Is Gen Y Delusional About How to Have a Successful Career?
Have the likes of Mark Zuckerberg deluded Gen Y into think the path to success is straight, fast and ever upward?
Perhaps you’ve seen this illustration kicking around somewhere before:
It’s a pretty popular little image as it neatly encapsulates two truths: one, the road to success is winding and long; and two, we like to delude ourselves about that fact.
But is Gen Y more deluded about overnight success than everyone else?
That’s what Mark Quinn, Vice President of marketing at Leggett & Platt, argued recently on Business Insider. “Technology has simultaneously been the Millennial generation’s best friend and worst enemy. While they have grown up with social media and iPhones, they’ve also lived under the specter of Mark Zuckerberg, Kevin Systrom, and Mike Krieger,” he writes, before explaining the pernicious effects of these exemplars of “overnight” success:
Seeing Facebook and Instagram make these twentysomethings into billionaires has upped the ante for what young people expect out of life—and their careers….It’s easy for inexperienced professionals to get caught up in the Zuckerberg example—he didn’t finish college and didn’t spend 80 hours a week working his way up in a traditional corporation. With a lack of context, it’s tempting to believe we’re all destined to be exceptions on the level of Facebook.
Rather than imagining that you too will beat the odds a la Zuckerberg, Quinn suggests “your best bet—if you plan to have a career that spans more than 10 years—is to find your niche and strategize your vertical move from there.”
Gen Y’s Particular Delusion
Is Quinn right? Are young people more likely than older folks to hanker after overnight success?
There’s some reason to support his opinion. Besides the natural optimism of youth, which is as of yet untempered by firsthand experience of the many setbacks on the way to success, other factors also nudge young careerists towards undue optimism about how quickly they can become career rock stars.
Take our fascination with entrepreneurs, for example. Surveys show a massive percentage of Gen Y aspires to entrepreneurship and ridiculously few of us have any appetite for slogging our way up to senior corporate posts. Is this because we’ve seen the rocket-propelled rise of Facebook, or did card-carrying Gen Y member Zuckerberg found his company because, like many of his peers, he looked around at adults’ corporate jobs and said “No way”?
It’s a chicken-and-the-egg question that perhaps no one can answer, but whether Gen Y’s entrepreneurialism drove Zuckerberg or Zuckerberg drove our entrepreneurialism, Quinn is right, and the result is the same. Gen Y loves startups, and startup mania projects an unhealthy image of a quick (though difficult) road to success.
Building a Better Model
Those unhealthy expectations become an issue when they lead young folks to make the wrong decisions about how and where to invest their energies and when they cause slowly climbing Gen Yers to despair because they’re not living up to some imagined standard of instant excellence.
So what’s the antidote to straight, fast and ever-upward career images? Quinn trots out the tired old metaphor of the climb up the career ladder, but in today’s world of portfolio careers and job flux, that probably strikes you as pretty unrealistic. Careers are too chaotic these days. Perhaps Tina Seelig, the director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (the entrepreneurship center at Stanford’s School of Engineering) has a better model. Think of your career as a pyramid, she advises:
Most young people believe that their career path should progress at a predictable rate, with ever increasing responsibilities and compensation. That usually isn’t—and shouldn’t be—the case. I like the analogy that Carol Bartz, [ex-]CEO of Yahoo!, used when she spoke at Stanford a few years ago. She said that you should look at the progress of your career as moving around and up a three dimensional pyramid as opposed to up a two dimensional ladder.
Lateral moves along the side of the pyramid allow you to build a base of experience. It may not look as though you are moving up quickly, but you are gaining a foundation of skills, experience, and contacts that will prove extremely valuable later. Additionally, there are often times when you slide backward. Don’t despair: Your recovery after a failure often propels you forward more quickly than if you stayed on a linear, predictable path.
Or just take another look at that doodle at the start of the post.
Do you think Gen Y often has an unrealistic image of success?
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch and GigaOM, among others.
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