The interpretation of Joseph Campbell’s infamous line “follow your bliss” has set us down a path that is leading us astray. The line has become deeply etched into the collective unconscious of the millennial generation who in throngs are casting aside the lineal, corporate-ladder-climbing career path paved by the boomers, in favor of a dream where work, purpose and money can exist together.
The interpretation of this new “do what you love” career mantra that appears in every third social media post, highway billboards, living room posters and even resume cover letters, however, is not exactly what Campbell may have intended. Websites like Fast Company, and millennial idols like Steve Jobs present a highly appetizing image of a life that has it all: changing the world with meaningful work and filling our own lives with everything we desire. And while the glossy images of total satisfaction do represent real people, who have done or are doing real work, we may just have to reconsider the implications of this modern myth, and its misinterpretations to figure out exactly how to get there ourselves.
The misunderstanding of “bliss” is that is means “happiness.” But happiness is fleeting, and cannot be achieved by finding that one catch-all job. If life is a wheel, bliss and meaning would be the center, still and unmoving, while most of us, as Campbell explains, chase fulfillment and happiness on the periphery. Chasing quick fulfillment on this spinning wheel has us in a dizzying pursuit, while true bliss resides in the centered hub of meaning.
Growing up on a steady diet of instant gratification, we are looking for that one “meaningful job” directly out of college that will provide everything – happiness, purpose and money. Today, our career search has molded itself around this pursuit of quick fulfillment.
I see the result of this every day running a recruiting firm that works with these “do good” companies people are applying for. The companies with purpose in their mission – think Warby Parker and GOOD Magazine – and the ones that are heralded as doing good work are getting thousands of applications, but they still can’t find anyone to hire with the skills they need. That’s because the path to fulfillment and meaning isn’t that simple.
The pursuit of happiness doesn’t lie in the focus on “making a difference” at work, but rather in learning a real skill and applying it to one specific industry that is being rebuilt. Following this latter path will take longer, and be more complicated, but it will lead you to meaning, purpose and money that is sustained.
The good news is that we now exist in a world where, unlike ever before, the possibility of finding these industries with meaningful work is very real. We are living in a gold rush era of opportunity as every industry from air conditioning to automobiles is being rebuilt in ways that do good. This rebuilding is being funded by the companies that have entrenched positions in the status quo such as Coca Cola investing in Honest Tea or Waste Management funding the start up Recycle Bank.
The path to bliss is really what Campbell describes in the less quoted part of his writing as the dark forest, through which heroes carve their own path. Bliss is not a single job title, a golden apple that has been strewn along the way, but a long journey: your life’s work.
There are real steps that you can take today to begin this work. I have spent the last three years collecting and curating a list of 50 of these strategies. We have tested them with over 3,000 young people in person and now we are giving them away for free.
Welcome to the gold rush: here is your shovel.