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June 9

Office Hours: Making the Distinction Between Experience and Impact

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Many college seniors, by pressure of family or society, seek financial success and ostentatious prestige during their job searches. Gilded opportunities in finance, consulting, and technology promise to catapult them into a bankable career. Others pursue medicine or law, professionalized careers that offer social status, a semblance of stability, and, in the case of the former, a brush with saving lives. Another set are the ones who don’t fall into either of those buckets. 

These are the ones who want to strike it out on their own and make an impact, however defined. We are desperate for these aspiring change makers in a world plagued by climate change, inequalities, and social injustices. Yet, college seniors who prioritize impact above all else may miss out on the most important aspects of work: the experience of the job and what transferable skills they can gain. 

Many undergraduates who want to do something impactful with their degree aspire to use educational privilege to create an impact. They may not have the clearest vision of that impact, but they know they want their professional output to matter beyond just a financial bottom line. Even though we actively encourage our current and prospective community members to make an impact with their careers, it should not be the sole determinant of work satisfaction. Work is more than just a title, role, and, crucially, the mission an organization works toward. It’s also about the day-to-day experience of work itself.

Over the past few years, the Recruitment Team at Venture For America encountered hundreds of seniors and recent undergraduates intent on creating an impact with their careers. Many of those who become Fellows want to work at a mission-driven company or, for the more socially entrepreneurial-motivated Fellows, a product or service they can really get behind. At times, the desire to make an impact obscures the parts of work that matter day-to-day. That is, the mundane things like the coworkers one collaborates with, one’s manager, and the unique culture within a team. Of course, we want Fellows to find work at mission-driven organizations that have strong core values and offer professional growth. However, finding a job that fits all of these often proves challenging. 

At VFA, we have data on the Fellows who end up transitioning from their original jobs. In the past few years, about 17% of Fellows experienced a voluntary or involuntary job change over the course of their two-year experience. Our Fellows aren’t out of the ordinary when it comes to job transitions within their two year experience with us. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in January 2020, the median job tenure for people between the ages of 20 and 24 was 1.3 years.

This data suggests that some recent graduates and job seekers may be focusing on priorities that are counterproductive to their goals. Sure, sometimes life’s best lessons are learned experientially and the hard way, but it’s probably better to avoid those troubles altogether if we can. Rather than solely focus on impact, new graduates may find fewer headaches if they also envision what type of experience they want to have at work. Below are the types of questions we encourage Fellows to ask themselves to ensure it stays top of mind:

  • What sort of work environment have I flourished in? Which ones stifled me?
  • What experiences and skills do I need? Do I need them in a specific industry?
  • What are examples of when someone managed me well? Poorly?
  • What values matter to me in any group setting I’m in?
  • What can I contribute to a team? What do I hope a team will contribute to me?

None of this is to say that job seekers should not pursue the fields that are much needed in our society, rather, they should not let the field be the only factor at play. The data show that individuals in the early stages of their careers may avoid a lot of anguish if they pay attention to the experience of work itself. (This is also an ongoing call for startups to create safe, inclusive, and healthy cultures.) If they can align their own work culture and environment needs with those of a company, they’ll stand a better chance to learn the early-career skills needed to make a bigger impact. After all, for many graduating today, the first job will be one of many in a long, shifting career. It will literally pay to be flexible and develop skills needed to adapt to the 21st century work environments.