I am in my office, staring at Brian. He is describing his ideal employment: “I mean, David, you have lots of responsibility. The owners of the company trust you. They listen to your advice. You get flexible hours and get to work on cool projects. That’s what I want out of this gig, I guess.”
To be honest, I am a little confused by Brian’s comments. I am his boss. And his job at the company is just a few months old. His ideas do not threaten me; he is a great guy. Yet, as he lays out his future plans by listing all the desirable things about my role as vice president, there are some things he misses: like, the years of work the job has cost me so far. And, maybe most surprising, he never bothers to ask a single question for advice.
A few months later, Brian’s dream moves on to another company.
I think this episode reflects a challenge facing the next generation: knowing how to cultivate great professional lives. Research conducted by our company, the Barna Group, shows that most of us in our 20s and 30s aspire to have solid careers. Yet, many experts are predicting the youngest workers will continue to have a hard time getting and keeping jobs because many older, qualified workers are staying in the workforce longer. Business Week magazine recently called young workers “The Lost Generation” because the poor economy is tearing down their ladder of career mobility.
Here’s the thing: beyond these trends, I believe career building is becoming a lost art. As a business leader, I wonder whether most young workers know how to craft credibility, stamina and expertise in their profession. So here are some things to consider while career building—input I would have given Brian (had he asked).
Seek out people at the office who can mentor you
Who you work for is often more important than where. I see too many young leaders put too much weight on getting the right title or getting to work at the right name-brand company. If you can work for a major business with a great brand and an elite team, do it. But don’t forget that some of the best training in the workplace means finding amazing mentors, not just landing a killer job. If you have a choice between a job with a great company or a job with a great mentor, choose the latter. If you can find something with both, even better.
Demanding bosses are not your enemy
Don’t avoid working with a tough boss. Call it the Simon Cowell principle: American Idol is entertaining television partly because of the brutal reality delivered by the British judge. But Cowell gives strong, sometimes harsh feedback because he wants the young performers to improve. George Barna, my professional mentor for many years, used to tear apart my writing. (He still does, actually.) This has not always been enjoyable or fun for me. But it helped me grow. And I recognize his intention is to make me a better writer.
Remember this: Many of the most successful people in our culture today will tell you they worked for some tough-as-nails bosses in their early years. The demands of these leaders, coaches, mentors and bosses bring the best out of us. Are you really ready for career success? If so, that means finding someone who is your number-one fan but feels like your biggest critic.
When you reach your breaking point, stay longer
I will come straight out with it: Too many young leaders leave jobs too soon. They leave at precisely the moment they are about to learn the most valuable lessons. Just like my friend Brian did: He quit at precisely the time in his life when he needed a stronger foundation.
Sticking it out in a job that is a struggle may be the best thing for your character. Maybe the company or the situation is bad. But what if your future will be even more difficult? What if God is getting you ready for an even tougher assignment? Are you missing a chance to grow by leaving too early? Of course, there is a time and place to change jobs. Sometimes we get fired or laid off. And perhaps you are ready to start something—a new business or church or to do freelance work. But leave when the time is right, not because the pressure wilted you.
Check your ego at the door
Too many people see each job as a stepping-stone for their personal enhancement and a way to build a bigger platform. I interviewed a young applicant whose resume started something like this: “I am looking for a company that is a perfect match for me. I am interviewing companies that will get the chance to have me on their team.” Maybe that kind of confidence is a good thing. But I didn’t call him back.
Jobs should hone our talent, but they are primarily about serving the greater good of the enterprises and people we work for. Think back to that first tip—writing a statement of personal calling. That is a sacred thing, yes, and it should give you a sense of God’s direction—however, your personal vision should not be your job description. Your employer is not put on earth to make your personal vision statement a reality. Your work should help you see how God wants you to serve others, not yourself. This is a tough lesson. The higher up the ladder you go, the harder it is to be a servant leader.
Connect your work to your faith
Most important of all is to see whatever you do as being holy, sacred work. As believers in Jesus, Christians ought to have a profound sense of why work matters. Scripture says humans have the job description of cultivating and caring for the world around us—creation, culture and community (Genesis 1:28). We get the chance to participate in God’s effort to make all things new (Revelation 21). God can do all of this without us, of course, but work matters to God because He wants our efforts to bring Him honor.
I have learned something that seems perhaps like simple wisdom: A great job is like a good relationship—it’s never perfect, it costs us something and helps us grow in ways we didn’t anticipate.
In fact, building a great career is ultimately about who we are becoming as people. There are no shortcuts. Work produces things in us that can’t be learned in short bursts. Maybe the reason I have any wisdom to offer Brian (and perhaps you) is because God has used my professional life to teach me things like humility, courage, loyalty and leadership. I am a slow learner—it has taken 15 years and counting.
David Kinnaman has worked in one company since 1995. He is now the president of the Barna Group. He is the author of unChristian, and is working on a book about the faith of the next generation of Christians. This article originally appeared in RELEVANT.