1. The subtitle describes the book well: A brief history of the twenty-first century.

In the first part of the book, Friedman takes a deep look a the exploding young professional class in India. In describing one call center in particular, the author notes that the business receives 700 applications per day and only six percent of applicants are hired. 10-20% of those employed at the call center are pursuing degrees in business, computer science, or both. The company sponsors MBA degrees for its workers. (pp 25, 28)

The business owner had an insightful perspective on the fast-paced, full-scheduled lifestyle of his employees:

“This is a high-stress environment,” said Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys, which also runs a big call center. “It is twenty-four by seven. You work in the day, and then the night, and then the next morning.” but the working environment, he insisted, “is not the tension of alienation. It is the tension of success. They are dealing with the challenges of success, of high-pressure living. It is not the challenge of of worrying about whether they would have a challenge.” (p. 28)

The challenge of worrying about whether they would have a challenge. I see this mindset in many of the young professionals I meet, including myself. The desire to accomplish “something great” or “meaningful,” or work on something you’re “passionate about” is in many ways seen as the benchmark definition for vocational success among my generation, though I don’t think the mindset a new phenomenon.

I believe we’re embedded with the desire to accomplish things—to make something with our skills, abilities and resources. On the other hand, I think that unbridled desire can lead to an unhealthy sense of entitlement and lack of commitment (according to Forbes, “ninety-one percent of Millennials (born between 1977-1997) expect to stay in a job for less than three years.”2).

I’ll write more on this topic soon, but needless to say it’s an interesting time to be working at a mission-driven company hiring talent who have an extremely high likelihood of short tenure with us.


1. You can read about The World is Flat on Wikipedia.2. You can read about trends in job tenure among Millenials on Forbes.

4 Comments

  1. Riley Adam Voth
    February 5, 2015

    Alright – this one has driven me out of reader silence to comment. 🙂

    I notice you were careful to use the word “unbridled desire”, but I’d still ask (since I know what you mean by “embedded”, being of the same spiritual beliefs as you) do you think this is wrong or selfish of people to crave “fulfillment” in their work? Has this been brought on by greater “awareness” these days where as otherwise we would’a been more content with what we have? Even the word “fulfillment” is a very recent word in human history. Were we more content before we knew we could say we weren’t? I just wonder about this as well and don’t have it figured out…

    Definitely write on it more cause you’ll have a unique perspective, given both your position and beliefs.

    Reply
    • Eric Dodds
      February 6, 2015

      Riley,

      Thanks so much for joining in. It’s always a great experience to hear from someone on the other end and this is a topic I really enjoy discussing. I’ll answer your questions in order:

      >>>>Do you think this is wrong or selfish of people to crave “fulfillment” in their work?

      Absolutely not. Going back the concept of desires being ’embedded’ in us, I believe that pursuing fulfillment in work is a natural proclivity in humans. I think the heart of the question is what we mean by the word “fulfillment.” Putting a definition on fulfillment is tough without addressing the concept of what our purpose is—seeking fulfillment begs the question, “what are we trying to fulfill?”

      This post isn’t the place to dive into all of the philosophical implications, so let’s look at two different examples of what fulfillment could look like for people. One person might say, “I want to do excellent work and provide for my family.” Another person might say, “I was born to be a writer, so I’m going to do everything possible to be a professional writer.”

      There’s nothing inherently wrong with either perspective. (In fact, it’s likely that the same person could honestly claim both things.) The second desire, specifically, though, creates much more room for selfishness, to get back to your question. There is a point at which pursuing what you define as fulfillment will cost you. Each of us needs to weigh those costs carefully and closely examine what our ideas of fulfillment are. That’s why I wrote in my post that “unbridled desire can lead to an unhealthy sense of entitlement and lack of commitment.”

      I force myself to face this question constantly out of fear of losing a grip on what I believe true fulfillment is. I’ve said before that my family is more important than my work, so it follows that if I didn’t feel particularly inspired by my work that I could still achieve fulfillment on some level because work isn’t the most important thing in my life.

      More specifically, both my wife and I are currently successful entrepreneurs who own (or partially own) our businesses. We are both doing almost exactly the type of work that both interests us and that we’re really good at. As often as possible, we remind ourselves that this experience is extremely rare and in no way do we somehow deserve to be doing the things that we’re doing. You’d better believe that we’re thankful.

      A healthy practice for me is to constantly ask, “if I didn’t have the privilege of doing work that I absolutely love—like I do right now—would I still feel like I’m living a fulfilling life?” I know from experience that circumstances can change in the blink of an eye, so I’m working hard to ensure the answer to that question is “yes.”

      >>>>Has this been brought on by greater “awareness” these days where as otherwise we would’a been more content with what we have? Were we more content before we knew we could say we weren’t?

      These are fascinating questions. A full treatment is probably best for another longer-form post, but here are a few thoughts:

      I do believe desires have changed throughout history, to some extent, as civilizations have moved from focusing on survival out of necessity to more modern forms of society in culture where formal governmental structure, art, etc. are core components of many people’s lives. For us specifically, I think the nature of our current society and its constant quest for immediacy and instant gratification certainly have negative affects on people’s definition of fulfillment (this points again to my comment about “unbridled desires and entitlement”).

      That being said, even though the word “fulfillment” is a recent addition to our vernacular, the innate desire isn’t. The earliest philosophers (and, I would argue, humans) asked the same questions we’re asking today, namely, “what does it mean to live a fulfilled life?”

      Thanks again for your comments—I’d love to hear your thoughts more often.

      Reply
      • Riley Adam Voth
        February 6, 2015

        Eric I feel like I just commented a “kindred spirit” Haha. I appreciate thorough and thought out responses – you just earned some serious respect from me. Ha!

        I really like the point you make about how easy it is just for an otherwise “okay” desire to become not okay simply by your driving motivations. So true. That’s the tricky stuff of life… Even something as seemingly noble as “providing for my family” can become too wrapped up in/as our identity – that can be taken away too.

        I had originally wrote more but edited it out to keep it shorter. So I’ll add this now: I do like that the Forbes article and it’s point of how this job “hopping” can be seen as drive and determination and can produce a wider skill set. I’ve noted a strange thing in myself though with younger men I mentor: I tend to counsel others to “keep their head down, work hard wherever they are, and let God take care of the results and path” yeeet I feel in myself the desire to want to look for more meaning, do my own thing, create my own path, hop around, etc. Ha. It’s a tricky deal and hard to discern in ourselves and in others.

        I would imagine a lot of this is why people tend to hire people they know before they ever even look for someone else who may even be more qualified. I know I tend to do that as well.

        Reply
        • Eric Dodds
          February 6, 2015

          Agreed—I think we think similarly about many things.

          >>>>That’s the tricky stuff of life… Even something as seemingly noble as “providing for my family” can become too wrapped up in/as our identity – that can be taken away too.

          Completely agreed. Very tricky stuff.

          >>>>I’ve noted a strange thing in myself though with younger men I mentor: I tend to counsel others to “keep their head down, work hard wherever they are, and let God take care of the results and path” yeeet I feel in myself the desire to want to look for more meaning, do my own thing, create my own path, hop around, etc. Ha. It’s a tricky deal and hard to discern in ourselves and in others.

          Again, very tricky stuff to deal with. I’ve mentored several younger men through similar situations and my advice is most often: “Stay long enough to be fully confident it’s time to leave.” For most of us, that’s a lot longer than we’d prefer emotionally, but it builds good muscle around commitment.

          >>>>I would imagine a lot of this is why people tend to hire people they know before they ever even look for someone else who may even be more qualified. I know I tend to do that as well.

          Yup. I’ve made this mistake more than once. Not fun.

          Reply

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