My 7-year-old son is a bit of a worrier. He worries about a lot of things, but his main concern (believe it or not) is about his career. Seriously. Almost daily, he updates my wife and me on his search for a profession. “Dad, I’ve narrowed it down to 26 possible jobs when I grow up, but I only have about 10 more years to figure it out.” “Dad, do I need to choose my job when I’m 15 or 20, and how far away is that?” We got good news the other day when he told us, with a huge sigh of relief: “Great news! I’ve narrowed it down to six jobs! Brain doctor, business person, inventor, professional archer, chess player and computer game designer.” Then he shuffled away to nervously ponder which of those six jobs would be right for him. Welcome to my life.
The other day I was speaking with a fellow parent about her son’s career. He is 24 years old, currently working at a hedge fund, and miserable. Yet, he won’t leave his current employer because of the prestige of the job; he feels he’s been given the opportunity everyone wants, that he’s fortunate and should stick it out. Part of me wanted to get his number, call him and yell, “Go do something else!” Otherwise, he’ll probably wake up at 50 (rich, but still miserable) and wonder what happened to his life. I’ve seen it happen a lot, though thankfully, it didn’t happen to me.
Finding an industry and a career that makes you happy is really important, but it’s different than finding one that fuels your passion. The latter is much harder. Most people don’t have the resources to do it; most people need a paycheck, and passions with a paycheck are rare.
Hopping around to 10 different jobs won’t do, either. While it isn’t urgent in high school or college, at some point you need to commit to a plan and see it through. My 7-year old, as smart as he is, probably can’t be both a brain doctor and a computer game designer. The opportunity costs grow as you amass assets and responsibilities – mortgages, marriage, children – all of life’s wonderful entanglements. At 40, sinking five years and a chunk of change into a startup has a far larger ripple effect than it did at 25.
So what does this mean for passion-seeking millennials? I’m not saying give up if you don’t find your passion by 25, but consider alternative paths outside your career to evaluate potential passions in a low-risk way. People frequently go to business school to figure out what they want to do; this is a high-risk, high-expense route to take. If you want to learn more about marketing, for instance, there are other avenues – like night courses and free lectures on Khan Academy – to help you evaluate the field.
If you have a non-tech job and think you might be interested in moving into tech, volunteer part-time at an incubator or a startup to learn without leaving your day job. If you’re an altruist and want to give back to your community, many local organizations would undoubtedly welcome your skills. At Zillow Group, we recently hosted our first Tech Volunteer Fair, an employee-led initiative to match tech- and marketing-savvy professionals with local Seattle organizations in need of skilled volunteers. There are many creative, inexpensive ways to have a wandering eye in your career without sacrificing stability.
At the executive level, sitting on boards of other companies is an excellent outlet for exploring different industries and contributing to causes. Our leadership team members have been and are currently part of many boards, including REI, Rover, Avvo, Hotel Tonight, Netflix, GrubHub, Trip Advisor, Glassdoor and Plymouth Housing Group, among others. Beyond the executive team we have examples at all levels of talented individuals who build their careers with Zillow Group while pursuing passions in tandem.
This need to pursue passion as part of a career is particularly intense among millennials, and I think that has a lot to do with the increasingly blurred lines between work and home. Unlike prior generations, millennials don’t have separate selves for work, and they don’t shut off at 5 p.m. Because of this blur, millennials expect more from a career – they want inspiration in addition to a paycheck. Sometimes you can find that at work (as I have at Zillow Group), but sometimes you have to do a #LifeHack and be creative. You can have inspiration and passion in your life, but they don’t necessarily both need to be part of your day job.