Refusing to Settle: The Quarter-Life Crisis | Adam “Smiley” Poswolsky | TEDxYouth@MileHigh

Refusing to Settle: The Quarter-Life Crisis | Adam “Smiley” Poswolsky | [email protected]

October 19, 2019 100 By Kailee Schamberger


Translator: Helena Bowen
Reviewer: Denise RQ 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. (Laughter) 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 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 at the office, when I rode up the elevator up to my desk,
when I sat 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 in a nerve disease
common in people over the age of 70, not 20-somethings. (Laughter) 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. 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
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.” (Laughter) 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 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!” (Laughter) I’m a goner! It was only when I met other young people
going through the exact same thing 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 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 support 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.” (Laughter) “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. (Laughter) 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 bring together 20-somethings
interested in creating social change, social entrepreneurship,
and 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 Smiley, you want to leave D.C.,
move to San Francisco, start writing, 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. Normally in the real world, you tell someone you’re going to
quit your job and they’re like, “Yeah dude, you said that six months ago. Everyone’s going to quit their job.
Whatever. You’re not going to do it.” You tell someone you’re writing a book: “Everyone’s writing a book,
I’ll believe it when I see it.” Not when you tell believers, because when you tell believers
you have accountability. I told my buddy Evan that I was going
to quit my job at StartingBloc. And you know what he asked me?
One simple question: when? When are you going to have
the talk with your boss? And he texted me every single week
after the program: Have you had the talk with your boss yet?
Have you had the talk with your boss yet? I’d be in meeting with senior officials
at the White House getting texts and calls
from this guy and I was like, “Stop calling me,
you’re going to get me arrested!” But you know what? The only reason I did have
that talk with my boss, the only reason I did quit my job, I did move across the country
to a city I wanted to live in, the only reason I did write a book, the only reason I started supporting
social entrepreneurs, and the only reason
I’m standing here right now is because people like Evan
held me accountable. Because when you find believers,
you find accountability. (Applause) Thank you. (Applause) People like Debbie and Ted and Tom weren’t
talking about making lots of money. They weren’t talking about
rising up the corporate ladder, getting featured in TechCrunch
or Fast Company. They were talking about making the world more innovative,
compassionate, and sustainable. They were talking about
using their access, their privilege, and their skills to empower people
less fortunate than them. Because the success symbol
for my generation, for our generation, isn’t climbing the career ladder,
it’s doing work that matters. So we’re not the “me me me” generation. 50% of millennials,
that’s most of you in this room, would take a pay cut to find work
that matches their values. 90% of millennials
want to use their skills for good. Despite unprecedented levels
of unemployment and student debt, our generation wants to work with purpose. So how do you actually find
meaningful work? Well, the second lesson I learned is that you have to stop
comparing yourself to others and start pursuing
what is meaningful to you. I went back and interviewed my friend, the corporate lawyer
that had it all figured out, was married, got engaged at Machu Picchu. I was like “Man, you got a great job,
you’re making all this money, What’s the secret?” And you know what he told me? He told me that after
three years of law school, hundreds of thousands
of dollars in student debt, and now making all this money
at the corporate firm, that he was miserable
as a corporate lawyer, and that he was going back
to grad school at the age of 30 to become a high school
social studies teacher. Right? (Applause) Which is great for him,
but what’s the lesson? What’s the lesson? Nobody knows what they’re doing.
Nobody has it figured out. The grass is always greener. Instead of comparing yourself to others, instead of comparing yourself
to everyone on Facebook, start figuring out
what it is that you want. Don’t climb the career ladder to nowhere;
build a career that matters to you. So why are you here? What do you want to do for others? How can you align
your own gifts, your unique gifts, with the impact you want
to have on the world in a way that supports
your desired quality of life? You know what the beautiful thing
about meaning is? The beautiful thing about alignment? There is no one answer. No two peoples’ definitions are the same. I don’t know what’s right for you. I’m still trying to figure out
what’s right for myself. Now, Debbie, she started GoldieBlox
because of the discrimination she faced as one of the only female engineering
students at Stanford University. Ted started MoneyThink
because when he was growing up in Chicago, he realized he had a lot
of opportunities due to his privilege that his peers simply didn’t have. And Tom started Rising Tide Car Wash because he saw how hard it was
for his own brother to find a job because his own brother has autism. So they had a personal
connection to their work. Meaning is personal,
so what makes you tick? Not your parents, not your boss,
not your friends on Facebook. What makes you tick? Why are you here? How will you create your own path? The third lesson I learned is
that you have to start hustling. You have to start hustling with intention,
you have to start hustling with purpose. A lot of people like to call
our generation lazy, ‘the lazy generation.’ It’s like, are you kidding me? Lazy? I’ve been working
for 10 years since college and I still owe Sally Mae
$10,000 in student loans. So Sally Mae if I ever see you
on Tinder, I’m swiping left. (Laughter) Debbie, and Ted and Tom
weren’t working four hours a week, they were working 40, 50, 60 hours a week
on something they cared about. Now why would you want to automate
something that brings you joy? Why would you want to automate something
that impacts the world, impacts others? These people weren’t automating,
they were hustling. They were working hard
on something that matters. I was working four different jobs
when I was writing a book because I had to pay rent
and pay my loans. A lot of people hear my story
and they’re like, “I got to quit my job tomorrow,
I’m out! Peace!” That’s not my message,
that’s not what I’m saying. A lot of you may have
heard of Debbie and GoldieBlox, but what you might not know is she had a full time job
while she was starting that company. She was working as the marketing director
for a jewelry company in San Francisco. She stayed on at that job for nine months
after she had the idea for GoldieBlox. Why? First of all, she knew she was
going to start her own business so she needed to save money,
a very practical reason, but second of all, she felt like she was
getting paid to go to business school. Rather than pay a lot of money to go
get an MBA, she was earning a paycheck and learning invaluable skills in
marketing, retail, distributions, sales she knew she would be able
to apply to her own business when she left and started her own company. So you don’t have to
quit your job tomorrow. As a matter of fact,
you don’t even need to have a job. I’ll tell the story of my friend Bernat. So I met this crazy guy once
in San Francisco. I’m biking home and suddenly
this stranger starts talking to me. He’s like, “Hey man,
how’s your day going?” I’m like, “I don’t know,
leave me alone, I don’t know you.” He keeps biking alongside and is like, “Hey, I just got here from Spain,
I’m looking for a job. I’m like, “I don’t know you,
leave me alone.” He’s like, “I just moved from Barcelona,
I’m a really good UX/UI designer, I’ve had six interviews this week. If I don’t get a job
I have to go back to Spain, I need a work visa
to stay here in the U.S. There’s not many jobs in Spain,
I really want to stay.” And I was like, “Actually, my best friend
was living in Barcelona, it’s a beautiful city,
let me check out your website,” He said, “What are you working on?”
I said, “Well, I’m writing this book.” He goes, “Do you have a cover designer?”
and I said, “No, not yet.” So I go home, I check out his website and I was like, “Wow, this guy
is a pretty good designer. He’s pretty kick-ass, he’s awesome.” So I was like, “Hey Bernat,
maybe you could design my book cover.” And then I posted on Facebook,
“Hey, just met this crazy guy, Bernat from Barcelona,
does anyone need a designer? I know a lot of people in startups,
maybe Bernat can help you.” Five minutes later
my friend Yi comments. He’s like, “My friends
are starting a startup in Palo Alto, there’s three of them,
they don’t really know what they’re doing, they could use a designer.” So Bernat meets with
this team, they hit it off, he gets hired as their lead designer,
it’s a four person team. He’s super excited, he texts me,
“Smiley, thank you, I got this job!” And I’m like “Thank you, man,
you made the ask.” So it goes by, he helps me
design this book cover, and then about six or seven months later
I got a text from Bernat: He’s like, “Smiley, I’m taking you
out to dinner, anywhere you want to go.” I was like, awesome, I want to
get taken out to dinner, great. We went out to dinner and I said,
“What’s going on man? What’s up? Why are you taking me out? I have some money,
I’m a writer, I’m mostly broke, but we can split the check or something.” And he goes, “You know the company
I started working for after I met you?” I was like, “Yeah.” They had just been acquired
by Yahoo for 80 million dollars. (Gasps). Right? It’s a small team, like four
or five people, so Bernat had equity, he was one of the first people
on the team. He was thanking me and I’m like,
“You should thank yourself.” You know why? Because Bernat made the ask. He talked to a random stranger on a bike
in a city that he didn’t live in, in a country that he’s not even from. He made the ask. So do not let being a beginner
limit your hustle. Take a risk, sign up for the class,
volunteer, go abroad, work abroad, launch a crowdfunding campaign. (Cheers) (Applause) Thank you. (Applause) Start the blog, build
that website, make the ask. People will support you
when you start working with purpose. Now this isn’t about finding
your one calling or your one purpose, because I don’t think
that that’s possible. I think I’ve already had
eight callings, and I’m only 31, which is not that old, I swear. But I am saying
that if you find believers now, if you stop comparing
yourself to others now, and if you hustle to pursue
what is meaningful to you now, you will change your life,
you will change the lives of others, and you will change the world. (Applause) People like Debbie and Ted
and Tom changed my life. They’re the only reason
I’m standing here right now and not sitting at home
on Facebook depressed, worrying about what all my friends
are doing, worrying about my friend, the corporate lawyer that doesn’t even
want to be a corporate lawyer. Because when you pursue meaningful work,
you inspire others to as well. You insure that the workforce
of the future will be spending its days empowering girls to become engineers, teaching financial literacy
and entrepreneurship to urban youth, employing people with disabilities, and ensuring that every single person
in this room and those not in this room reaches their full potential. (Applause) So you can call us idealistic, you can certainly call me idealistic,
I mean my name is Smiley (Laughter) but we are not the “me me me” generation. We are the purpose generation, and we will be engaged with
our work because we have to. (Applause) The challenges facing our generation
are simply too serious to ignore. They’re too serious
to only worry about on the weekend, or too serious to only
worry about after 5 PM. We can’t be stuck in a high school crisis, a quarter-life crisis,
a third-life crisis, or a mid-life crisis. We can’t climb
the career ladder to nowhere. The stakes are too damn high. Thank you. (Applause).