Bruce Feiler, THE SEARCH: Finding Meaningful Work in a Post-Career World

Bruce Feiler, THE SEARCH: Finding Meaningful Work in a Post-Career World

Guest host Julie Chavez interviews New York Times bestselling author Bruce Feiler about The Search: Finding Meaningful Work in a Post-Career World, an insightful, game-changing book that reimagines work and offers actionable steps for living a happy and meaningful work life. Bruce shares how experiencing his own “lifequakes” (like his cancer diagnosis at 43) turned into a love of hearing other peoples’ life stories. And now, a love of nonlinear work-life stories! He also shares fascinating trends and statistics about the American workforce (did you know that one million people quit their job every week?) and then discusses “workquakes”, main jobs vs. side jobs vs. hope jobs, and how we are all slowly starting to prioritize life.


Julie Chavez: Bruce, thank you so much for being with me today. I am so happy that you’re a guest on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Bruce Feiler: First of all, thank you for having me. I just want to say I’m a huge fan of “Moms Don’t Have Time” as a dad who doesn’t have time. I think that what Zibby and you and the whole team are building is great for moms, great for writers, great for librarians, great for booksellers, just great for the world that when everything is going by us so quickly, that we can pause and have real conversations. I’m delighted to be back.

Julie: I’m so thrilled. I agree with you. Zibby has built something so special in this space and continues to do so. I’m so happy that I get to be a part of it and talk to you today. Let’s dive into your book. We’re talking today about The Search: Finding Meaningful Work in a Post-Career World. I have to tell you, I got the ARC, and as soon as I got it, I went and found my husband instantly. I said, “You’re going to be reading this book after me.” This is such a timely, interesting book. I tore through it. I took so much wisdom. I’m so excited to talk about it with you today.

Bruce: Thank you. I just, in fact, an hour ago, said that the work I’ve been doing — this is not the first book I’ve written, as you know. I’ve been doing this for many years. This work I’ve now been doing for six years of collecting and analyzing hundreds of life stories of Americans of all ages and all walks of life and all backgrounds, it led to my last book and the first time I was on “Moms Don’t Have Time,” Life is in the Transitions, and now this one that we’re going to talk about. What I said to someone this morning was, generally speaking, over time, I would say that my work has appealed more to women than to men. This book is appealing to women because I think women are at the vanguard of a lot of change that I kept hearing in my conversations and that this book explores, but I also think it’s equally men too.

Julie: I couldn’t agree more. There’s a lot of really solid information here, obviously. Also, I think you do such a good job of really dismantling something that generationally, I think is very much something that we haven’t thought of. For example, for us, both my dad and my husband’s father worked for the same company for their entire careers.

Bruce: Oh, really? Wow.

Julie: Yes, which even then was a bit of an anomaly. When my husband started out, I think he had a sense that that’s what he was going to do as well, and then had a workquake. It’s just so interesting to see how it’s not what happens anymore. Even early in the book you mention a third of the workforce leaves their job every year. That shocked me, but it shouldn’t. That is kind of the new way of things. Let’s start here. There are so many beautiful stories in this book. I was so moved by so many of the stories. Will you tell me about the process of collecting them? I know you talked a little bit about that for Life is in the Transitions. I just want to hear about, as they’ve sat with you over time and you’ve researched these stories, how has that felt for you?

Bruce: It feels like a privilege to look people in the eye. It’s what you do in your life in multiple areas of your life. It’s the essence of what I love most about what I do, is looking someone in the eye and saying, I’m interested in your story. Tell me your story. Let me go back a little bit in the process and talk about how I ended up in this. I, in a lot of ways, had what I think of as a traditional linear life. I grew up in Savannah, Georgia. I stumbled into what I wanted to do early in my life, of writing. I did it for no money for a while. I had some success and then got married and had children. This is the fantasy that we all have. In my forties, my life blew up, as you know. First, I got cancer at forty-three as a new dad. I had financial troubles. Then my own dad got Parkinson’s and tried to take his own life six times in twelve weeks. As a storyteller professionally, I didn’t know how to tell this story, and I didn’t want to. When I did, what I found is that everybody’s life got blown up. I ended up calling those, as you know, lifequakes. I went out and I said to my wife, “No one knows how to tell their story anymore. I want to do something to help.” What I did was create this thing that I now call The Life Story Project. In the first round of interviews that I did, I sort of took everybody. I would interview someone, and I would say, “Who do you know that’s had an interesting life story?” It, a little bit, went viral. I put it on social media. Then I began hearing from people. That then led to Life is in the Transitions, which turned out to arrive in the middle of the pandemic when the entire planet was in a life transition. That turned out to be the right idea at the right time.

Within, really, a few weeks of that book coming out in 2020, I both felt — for me, it’s always a feeling — and then also began to imagine, work is the next thing to follow. You already were getting, work from home was coming up. There was this, should we be moving? Remote work. Then we had the public health crisis. Then we had the “everybody was working at home in the family dynamic” crisis. All these things were converging at one time. Like the first time, I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I just knew that we had to tell this work story. I think it’s worth pausing and saying the idea of our life as a story, that was a fringe, radical idea in the 1980s in psychology. It’s entered the mainstream. For reasons that somewhat escape me, we don’t really talk about it in work. We don’t talk about our work lives as a story that we inherited from our parents, these expectations and our culture and upbringing. That isn’t an idea that’s really taken hold. That began to become the dominant. The answer to your question is, this time, I tried to be more intentional. I wanted to get out of my own bubble, so I actually made what I came to call a bingo card. I looked at the Department of Labor, all the jobs people have. I divided them up into twenty-five items in five categories. I was like, energy and maintenance and public service and food and beverage and beauty and fashion. I just wanted to make sure that was the first thing I did.

This time, because I already had this team of people that helps me code and analyze these stories, I sent them out. I would wake up in the middle of the night, and I would say, you know what, I need a doula. I’m like, I don’t want a doula from Brooklyn where I live. A doula in Brooklyn is obvious. They would bring these people. Go get me someone who’s a spy. I want somebody who opened a farm. I want somebody who works in a nuclear power plant. Those are, by the way, three great stories. That Kelly Lively story, who works in the Idaho National Lab, started as a secretary — her husband didn’t want her to work. She thought having children will help. Having children didn’t help. She went back to school because she thought, I’ll never get above being a secretary, is what they called them then. She became the highest-ranking woman in her department who single handedly led driving a nuclear reactor from Idaho to Florida to ride on the space shuttle. She’s got a side job. We’re going to talk about this in this conversation. She’s got a side job as what? A stand-up comedian. That’s a mom who doesn’t have time to read because she’s running the country and cracking jokes at the same time. That’s the nonlinear work life. My team would bring me people. Then we voted. Everybody would vote. That’s a good story. That’s not a good story. I have to say, the bar, the standard of the stories in this book were even higher than the amazing stories in Life is in the Transitions.

Julie: You can see it. Reading some of these, I would get halfway through one and go, “What?” out loud. I was so amazed by some of the turns these people’s lives took.

Bruce: Let’s do Kirsten Green for a second. Kirsten Green, she grows up in Alabama. She gets a job teaching at an HBCU, criminology. She wants to be a doctor, but she switches to criminology. She’s running her department at this college. She’s got a partner. There is a family member whose teenage daughter gets pregnant. Turns out it was not consensual, the experience. The girl decides she wants to keep the baby and says to Kirsten, “I want you in the delivery room with me.” She’s a criminologist. She starts taking online classes. She becomes a doula. Immediately after helping this family member give birth, the girl says to her, “You would be great at this.” Kirsten changes her academic research to look at pregnant incarcerated women and how we can lower recidivism among them. Now she’s opening a birth center so that other people can have the opportunities that she’s had in her life. She’s got a full-time job, and she now has this side job that gives her even more meaning. She’s actually doing a main job that gives her meaning, but the side job — that really is the thing to underline here, Julie.

The biggest change that’s going on in work — you mentioned the fact that a third of the people — I think the stakes here are worth emphasizing. Seventy percent of Americans are unhappy with what they do. Seventy-five percent of Americans, in a survey released two weeks ago, said they planned to look for new work in the next twelve months. Seventy-five percent. A million people a week quit a job. That’s not laid off. That’s not fired. That’s quit a job. That’s a third of the workforce. Another third of the workforce is saying, I don’t want to go in five days a week. I don’t want to commute. I want to spend more time with my family. I want to be at little league when my son is there or the ballet recital for my son or my daughter, as a ballet dad myself. That’s a hundred million people, like you said with your husband at the outset of this conversation, who are sitting across from someone they love, this morning, this afternoon, tonight as they’re listening to our conversation, saying, I’m unhappy with what I’m doing, and I want to do something else.

Here’s the thing that no one’s prepared to sacrifice anymore. Fewer people are searching merely for work. More people are searching for work with meaning. That is a trend that’s been building for a while. I’m not prepared to sell myself to an organization or a company or somebody else, even a startup. Meaning is important to me. What’s been missing, it turns out — this is what came to emerge from these conversations. How do I find that meaning? which is why the bulk of the search is essentially a tool kit for trying to say, I want meaningful work. I don’t know. No one ever taught me. My parents told me, dress for the job you want, not the job you have. They’re like, go seek that thing that we all were taught. Well, turns out the job I want involves sitting around in sweatpants most of the day. The point is no one ever gave us this tool kit. That’s what I think is the thing that I discovered that I’m most passionate — I call it 21 Questions to Find Work You Love, helping people help themselves and the people they live with find work that’s suited to who they are right now. Not two months ago. Not two years ago. Not twenty years ago. Right now.

Julie: I love the way that you explain that because even when I was reading through the book — I read through it the first time just to get a sense of everything. I thought, I want to go back and read these questions and fill in the blanks because there’s so much. To your point saying who you were a few months ago, the idea that we’re always evolving and changing and growing, hopefully, in our lives, then the work that we do has to shift with that, and so this idea that we need more fluidity. You speak to how it’s even more fluidity than we really would assume.

Bruce: I think that’s right. It’s interesting. I got a call yesterday from the editor of Psychology Today. She just read my book and was asking me to contribute to Psychology Today, some pieces. She used a line that echoes what you just said. I can’t think of how she said it. She said, “Your book is about how to do the work to get the work you want.” I do think that that is a very interesting formulation. Let’s set the stage. What are the lies that your husband and maybe you and certainly me grew up with? I would say lie number one is, you have a career, the idea that you’re going to follow your passion and pick something when you’re twenty-one or twenty-two. Guess what? Eighty-five percent of people in my survey said they did not follow their passion. They discovered it or changed it or made it along the way. I’m about to send two kids to college in a hundred days. The chances that they’re going to know their passion — passion is great, but it changes over time. You don’t have a career. Point number two, the fluidity. You mentioned workquake. What is a workquake? A workquake is a moment where you rethink or reconsider or reevaluate or ask yourself, am I doing what I want to be doing? We go through twenty workquakes in the course of our lives. That’s every 2.85 years.

Here’s the thing. This echoes on what we’ve been saying. Women go through them more than men. Xers go through them more than boomers, and millennials more than Xers. By the way, and diverse workers more than nondiverse workers. A millennial woman will go through two thirds more workquakes in her life than her boomer parents. This is the signature piece of data. Actually, I think it’s almost the spirit of “Moms Don’t Have Time.” The majority of workquakes, fifty-five percent, begin outside the workplace. It’s not that you get laid off or you don’t like your boss or you don’t like the work or you have to travel and you don’t want to travel because you want to be home with your family. It’s because something happened in your personal life, with your health. Hello. I’m raising my hand. I got diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer at forty-three. I was Walking the Bible and doing all this stuff, I’m hosting TV shows, and Indiana Jones. Suddenly, I was on crutches for two years. That was a workquake. I’m a parent of identical twin daughters. That was a joyful, wonderful experience, but you know what? It was a workquake because it made us reevaluate everything we were doing. The point is, it’s our personal lives. It’s our health. It’s our family. It’s between our ears. We don’t want to be doing this anymore. It doesn’t bring us meaning. That is the thing. In the battle between work and life, we’re not trying to balance them. Life has won. We all are prioritizing our life. That is the change that is happening. Work is forced to accommodate. That’s the interesting moment that we’re in. Then the last thing, which we’ve been talking around — we might as well just dig into it for a minute — is that nobody has one job anymore.

Julie: No, they do not.

Bruce: I want to talk about this. You brought this up in the green room, so to speak. This had a big impact on you. Give me your reaction before I tell you how this all came about.

Julie: I’m really excited that we can get deep into my own psychological issues on this episode. It feels important.

Bruce: That’s why we’re here.

Julie: I know. I love it. Yes, that’s why I’m hosting. You talk about job, side jobs, and the ghost jobs. The ghost job really stood out to me. What’s funny is I work as an elementary librarian, and for a long time, I talked about that as not a full-time job because it’s only thirty hours a week. Really, that is my main job. Then the idea, though, that I have side jobs, I do podcasting. I wrote a book. I write sometimes in other ways. I’m working on a novel. Those are all little side jobs. The ghost job — I even wrote this down, ghost jobs being kind of the mental load. Also, specific to that, I thought, creatives, all of us have a ghost job, which is pretty much just relentless self-doubt and how much time in a day you’re going to assign to that. I’m amazed. Reading that, I thought, oh, my gosh, that’s something I never thought of, but you’re exactly right.

Bruce: Thank you for sharing that. We’re going to get deeper in the psychology here. We’re not going to get away with just that top line. We’re going to get into it in a minute here. The idea that you have a job that you go to and then you come back to your family or your personal life, that is an idea that does not reflect how we live today. No one has one job anymore. In fact, I got out a defining book of my childhood, which is What Do People Do All Day? Actually, for a long time, this book, which is now called The Search, was called What Do People Do All Day? That’s like, it’s got the raccoon who’s a baker. It’s got the squirrel that’s a carpenter. By the way, they’re all traditionally gendered. That’s not the world that we live in anymore. It turns out we all have side jobs. We’ll start with the main job. I love that you said that your main job wasn’t necessarily a full-time job. By the way, interestingly enough, fewer than half of us even have a main job anymore. A main job could be the primary source of time, or it could be the primary source of money and benefits. There are different reasons. Then we have a care job. Two thirds of us have a care job, like caring for children or aging relatives or, some of us, both. I’m older than you are. Three quarters of us have a side job. I sort of feel like that’s been in the culture a lot, but there were two kinds of jobs I’d never heard before. One is something that people do hoping that it leads to something else. That, I called a hope job. That is selling jewelry on Etsy or writing a screenplay or something that you do — I don’t know if you’ve sold your novel. Maybe that’s a hope job.

Julie: The novel is a hope job. The memoir was sold, so now that’s a side job.

Bruce: Exactly, so that would be a side job. These are both distinctions that don’t matter but also really do matter. What’s interesting is often, the difference between a side job and a hope job is the side job will bring in money, but the hope job, we’re often paying out of pocket for. If you’re selling pickles at the farmers market, you’ve got to invest in the crock. I’m thinking this because I want to make pickles this summer when I become an empty nester. You need the pickles and the brine. I kept hearing about this thing, which I have to say is not in the literature of work, to my knowledge. I haven’t GPT-checked that because I’ve never been on ChatGPT. It’s that people have an invisible time suck — here’s the key thing — that feels like a job, battling self-doubt, imposter syndrome, battling discriminations or microaggressions, battling mental health or sobriety. I think you just put it beautifully, self-doubt. Another huge one, financial wellness. I didn’t grow up with money skills, and so therefore, I don’t know. How much do I save? How do I invest? I was fascinated. It kept coming up. I talked to a woman who works at Vox. She’s a creative, as you said. She’s in the beginning of the career. She knows her parents have some issues. She knows that she’s going to have to take care of her parents. She can’t rely on them. She has a side job to bring in extra money and has this ghost job of going around on Zillow looking for real estate so she can move out of the city and get a home big enough to live with her parents who are going to need her to take care of them.

That is a huge time suck. This sounds like a burden. I know for moms who don’t have time, they don’t have time. I actually think the most helpful way to look at it is that what’s nonnegotiable is we want meaning from what we do. In this fluid world we live in, maybe you do the main job or the side job for money and salary, but you do the hope job for meaning. Maybe you say, you know what, I just got a great offer for a promotion, but my kid’s on travel soccer this year. I just don’t have time, so I’m going to focus on that for a while. Here’s the blessing of the nonlinear life. When I was growing up and even when we had children eighteen years ago, the perception was if you got off the path, you could never get back on the path. You have no career. You have no job. You also have no path. When there is no path, you can get on or off as many times as you want. That’s the thing. The blessing of the moment that we’re in is that you can find this mix to find meaning. Also, there is no career-ending moment of taking time off to be with your children because there’s no career anymore. You can get back doing work when that time is ripe again.

Julie: I love the way that this book frames it and that you’re framing it right now because there’s such a hopeful posture here that it’s okay to kind of cobble the things together to make it fit for you to make meaning. It really does give an opportunity to validate all of these jobs. Instead of seeing them as weights we carry, it’s, okay, so this is where my energy goes. This is where I take in a little bit more energy. These ideas that I can really put down — the ghost job, part of the reason it was so helpful to me is that — we think about the stories we tell ourselves. That’s another big theme of your book, is the stories that we tell ourselves. I’m taking a moment to not only evaluate those and see if they’re actually correct — I’m fact-checking the story I tell myself — but also to ask, is this a story that I want to spend time telling myself?

Bruce: That is exactly where this leads us. It wasn’t my goal. My goal was to capture what’s going on, but the number-one thing I’m hearing from readers is that it is validating. What both Life is in the Transitions and The Search have both done is — I don’t know the technical term for the reaction. You’re a librarian. Maybe you know this reaction. I think it’s a technical reaction. People say, you’re putting words to these feelings that I had that I didn’t know what to do with. I’m in a life transition. I’m in a work transition. I’m unhappy. It’s kind of simple-minded. I’ve been joking that it’s a technical term. People feel validated that they have a framework to understand what they’re going for. What this all leads to, though, is the task of updating your story. Really, I would say the number-one thing I learned is that — if you go back to your in-laws; you were talking about your husband — is that the story we’ve been telling in this country for two hundred years has been all about up: rag to riches, up by your bootstraps, higher floor, bigger office, greater salary, more benefits. If there’s one thing I learned in talking to hundreds of people, fifteen hundred hours of interviews, it’s that the people who are happiest and most fulfilled in what they do, they don’t just climb. They also dig.

They perform what I call personal archaeology. They perform a meaning audit in which they explore, what is it that gives them meaning right now? What the whole 21 Questions to Find Work You Love is all about is using the basic building blocks of storytelling: who, what, when, where, why, and how. The mistake that most people make is they start with how. They’re like, okay, I need to work. Brush up my résumé. Clean up my LinkedIn profile. Call my friends close and far. You know what the problem with that is? It will work. You actually will get a job, but in two and a half years, you’ll be unhappy and doing it again. The first thing to do is to try to figure out, who are you right now? That begins by going back and saying, what did I learn from my parents? When I ask people — actually, I’ll pull these numbers up. You can hear my clicking in the microphone here. It’s on page 164 of The Search. Question. What were the upsides of work you learned from your parents, and the downsides? Give me a quick answer. What were the upsides you learned from your parents, and what were the downsides?

Julie: Upsides are financial, obviously. You make money. My dad was in hospitality, so definitely a service element, that you’re of use and present and attentive.

Bruce: What were the downsides you learned from watching them?

Julie: Downsides were, it’s easy to overwork. I think learned overwork a little bit from them and then also poor work-life balance.

Bruce: This is interesting. I told you we’re going to get deeper here. Number-one upside, hard work, the value of hard work. That’s two thirds of us. The rest were, love what you do, or be true to yourself. When you look at downsides, they are much more tightly clumped. Number one, overwork. Then number two, the strain on the family. My parents work very hard. This is a difference. We’re in a generation — I’m almost to say anybody listening to this conversation self-identifies as a mom. That’s important to them. Yet they want ideas. What is “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read”? It’s all about, I want to be part of the world, but being a mom is important to me. One of the ways that we define meaning is that we’re not prepared to work by the old metric of, only money is the way you’re going to gauge it, if it means traveling three weeks a month. I talked to a mom who had a great job in Chicago and was traveling two weeks a month. She was like, that’s not what I want to be. I want to be home with my family more. She, again, changed her job, something more suited to what she was now. By the way, over the years, she ended up getting two master’s and now started her own company. Here’s the oscillation of the nonlinear work life. There’s a question. We’re only one question in to the twenty-one questions. What we’ve established is you have all of these — again, almost like ghosts. You have all of these things that are bouncing around in your head. This is why I call it our work scripture. It’s like homilies and parables and lessons and stories and narratives that are clouding our choices, but we’re not aware of it. Part of what I’m trying to do in The Search is put them out onto the kitchen table so you can have them. Let me just ask you one more question. Other than family, who were your role models as a child growing up?

Julie: Probably, my teachers. I wanted to be a doctors, so the doctors.

Bruce: Here’s what’s interesting about this. In the who, what, when, where, and how — what were the upsides and downsides of what you learned from your parents? That’s a who question because you inherit that. That’s just in your Whoville, are your parents. They are in the ecosystem. When you start saying, “What role models did you admire? What did you admire about them?” that’s a what question. That’s the first time when we’re children that we make affirmative actions about whom we choose to relate to. What do we know about you? We know that you spend time in a school. You’re an elementary school librarian. This is the thing. If I had asked you, which I probably should have, what you admired about your teachers — I’ll just ask you. What did you admire about your teachers?

Julie: It’s their engagement and who they were as people. I wrote about it at one point. One of my teachers, she just was settled in her own self. I couldn’t have articulated it at the time. I just wanted to be like her. She was wise. She was kind. She was engaged.

Bruce: What are you doing in your life? You’re engaged. You like ideas. You both spend time with children, but you’re podcasting. You’re meeting new people. You are a conduit between people and ideas. Before we’re told, “Money matters most of all. Your title matters. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” before that is imprinted — that’s the script that the culture gives us, but we all have the scripture before we have that. The questions are about the past. Who were your role models? What pain point did you want to solve when you were growing up? What was your toothache? These are the questions that are the past. Then what we work toward in these 21 Questions to Find Work You Love is a question I’ll ask you right now. You mentioned that you’ve got all these different side jobs and hope jobs, this work 360, I call it. Answer this question for me. My purpose right now is…blank?

Julie: Connection. To be connected.

Bruce: First of all, we are having this conversation not in the same room. We are connected in having this conversation. If I just then echo what I have heard — what’s the first thing you said? I sat down with my husband. I connected with him over that. He has these connections with the people in his life that are imprinting his expectation of work. I’m connected to my students, but I’m also now connected to myself. Not only am I writing a nonfiction book, I’m also writing a memoir, which is connected to my creativity. What’s insanely powerful about this — I interviewed a guy named Mark Savickas who is the dean of this kind of thinking. It’s called narrative career construction, constructing the story of who we want to be. He said to me, “When I meet somebody, I know within five minutes what the answer should be and what they should be doing, but I don’t want to tell them because I want them to discover it inside yourself.”

That is what I’ve been trying to do here. The one thing I learned — there are three lies. The one truth is only you can write your own story. The blessing of the world we live in today is — this is, I have to say, disproportionately true for women than for men. You don’t have to chase someone else’s dream. You don’t have to do it. The one thing I tell to my eighteen-year-old twin daughters is, don’t do what you think I want you to do because you’ll be unhappy, and you’ll be doing something else in ten years. By the way, doing something else in ten years is fine, but the job is for you to figure out what you want to do. You don’t have to chase someone else’s dream anymore. You can chase your own dream. What I’ve tried to put down on the page is a set of tools to help you identify, what is your dream? It changes. Then maybe the blessing, as you said, is to use those questions and help someone else that you love find their dream too.

Julie: Bruce, thank you for this time. I am moved. This has really been a beautiful conversation. I hope that everyone picks up your book. I think the important thing for everyone to remember is that this book really is for everyone. Finding meaningful work is something that we are all doing, whether you’re employed or not. I love what you’ve done here. I’m so grateful for this time. Thank you.

Bruce: Thank you for inviting me. Thank you again to Zibby for all you’re building. I think of this book in some ways as the greatest informational interview to meet these people. If you come on this journey, I think you will be inspired to find the work you love, the meaning you crave, and the happiness you deserve.

Julie: I love it. Thanks so much.

THE SEARCH: Finding Meaningful Work in a Post-Career World by Bruce Feiler

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