Full transcript of millennial career expert Adam “Smiley” Poswolsky’s TEDx Talk: Refusing to Settle: The Quarter-Life Crisis at TEDxYouth@MileHigh Conference. This event occurred on April 7, 2015.
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Adam “Smiley” Poswolsky – Millennial career expert
I did everything I was supposed to do. I got good grades in high school, I took AP classes, I went to a good college, I got a great job, I climbed the career ladder.
On paper I had it all. I was making $70,000 a year at the age of 28. I was working for the federal government. I had health care, I had benefits, I had job security. You literally can’t get fired from working for the government. Trust me, there are people that should.
My parents were impressed. My friends were impressed. My boss told me I was doing a great job. I would go to Happy Hour and tell everyone I was the Special Assistant to the Director of Global Operations at the U.S. Peace Corps, and everyone thought that was so cool. They asked for my business card. I got to sit in on meetings at the White House.
Everything was perfect about my job except for one tiny, kind of important thing: I was miserable. How did I know I was miserable? Every single morning when my alarm would go off at 6:30 AM in the morning to NPR, I’d feel a shooting pain go up and down my back. I felt this pain when I was getting out of bed, when I was brushing my teeth, when I was getting dressed and putting on my shirt and tie, when I was taking the bus down to work, when I scanned my ID badge in at the office, when I rode up the elevator up to my desk, when I was sitting at my desk typing memos, when my boss would invite me to meetings and we’d talk about best practices, and when my boss would email me every night on my Blackberry at 10 PM.
The pain was so bad I developed shingles on my side. Shingles is a nerve disease common in people over the age of 70, not 20-somethings. This was the pain of confusion. It was the pain of climbing this career ladder to success and realizing that I was nowhere. I was somewhere I didn’t want to be. I was stuck in a quarter-life crisis.
And I was spending a lot of time on Facebook overdosing on FOMO, Fear of Missing Out, comparing myself to what my friends were doing. So there was my friend going off to business school and I was like, “Maybe I should get my MBA.” And there was my friend going to teach at a charter school, and I was like, “Maybe I should go work at a charter school.” And there was my friend opening a food truck, and I was like, “Maybe I should open a food truck, even though I’m an awful driver and a really bad cook.”
And so there was a buddy of mine, he’d already graduated from one of the top law schools in the country, he got this amazing job at one of the top corporate firms, making well over six figures, and he’s got it all figured out, and there he is traveling with his girlfriend in Peru, getting engaged at sunset in front of Machu Picchu. And I’m like “Man! This guy has got it all figured out. He’s got this amazing job, he’s already going to get married, he’s at Macchu Picchu, I hate my job, I hate my life, I can’t even get a date on OkCupid, my life is ruined!” I’m a goner!
And it was only when I met other young people going through the exact same thing I was that I was able to turn my quarter-life crisis into a breakthrough. So this talk is going to teach you a few lessons I learned on my journey that can help anyone that’s stuck in a quarter-life crisis or help all of you avoid your quarter-life crisis and find meaningful work.
So the first lesson I learned: find believers. Surround yourself with people that believe in the beauty of their dreams, because I used to come home in D.C. every night to my roommate Dan, and I’d be like “Dan, I hate my job, I don’t want to do this anymore, I want to move across the country, I want to live in San Francisco, I’ve always wanted to live there, I want to start writing, I want to start being creative, I want to support social entrepreneurs, I want to start supporting young people that are going after their dreams.”
And Dan would look at me, stare, roll his eyes, take a swig of beer, and say “Smiley, suck it up. Everyone hates their job, it’s part of life.”
And I was like, “Man! You know, that’s kind of brutal.” I was 28 at the time which is old, but it’s not that old. I didn’t want to spend the next 40 years of my life depressed. But you know what? The majority of the world thinks like Dan. 70% of Americans are disengaged at their jobs. 70%! One-fifth of those people are so disengaged, they’re actively undermining their coworkers’ work. They’re literally getting paid to mess things up for the company that they work for. And this is a shame. It’s a shame because millions of people wake up every day unfulfilled, depressed, not showing up fully for themselves, their families, their communities, or the world at large.
So then I met believers. I went to a leadership program that brings together 20-somethings that are interested in creating social change, that are interested in social entrepreneurship, that are interested in using business for good. The program was called StartingBloc and at StartingBloc I met believers.
I met people like Debbie. Debbie was starting GoldieBlox, a toy company that teaches young girls engineering skills. I met people like Ted. Ted started MoneyThink, which is a nonprofit that teaches financial literacy and entrepreneurship to urban youth. I met people like Tom. Tom started Rising Tide Car Wash, a small business in South Florida with his father, that employs people with autism.
So I met these believers and they’re like, “Wait a second, wait a second, Smiley, you want to leave D.C., you want to move to San Francisco, you want to start writing, you want to start supporting social entrepreneurs? You have to do that, the world needs you to do that!” Because a crazy thing happens when you find believers: you find accountability.