Using an Obstacle to Find a Way
Perhaps you already know, but before Tomorrow’s Workers, I had a job. And, before that job, I was an attorney in private practice. For 16 years, I helped people navigate life’s legal problems.
Most of that time was spent defending people charged with crimes. Some serious, like attempted murder. But, most of the time, it was minor crimes. Like, public urination, disorderly conduct, or possession of marijuana.
The one consistency across nearly all of those minor crimes was the age of my clients. They were young. Teenagers. Young adults.
These clients weren’t hardened criminals. For many, they were simply lost. Stumbling into and through early adulthood. Getting tripped up by minor obstacles. Lapses in judgment. Or just plain dumb mistakes.
They weren’t looking for an easy way out. They weren’t trying to cheat their way through life. They were just lost. Left behind. By what I wasn’t sure.
Then one day, in the course of a conversation, it hit me. I was talking to a local educator. He was curious as to why the world seemed to be so focused on college — for everyone. He was ruminating about our own time in high school. How it seemed that all of our classmates had a path forward. Not just those who wanted to go to college.
He was right. It made sense. My clients had been left behind by a world that now believed college was for everyone.
At some point along the way, we’d stopped giving kids multiple choices. Now, they were stuck with a binary decision.
If kids said they were going to college, then all the adults celebrated and cheered them along. But, if they told an adult they weren’t going to college, there seemed to be nothing but silence. Judgmental silence. The very worst kind.
At the beginning of my career, prior to the Great Recession, so many of my clients had jobs. Factory jobs. Not dream jobs. But, jobs nonetheless.
But, it wasn’t lost on me, or them, that they were capable of doing so much more. They hadn’t dreamed of being a cog in a factory. Their parents hadn’t wanted that for them either. But, their talents either weren’t noticed, or worse, noticed, but believed to be foolish dreams.
Some clients were extremely talented artists. Others, musicians. And, nearly all of my clients had the ability to solve any number of business problems. Unfortunately, their enterprising minds were hard at work buying or selling illegal goods.
So, it was clear to me that my clients were smart and talented. Capable of leading productive, crime-free lives. The overriding problem was this — they didn’t believe they had any value to offer the world.
Our college for all mentality had taken its toll. It had created a generation of young adults without direction. And, it only got worse once those factory jobs dried up or disappeared entirely.
As the years passed. As the list of left behinds grew, I became increasingly frustrated. Frustrated with myself, even the law. There was no sense of progress. No sign of forward motion.
Sure, there were clients I’d see at the store, or the county fair. They’d gotten sober. Found stable employment. Started a family. They were healthy and it was apparent. There’d be hugs and well wishes. But, those times were few and far between.
Eventually, I closed my practice. Took a job. A job that created my own sense of feeling lost and left behind. Then, I got fired and I had to look for something new.
You’d think I’d just go back to solo practice. Just start it all up again. But, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. How in the world could I go back to helping the lost and left behinds when I was now one myself?
At some point, I read Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way. From there, Tomorrow’s Workers began to take shape in my mind.
Was feeling lost and left behind really an obstacle? Or, was it a way forward? What if I took that feeling and combined it with my years of experience writing, teaching, advocating? What if I put all that together, what then?
What if I could get to kids before they got lost? Before they got left behind. If I could do that, well then, wouldn’t that be better than what I was doing before?
The more I lived with the idea, the more questions it created. And, the more I answered the questions, the more I believed that today’s kids are at even greater risk of getting left behind.
The world of work is changing. Rapidly and dramatically. Much of the change can bring a greater sense of meaning to work. But, for our kids to harness those opportunities, then we have our own work to do. We have to change the way we think and talk about work.
Kids have to know that there are tremendous opportunities to be had. They can create, innovate, and build. But, with these opportunities come new risks. Employment doesn’t hold the security it once did. And, that’s ok. They’ll be all right. But, they have to be aware of what’s out there. Know their value. And, learn to advocate for themselves. Advocate for a world of work that works for everyone. Leaves no one lost, or left behind.