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At the end of a recent interview on CNBC, Elon Musk was asked what advice he would give his children about their choice of work at a time when AI is upending so much in the workplace.
Musk paused for a long time, before saying, “That is tough question to answer.” He added, “How do we find meaning in life if the AI could do your job better than you can? I mean, if I think about it too hard, it can be just dispiriting and demotivating.”
Elon Musk is a visionary technologist, CEO, and provocateur. But as he said in that interview, he works all but two or three days a year, he “sacrifices time with friends and family,” including his 10 children, and he wonders, “Does that make sense?”
By making these choices, perhaps he misses the most important piece of advice he can give his children about work: They have more opportunity to find meaning in what they do than at any time in human history.
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I’ve spent the last six years traveling across the country gathering life stories from hundreds of Americans in all 50 states. I then analyzed those stories with a team of researchers looking for patterns that can help all of us make meaning in times of change.
This project led my last book, “Life Is in the Transitions,” and to my new book, “The Search: Finding Meaning Work in a Post-Career World,” which is a toolkit for finding the kind of purpose in life that Musk suggests is becoming harder and harder to achieve.
On this question, the second-richest man in the world is making the single biggest mistake you can.
The No. 1 lesson I’ve learned is that today’s workers have more opportunity to find work that makes them happy and more freedom to find success on their own terms than ever. And we have technology, in part, to thank for that – as well as new generations of workers who are fed up chasing outmoded standards of success that insist we sacrifice what’s most important to us for the sake of a job.
To speak in terms that Musk can understand, the numbers tell a staggering story: 70% of Americans are unhappy with what they do; three-quarters of Americans say they plan to look for new work this year. Fifty million Americans have quit a job in the last year – that’s a third of the workforce. Another third of the workforce is renegotiating where and how they work.
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What’s brought about this change?
Today’s workers care about quality of life: 56% of millennials say meaningful work is more important to them than it was to their parents. Deloitte polled millennials and Gen Z on their top priorities at work: the leading answer was good work/life balance; six of the top seven answers related to meaning.
Today’s workers are making these choices in part because they observed their parents make the opposite ones.
When I asked people in my interviews the most prominent upside of work they learned from their parents, the No. 1 answer was the value of hard work. When I asked the most prominent downsides, the answers were more telling: “overwork,” “strain on the family,” and “unhappiness.”
Simply put: Today’s workers are rejecting the work-at-all-costs mentality in favor of work that brings them purpose. Where they struggle is how to define that purpose. I’ve identified a toolkit that successful people use to do just that. I call it I call it “21 Questions to Find Work You Love.”
Here are three questions you can ask right now:
Do you have a problem you’ve been trying to solve since you were a child?
Everybody has a story about their lives that they’ve been wanting to tell that for one reason or another got put aside. Maybe you’ve wanted to improve the world, be more creative, provide a better home for your family. Being clear how your purpose differs from others – including your own parents – is essential to feeling fulfilled.
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At this moment in my life, I want to do work that ______?
What we want to do changes over time. At one point in our lives we may value salary, while at other times we may emphasize self-expression, public service or giving back. A central part of being happy at work is knowing what you want to do at this moment in your life.
The best advice I have for myself right now is ______?
Perhaps the biggest thing Musk gets wrong about children is that they want their parents’ advice to begin with. When I asked people who gave them the best advice during a work transition, colleagues and friends were at the top of the list; family came in last.
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And the most valuable advice they received? Trust yourself. Three-quarters of people said what they found most helpful was trusting their gut. So as appealing as it might seem to follow the advice of billionaires, the most valuable thing you can do to find work you love is to follow your own instincts.
Make yourself the hero of your own story.
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