Craig Mattson has interviewed many young professionals about their work experiences and their lives following graduation. This is the first in a series about what he has learned and how it might inform our work with young adults about vocation.
Professors should pay more attention to two vocation stories that circulate in the first decade after college.
The first is the Grind Story. Sometimes this sounds like a saga of sailing far oceans and seeing strange creatures. But the plotline usually caps off with, “I’ve been working like 70-hour weeks, and it’s super hard, but I’m gonna get there.” Sometimes, this story sounds cheerfully heroic, like the guy I talked to who’d started an organization called Grind Greatly. Sometimes, though, the voices sound pretty grim.
The second narrative is the Burn Story. This dystopian tale about torching capitalism has three essential plot points: (1) Burn (2) Everything (3) Down. I don’t hear this story very often, honestly. Let’s just say that it doesn’t fit the aesthetics of a LinkedIn post. Still, some early-career professionals have so much to do and so little power to do it with that they wish they could tell the Burn Story.
I’m hearing these stories while conducting more than 30 semi-structured interviews in some qualitative research among early-career professionals. What strikes me as I thumb through their transcripts and code the data is that both the Grind Story and the Burn Story arrive at the same insight: something’s got to give in this business of being gainfully employed.
All this has me thinking about how we professors talk to our students about their course work. As I write this post, I’m dealing with some midterm exam scores that have both me and my students baffled. Which scores reflect the need for harder work? And who should be doing that harder work?
I’m tempted to draw on the mean optimism of the Grind Story or the cheerful cynicism of the Burn Story. What I’d like to ask instead is, can we find a better way to tell stories about the work we’re called to do?
This question has me thinking about early-career professional Melissa Conrad and the stories she can tell from her own life and work as a Senior Community Builder at the Wooden Wick Company in Orange County, California.
The first thing I noticed in our conversation was that she loves the start-up space, but she admits that sometimes her work won’t love her back. You recognize that phrase, maybe, from the title of Sarah Jaffe’s matter-of-factly told and exhaustively researched 2021 book exploring all the ways our jobs just aren’t that into us. Even so, I thought I heard the traces of a different story in Melissa’s anecdotes about vocation.
She told me that it had taken her weeks to tie down list upon list for an upcoming event she was managing for Wooden Wick and a client. She had followed through on details everybody had agreed upon. She had kept in touch with incoming talent. She had tracked an hour-by-hour itinerary. You know where this is going, right? On the morning of the event, she heard from the client that, due to budget cuts, the event was canceled. Melissa has a disposition as kindly as a morning on Laguna Beach. She just doesn’t have it in her to talk about this experience as a Burn Story. And I’m not even sure she’d resort to a Grind Story.
Her higher-ups might call this a Pivot Story. That may just be the preferred narrative of senior management. For those with a lot of power, pivoting is an adventure: you make tough calls that a lot of people admire, and then you look for how those tough calls become strategic opportunities in disguise. During our chat, Melissa said she’d been asked to pivot 2 or 3 times within the previous month alone. For her, such pivots make for some very unwelcome plot developments:
- You get to do everything over.
- You have less time and fewer resources.
- You are more likely to mess up.
As I think about why my students are struggling this semester, I’m trying to keep in mind all the pivoting demanded of them over the past couple of years. Some of them did not have a senior year of high school. Most of them have spent more time in online courses than they signed up for. All have endured the revolving door of quarantine and the public kerfuffles over mask mandates. I’m trying to keep in mind, too, that when liberal democracy itself totters, pivoting is an everyday thing.
So let me close with a possible alternative to the vocational stories we often resort to. Let’s call it the Give Story.
During our interview, Melissa took me back to another tough day for her team. They had all gathered for a shoot—no easy feat, given the variability of schedules—but the contracted videographer was seriously late. People were fiddling with phones, staring off at passing cars. Melissa felt a sickly uneasy question: when this dude does show up, if he shows up, how should she respond? He did arrive, finally. And, somehow, Melissa found the wherewithal to ask how his day was going. What she heard back from him cued her to tell her team that they were simply going to push the shoot forward.
I think the thing that impresses me about Melissa’s response is that when it becomes clear that something’s gotta give, she doesn’t immediately assume that something is a single someone. Instead of relying on the grind story, she asks, “How can we give here?” She makes this tough day a story about the team’s magnanimity.
It’s that Give Story that interests me when it comes to being a teacher trying to understand overwhelmed students. As I deal with late arrivers to class and missing assignments on Brightspace, I find myself jumping quickly to irritable conclusions that usually support the Grind and Burn and Pivot narratives so prevalent in professional life today. But slowing down as Melissa did and asking how-are-you-really questions can start a different sort of circulation. That’s a fresh vocation story to share, a recitation of collective inventories that free us to be generous together.
Craig Mattson teaches and researches communication at Trinity Christian College in a south suburb of Chicago. He’s the author of two books, Rethinking Communication in Social Business and Why Spiritual Capital Matters. To follow his research on early-career professionals and how they deal with overwhelm, subscribe to The ModeSwitch.substack.com.