About the Book by Bruce Feiler Titled “The Search: Finding Meaning Work in a Post-Career World”

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf review by Laura Vanderkam headlined “Rethinking the Rules of Success”:

This spring, millions of Americans will graduate from high school and college. Almost none of them will work in the same job from degree to retirement and only a handful think they will. There are no longer many career ladders set firmly in place early in adult life. Work is less predictable, less linear and sometimes less secure.

That can be scary, but it’s also an opportunity. “Fewer people search merely for work these days,” Bruce Feiler writes. “More people search for work with meaning.” In “The Search,” Mr. Feiler makes the case that, by reflecting on their personal experience and asking a few probing questions of themselves, people can craft “work stories”—that is, narratives that help people make sense of their various professional twists and turns and help people create their own definitions of success alongside the meaning they are looking for. And “each person gets to decide that meaning for themselves.”

Mr. Feiler, the author of a series of books about living the good life, has had his own nonlinear career, working as a teacher, a clown in a traveling circus and a television host, among other things. For “The Search,” he interviewed 155 people who reported enjoying their work. He and his research team looked through their work histories, studied the factors that influenced them and asked them what aspects of their work they found most meaningful. Most of “The Search” consists of their stories—how one gig led to the next, and the next, and finally to a place of fulfillment.

It’s about a once-in-a-generation rethinking of the rules of success.” Maybe so, but people have been exploring the decline of the linear career for decades. Tom Peters’s noted 1997 Fast Company article “The Brand Called You” assumed that workers were developing their personal brands to move between companies; Daniel Pink’s 2001 book “Free Agent Nation” documented the widespread phenomenon of people building at least parts of their careers outside the grind.

Where Mr. Feiler does add to the literature is in his conscious effort to capture the experience of a diverse group of people—diverse not just in race, gender and sexuality but in profession. Fulfillment can be found managing the staff in a government office, fixing a wind turbine, running a house-painting business—or working as a realtor, an Amtrak police officer or a romance novelist.

Most of Mr. Feiler’s subjects went through what he calls “workquakes”—events that can be positive or negative but trigger a major change. A small-business owner who had to shut his operation during the pandemic sought out new training for a career shift. One ad agency CEO turned green-tech executive restructured his career after seeing Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” The leader of a nonprofit that provides low-cost car repair for the needy started her operation after talking with a homeless man who had to move the broken-down car he was living in to a new spot.

Mr. Feiler’s research subjects went through such workquakes every 2.85 years, on average. On one level, this rate is alarming, but it need not be seen in a negative way. In a nonlinear work life, it is true, we will “face existential moments like these more frequently than we’d like,” Mr. Feiler writes, but the choices we make and the answers we come up with will also be less momentous or definitive: “No answer lasts forever. Odds are, you’ll face another defining moment in the not-too-distant future.”

He also posits that most people have more than one “job”—at least in the sense of tasks that take time and mental effort. Mr. Feiler’s interviewees spoke of their “main jobs,” naturally, but about 75% had side jobs too—for instance, substitute teaching or working as a notary public. Some 89% talked about what Mr. Feiler took to calling a “hope job”—speculative work that people do in their spare time, such as writing a book or selling wares at a farmer’s market, with the hope that such work will lead to something bigger. Two-thirds spoke of a “care job”—raising children or attending to elderly parents. And a full 93% spoke of what Mr. Feiler calls “ghost jobs.” These are the psychological specters that people have to battle to stay productive, a kind of labor in itself.

Among his subjects Mr. Feiler found people “plagued by imposter syndrome, exhausted by bigotry, worried about letting down their parents.” Of course, if 93% of even generally happy people experience such ghosts, perhaps the ghosts are part of being human.

The concept of people holding an array of jobs offers food for thought, though, not least about why Mr. Feiler’s interview subjects often spoke of becoming more satisfied with their work even after a workquake left them earning less. Perhaps a care job or a hope job—or the effort of doing a ghost job—grew easier as a result. Success does take many forms.

Mr. Feiler offers readers various questions to ask themselves as they navigate their own workquakes. Most of these stem from the “who, what, when, where, why, how” questions that journalists ask: e.g., “I want to be the type of person who . . . ”; or “I’m at a moment in my life when . . .”;or “I want to be in a place that . . .” He suggests mining childhood for ideas: “Determining what type of sandbox you liked to play in when you were young will help you determine what type of sandbox you want to play in now.”

Such attempts at reflection certainly might help those who are flailing. But Mr. Feiler’s best advice for the millions graduating this spring might be that nothing will stay the same forever. “Success is not fixed; it’s always moving,” he notes. Since no single job “will make you happy, you are free to accept whatever job you want.” Maybe it’s best not to overthink these things. With a lot of twists and turns, a search can eventually lead to a good place—at least for 2.85 years. Then it will be on to something else.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of “Tranquility by Tuesday: 9 Ways to Calm the Chaos and Make Time for What Matters.”

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