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career aspirations

For a number of weeks now, I've been talking with different friends about their career aspirations, current work situations, and life-long dreams. We're all speeding up to or hovering around the 30-year-mark, and none of us are satisfied with our positions.

These conversations have lead me to wonder, "why are there so many intelligent, talented, valuable people who are being totally wasted by their employers, or can't even find work?"

I know that this is a question for the economists, and all we seem to hear about in the careers section of the newspapers is that university graduates are increasingly indebted and unemployed. That's by the numbers, and it's depressing. But let me examine this question from a different angle, because the economists' bleak outlook doesn't help me.

By and large, my friends and my friends' friends are all intelligent, educated, gregarious, and creative. They're insightful and thoughtful. They're critical and ambitious. So why do so many employers put them in positions that don't take full advantage of what they've got to offer?

We're told that we have to ask for what we want in our careers, but there are so many barriers to doing this – including corporate culture, loss of jobs around us, and the inability to find another better position.

The places that we work for are chock-a-block with people who are contented in their positions; they're sitting low in their saddles, riding out the last miles toward the sunset of retirement. They're not interested in changing horses any more, the way we are, and so those saddles that we want to have remain full, often by people who have lost more than just their ambitions for new jobs. They've lost the drive to get things done quickly, they've lost creativity, and they've especially lost the outsider's perspective on the job they do and the company they work for. They're entrenched in the corporate culture of the place, and nothing kills innovation or ambition faster than people dedicated to the status quo.

It's frustrating for us, the not-so-young, not-so-old, not-complete-idealists, not-yet-cynical employees who still have hopes and dreams for bigger things. We can sit in our jobs – that underpay us and under-utilize our talents – or we can start looking around outside the company.

But this is really bad talent management on the part of our employers. If you have ambitious, smart young people who actually want to do more work and use their talents to the maximum – so that they can grow as people and employees – then you're an idiot as an employer to not take advantage of this.

This is where I am, and many of my friends are in this position too, just hoping and waiting for either the next better job outside, or some radical shift inside. I've thought seriously about changing my LinkedIn profile blurb to something like, "My career goal is to gain a position that energizes, excites, challenges, and values me, so that I can continue to develop my skills and talents, and grow as a person." I wonder if that would catch anyone's eye?

However, my perspective is actually incredibly privileged because I have a pretty good job, despite my dissatisfaction; I have another group of friends who are unemployed or radically underemployed. These are people with university degrees and an incredible amount of smarts and life experiences. They are writing wine blogs, translating German literature, contract-teaching at massage colleges, waitressing, executive assisting, and generally trying to cobble together a living with piecemeal hourly wages or contract work. They know the work they want to do, but the leap from knowing it and doing it is massive and uncertain – especially the part about getting paid for it.

My friend told me last night about a German immigrant who lives in the Okanagan, and who noticed upon arrival there that there were bushels and bushels of apples lying on the ground in the orchards that apple farmers weren't using, for a variety of reasons that include the fickleness of produce purchasers.

Aghast at the waste he was observing, he decided to start collecting these apples from the farmers, and opened an apple brandy distillery (now called Okanagan Spirits). He sold that, and decided to start creating mobile juicing machines, to take to orchards across Canada to collect the fallen apples and juice them, right on the spot, and to then give the juice back to the farmers to do what they like with it. He needs a bit of a different business model (like maybe keeping that juice and branding it), but still I have so much respect and admiration for this man and all the people who are like him; all the people who are out there without jobs, who say to themselves "here's something I could do, and I think I'll just do it."

My friends are like that – the friend who has a wine blog, the friend who is a swimsuit designer, the friend who is translating German literature – and I admire them so much. But they struggle nonetheless, and they have other jobs that they depend on to get by from month-to-month, and sometimes these other jobs have to come first, and that labour of love takes the back seat.

All of them wonder when their break is going to come, when the thing they're doing will finally spill over from 'just making it work' to 'making it.' And I wonder that too, because this risk-taking group of determined individuals should be rewarded by the universe, I think, for their innovation and dedication. The other group, sitting undervalued at their desks, should be likewise rewarded for their abilities and ambitions.

My overall sense is that we're all in the same place, sitting together in a kind of employment purgatory, waiting for something to happen. We keep working – we're not sitting idle. We apply for jobs, we network, push for promotions or projects, advertise ourselves, and keep our eyes on the horizon. We are striving, ever striving, for the thing that we want that we know we can do. Economists be damned, we're all just waiting for our big break, and we won't be satisfied with a comfy saddle riding toward the sunset.

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