Saturday, December 3, 2011

Comment on "Three Ways To Overcome Career Anxiety" by Daniel Gulati on Harvard Business Review

Interesting article, touching on the issues we discussed on a call with AIESEC International on Wednesday...

The article, of course, is very biased by culture: don't forget HBR is very culture-biased, with all the pros and cons this entails.

The three issues mentioned in the article are typical of the problems young Americans face now. Are they also faced by people in other cultures? Perhaps yes, to a lesser extent. The problems are felt with greater intensity in the "Contest" cultures (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) because the culture of these countries emphasize that life is a competition, and you have to be a "winner" in that competition or else be considered "a loser", a failure. This basic concept can be very motivating for young people, because it simplifies the complexity of life. It boils everything down to one thing: being successful, as measured by making a lot of money.

The problems arise later in life, when people who have made "a lot of money" find themselves feeling empty and lost... Many turn to psychotherapy, but many more turn to drugs, alcohol, religion or other forms of dependency. The problem is that the "Contest" cultures (Anglo-Saxon) do not provide deep, long-term answers to existential questions. Actually, these cultures hardly recognize the existence of existential questions in the first place!

The three issues

Gulati identifies three typical issues that are specially difficult for American youths:

1) large companies are not safe options anymore - after the Enron and Wall Street busts, belonging to "the biggest" companies is not synonymous to "having it made"; Gulati emphasizes the "safety" aspect, but I think he is a bit off track in this aspect. What motivated young Americans to work on Wall Street (or on big corporations in other industries) was not "safety"--if that was the case, youngsters would aspire to work as civil servants. The real motivation was (and still is) "success" in that competition that life is supposed to be.

2) social networks increase anxiety - comparing yourself to peers and competing with them is reinforced in "Contest" cultures, though you may also find it to a lesser extent in "Network" cultures like the Scandinavian and Dutch, plus a few others in Europe;

3) too many options - as we discussed, people today need to find a sense of meaning/purpose to guide their choices. Making more money than your neighbors does not provide spiritual gratification. With so many options available, what's to guide a young American in making choices (when the culture tells them it's all about competing and WINNING!)...

So the three issues identified by Gulati may be important issues across cultures, in different parts of the world, but they are especially relevant in "Contest" cultures because they are magnified in these environments.

Advice given

The three bits of advice given by Gulati are "spot on":

1) de-emphasize prestige and compensation (easier to do in other cultures, more difficult in the "Contest" cultures, as it means swimming against the current);

2) start experimenting - this is a great advertisement for AIESEC! Go abroad, experience other ways of doing things, other forms of learning, find out which things touch you deeply, emotionally, look beyond the "Contest" perspective;

3) Spend time defining your passions - It's all about answering those two basic questions: who are you and what do you want? The "AIESEC Experience" should help people find those answers.

As Gulati rightly points out, it's not about finding "that one answer" (another "Contest" culture trap is to seek that "ONE" answer, like "one ring to rule them all"...). Life is more complex than that.

Be satisfied with two or three valid answers and learn to live with them as they change and evolve over time. Be more flexible and less normative. (Hofstede's 5th dimension of culture). There is more to learn about that from the Asians and Latin Americans than there is from the US and Europe.

The fact is that today, as we transition from 2011 to 2012, you can connect with anybody else on the planet... But can you connect with your inner self? That is what you will need to do in order to find out who you are and what do you want. That is what will guide you in making career choices and life choices.

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