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The Templeton Ideas Podcast is a show about the most awe-inspiring ideas in our world and the people who investigate them.

Transcripts of our episodes are made available as soon as possible. They are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

Bruce Feiler is a bestselling author known for living the experiences he writes about. He is the author of seven New York Times bestsellers, including Life in the Transitions, The Secrets of Happy Families, Council of Dads, and Walking the Bible. His three TED Talks have been viewed more than four million times, and he also writes the popular newsletter “The Nonlinear Life” for the New York Times. His latest book, The Search: Finding Meaningful Work in a Post-Career World, lays out a roadmap for finding purpose and meaning at work. Bruce joins the podcast to discuss why we should reimagine how we think about work, what makes a meaningful life, and how all of us can be the author of our own story.

Tom: All right, Bruce. I want to welcome you to the Templeton Ideas podcast.

Bruce: Thank you very much for inviting me. I’ve been looking forward to our conversation.

Tom: Yeah, before we start talking about your new book, I want to ask you some personal questions to get started. So, could you tell me where you grew up and what your great joys were as a child?

Bruce: I grew up in Savannah, Georgia, five generations of Jews in the American South. My great joys, I love that question. I can’t say I’m asked that question a lot, I learned to juggle.

The defining thing about my childhood, I would say, is being Jewish in the South, which meant that I was sort of a part of it, but apart from it at the same time. And I think a lot of my work, is it’s about working that out, about sort of traveling around the world, becoming part of a culture, but then leaving and talking about that culture to others who haven’t been a part of it.

And maybe the first one of those that sort of has shaped my life in a certain way is I learned to juggle when I was 13 and did mime in high school. I used to joke that I put myself through high school doing birthday parties. 30 bucks an hour, which later led me to join the circus in my 20s and sort of in a lot of ways still defines me as kind of a performer and a storyteller and someone who kind of tries to find humor often in topics that are serious and very earnest. So, I would say that’s who I am. And that’s how finding joy has been a part of my life.

Tom: That’s a fantastic combination. One of the things I identify with you is your adventurous spirit, all the travels and adventures you’ve had and that you’ve documented through your writing. I was wondering, did you have an adventurous spirit like that from an early age? I mean, I’m imagining you hitchhiking across America as a seven-year-old. I mean, where did that adventurous spirit kick in?

Bruce: The answer to that question is the adventurous spirit came from the precise opposite of that, which is that I had a very stable childhood. I came from a kind of very hyper functional family. And my father was the Georgian, and that part of my family goes back to the middle of the 19th century when Jews first came, to the US and many of them fled, went to the South, came through New York and went to the South. My mother grew up in Baltimore and my mother moved to Savannah in the 60s after my dad had been in the Navy and felt unwelcome in a lot of ways. I think she turned her attention very intently on her family because it was this, this kind of haven from that world that she didn’t feel comfortable in.

And so, I think where the travel came from was a sense of confidence that I had a place that I was from. If I look at my life, I mean, I think they’re almost like one of my favorite sayings is there’s two types of people in the world: people who travel because they come from a secure place, and they travel and then they bounce back home. And that was me. There’s another kind of person that never feels home and is kind of perpetually wandering. But I think those people in a lot of ways are looking for, for opportunities to put down roots.

And I’m the other kind of person, right? And I used to say for a long time that I always felt that my life was a bungee cord and half of it was planted deep in Savannah, Georgia, a place of history and tradition. And I traveled and I bounced back and wasn’t until my thirties when I started going back and forth to the Middle East and writing these books that became walking the Bible and Abraham and a lot of stuff, you know, which sort of burst me into the public view. And that was the first time that I felt that bungee cord catches in another place and felt that that geography in a lot of ways mapped my own internal geography.

Tom: I’m going to turn to some of your newest works, particularly your book, The Search: Finding Meaningful Work in a Post Career World. You’ve written on many different topics, many big adventures, and here’s one that so many of us find ourselves in: looking for jobs that will give us a sense of fulfillment, a feeling like the work that we do is important.

It takes up a lot of time in our life. And the reason that I wanted to talk to you is because you dig so deeply into reporting, investigating, studying. Instead of just having a riff on a topic, you go out and ask people. So, I think, you wrote that you interviewed 155 people for this book. And when you read it, you see…

They’ve had very unconventional lives, and whatnot. And I wondered, after talking to this many people did it change the way that you viewed your own life? How did that affect you, having that kind of volume of conversations with, I would say, unorthodox people?

Bruce: I would say it affected me less as a worker. And more as a parent because I am an empty nester. I am in a life transition myself. In the last few months, I have published a book, celebrated 15 years since cancer, 20 years of marriage, watched my identical twin daughters graduate from high school and dropped them off to college, right? Like, anybody knows anybody who knows anything about life transitions. I think it, it affects a lot of what I say to them. And I think a lot of it has to do with the meaning of the word work.

And I think, you know, having this conversation coming out of the Bible is helpful in its own way. The most influential story ever told about work is the garden of Eden because the punishment in air quotes for Adam and Eve, when they get kicked out of the garden is labor for Adam, you’ve got a labor in the fields, and for Eve, you’re going to have pain in childbirth. Okay. I got a problem with both of those, but let’s focus on the work here for a second. Right? So, since the ancient world, we have had this idea that work is supposed to make you miserable. Right? The word for office is, you know, not a pleasant place, right? The word for labor, for work, travail. In every Western civilization culture, the idea of work is it’s supposed to be bad, right? So, let’s go back to the ancient world. The first biggest change in work. From work 0.0 to 1.0, as I call it, happened then 12,000 years ago when humans by and large went from wandering to settling in one place, right?

That was the agricultural revolution. And, and once that happened, it took 90 percent of human beings, 90 percent of their time, essentially just to survive and everybody did everything right. So, you tended the fields, and you made your candles and you cared for your elders and you educated your young and people did everything.

So, there was no need for the idea of a job. The idea of a job is invented in the next big change, which is from the agricultural to the industrial revolution, which was 200 years ago. And then suddenly, what happened? People fled from rural areas to cities. They had to look for work, right? For jobs. And that was a massive change, but the burden, like the legacy of work, is supposed to make you miserable, carried with you. Okay. I mean, I was asked recently on television, 3,500 people lost their jobs to AI last month. What’s going to happen when AI takes over the world? And the industrial revolution answers a third of the country. And they were farmers with nothing to do because now there were machines and more efficient, harvesting procedures. The third big change in work happened 50 years after that, when we went from the industrial floor to the office floor, right? People who showered after work to people who showered before work is one way to think about that. We are now in the fourth biggest change in the history of work and what that and that change is the change from: You got to go to one place. You must have a series of linear jobs that you record in another invented element in the history of work, which is the resume. No one ever had a resume before the 1950s. You didn’t need one. And now we are moving just like we’re moving from a linear life to a nonlinear life, which is the big idea in life is in the transitions.

We are moving from a linear to a nonlinear work life when you can make a change for whatever you want and for whatever reason that you want. And we have by and large, you know, 20 of these “workquakes”, I call them, where we must rethink and reimagine what we do. And the biggest change, the most important change, goes back to the Garden of Eden: It’s that you no longer have to do what you think you should do, what your parents wanted you to do, what you were raised to believe you want to do. You no longer have to do work that makes you miserable. You can get off the “should” train, an opportunity that most human beings never had, and get on the “want” train and decide.

And that’s why the most important skill in work today is to figure out what is it that you want to do. What is the story you want to tell? What is it that gives you meaning? And that’s what’s been missing from 2,000 years in the history of work, 10,000 years in the history of work. And what I’ve tried to do in this search is to give you the tools to say, okay, this is how, when you can do anything, figure out what is the thing that you were meant to do, want to do right now. Not six years ago or six months ago. Not six months or six years from now. Right now, what is it that you want to be doing?

Tom: With so much job turnover and economic disruptions these days, is it still useful to think about me, for instance, having a career? Or am I going to have a series of jobs in my life?

Bruce: Yeah, I love the question. The answer is, um, neither. But, yeah, my book, as you know, is built around what I call three lies and the truth about work. So, lie number one is you have a career. There was, for most of human history, no word for career. This was an idea that was invented in 1909 by a guy named Frank Parsons in Boston. And he realizes that all these, you know, people have fled, from the farms to the cities. They don’t have jobs. And there’s a bunch of new industries that have popped up. They don’t have workers. So, he invents the idea of career counseling. And it was once, in your twenties, if you were a man, you could have one conversation and then you were done and he pathologized changing jobs and this kind of thing, right? So, myth number one is you have a career. You don’t have a career. That’s an invented notion. You can change your job. As I said earlier, for any reason you want, even for as simple as reason as you want to change your job. Okay. So that’s not a helpful construct. Helpful, unhelpful construct.

Number two is you have a path. Okay. Because you don’t have a path, right? There is not a journey. As I said, 20 times in our lives, the so-called path is interrupted by some sort of workquake.

But here’s the thing about, I think, the defining piece of data in the search is that 45 percent of work quakes begin in the workplace, okay? You’re laid off, the industry is challenged, okay? You start a new job, you have a conflict with your boss, whatever it might be. That means 55 percent of earthquakes begin inside of the home. Something happens with your family, a loved one gets sick. You say, I don’t want to commute any longer. You just have a change of heart, or a change of mind or external circumstances say, now I want to fight climate change.

A wonderful story in my book, Wei Te Kwok, who was the CEO of the top Silicon Valley, a Chinese American, ad company who goes to see an inconvenient truth and says, I’m going to work quake. He wasn’t using that word. And he walks away from being CEO to become a foot soldier fighting climate change. So that’s a workquake. That’s nothing to do with what he’s doing, not his workplace. It’s his own mind. Okay.

And the third lie is that you have a job because you don’t have a job. We all have multiple jobs. We may have our main job, which is what we think of as our job, but we also have care jobs. Caring for children or aging relatives. You know, you’re one special needs child or one cancer diagnosis with a parent away from saying, I want to walk away from my job and devote time to my family. We also have side jobs as we talk about, you know, ad infinitum, but we also have two new jobs. One, I call a hope job, which is something that we do on the side that we hope leads to something else: like starting a podcast or writing a screenplay or selling pickles at the farmer’s market. And often we’re doing that because we don’t have meaning in our job, right? And we want to find meaning, or we have a ghost job, which is something, which is my term for something that haunts us like insecurity or, or self-doubt or, sobriety, right?

Or imposter syndrome, right? So, the point is. The traditional frameworks no longer capture what it is to be a worker today. So, the way to think about it is not that you have a job, but that you have a story that you’re telling about what you do. And that’s what matters. And like every story, the meaning is not assigned. You have to assign the meaning to it. So, your job is to figure out who am I, what do I want to be doing now? What do I value? Do I value making money? Do I value giving back? Do I value public service? Do I value creativity? That’s the challenge of just why the bulk of the search is, as I call it, 21 questions to find work you love, an exercise to put yourself through. I call it the meaning audit to figure out what is it that you want to be doing right now?

Tom: I think one of the things that was helpful to me in thinking about five different kinds of jobs, and I’ll name them for our listeners: a main job, a side job, a hope job, a care job, and ghost job, was not thinking necessarily just thinking about them separately, but thinking about them all together.

And in terms of making life decisions, recognizing that we only have one life, and we only have 24 hours a day, that’s not going to change. And as I’m thinking about making decisions, that decision is going to cascade across all five of those, right? I could change my main job. Or I could become a full-time caretaker.

I could plow time, money, energy into my hope job. And seeing that they’re all connected, rather than my job being this distinct thing that I’m angling for something, and then I’ve got these other responsibilities. If we see them as integrated, then we’re going to be able to perhaps make a better decision when it comes down to a crossroads of choosing another job because they’re going to, they’re all going to work together to give us a life that we decide is fulfilling or not.

So, I want to ask after that long, observation, a little bit about ghost jobs and how can we best kind of address and handle those rather than being, so to speak, haunted by them.

Bruce: Well, so what is a ghost job? A ghost job is an invisible time suck that feels like a job. Okay, and you know, so what’s an example of a ghost job? A ghost job is I struggle with mental health. Okay. And that’s going to affect my decision about how much pressure I want to put in, but it’s going to affect it.

Or let’s just say I have a special needs child and therefore, I have demands on my time that mean I can only take a certain kind of job and can’t take another kind of job. Or I battle, self-doubt, right. Or I battle imposter syndrome. And, and where this came from, this idea is not in the social science literature. It’s that I sat and, and collected, you know, 500 hours of interviews and became apparent is that everybody had one of these. And then I said, well, how much time does it take? And a percentage of people said, are you kidding? All the time, right? If you’re young into AA, you’re thinking about this all the time, right?

It’s one day at a time, one non-drink at a time, one call to your sponsor every day. We know that a third of Americans have mental health problems these days, right? I’m chuckling because five years ago, you know, the employee well-being office in any company was in the cellar in a windowless room next to the incinerator, right?

Now we know that that office is on every floor and that topic is in every conversation. And that’s the answer to your question. The most important thing to do with a ghost job is, and to make sure that it doesn’t haunt you, is to bring it out of the shadows.

Tom: There’s a passage in your book that I’ve been reflecting on a lot recently. What are the key differences between pursuing a happy life and pursuing a meaningful life?

Bruce: Yeah. That question since chills down my spine because we’re, I don’t know, maybe we’re just destined to get this wrong because happy, you know, happiness is in the, is in the Declaration of Independence and its sort of built into the American psyche, is that we are people who prioritize happiness. happiness is a feeling, it’s an emotion.

It’s passing, it’s fleeting. You know, animals can be happy, but animals can’t have meaning. The difference between happiness and meaning is that happiness is present-oriented and meaning stitches together past present and future. So meaning is what allows us to find well-being when we are unhappy and you’re going to be unhappy in life.

Huh? You’re going to be, as I was, a 43-year-old man, who was diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer when he was the parent of three-year-olds. You’re going to have a bad age. Things are gonna happen to you in work. You’re going to get a diagnosis or a downsizing, or a pandemic or a natural disaster.

And unhappiness is therefore unavoidable, how you find purpose and direction and wellbeing and equilibrium and productivity and efficiency, and the wherewithal to make dinner. That’s how you make meaning. And meaning is about stitching past, present, and future together. And the only mechanism to stitch past, present, and future together is a story.

And the story is how you do that. So, the real question then is how we make meaning, which has been an obsession of mine for years now. And if you go back a hundred years ago, and certainly two and three hundred years, most of the ways we got meaning in our lives. We’re fixed. You had to do what your parents wanted you to do, live where your parents wanted you to live, believe what your parents wanted you to believe, marry who your parents wanted you to marry.

Those have all gone away. You can now do what you want to do, live where you want to live, love who you want to love. And in most cases, this has benefited a lot of minorities, you know, people that are in a minority status, whether it’s women or LGBTQ people or people of minority religions. It has been incredibly freeing.

And also paralyzing because we get paralyzed by choice. You get, in effect, writer’s block trying to write the story of your life. And so, what I have just because this is the hardest thing that I’ve worked on is I’ve sort of been coding this and thinking about it for years and just to sort of, you know, condense a lot of work into 30 seconds.

Basic ways we do this are what I call the ABCs of meaning. So, the A is agency. That’s what we do make, build, create for many of it’s our, it’s our work lives. The B is belonging. That’s our love relationships, our family, our, co-religionists, the people we march and rally with, the people that we work with, and the C is a cause, a calling, a purpose, something higher than yourselves, right?

So, in narrative terms, this is your me story. Your we story and your the story. But the key thing to know is that we have all of them in us, but in different percentages, like I’m an ABC, other people are BACs. Like I’ll leave that off stage now. But the most important thing to know in this conversation is that when you are in a life transition or a work transition, when you’re having a workquake or what I call a lifequake, this is a moment to pause and to rethink and to rejigger.

How you allot your ABCs of meaning, right? So maybe you’ve been working hard and want to spend more time with your family, or maybe you’ve been caring for young children or an aging relative. And you say, I want to do something for myself, right? Or maybe you’ve been giving back, and you’re burned out. And you say, you know, I want to do a different thing with my time.

The point is, a transition in the pandemic is a perfect example. It was an externally forced moment where we all rethought what was important to us. And I wasn’t surprised. No wonder half the people quit their jobs. People moved like all the things that people do in a life transition, which is what I’ve been talking about and writing about and kind of flailing my arms about for people to pay, to pay attention to, you know, in the last few years, because we’re all in one of those.

Half of us are in a life quake right now, and most of us are in a work quake.

Tom: I’m going to pick up on more of the myth-busting that you do about, about work. They were fascinating to read. I’m going to bring up one of them and here’s a quote. Discover what brings you joy, brings you happiness, then follow it with single minded determination. I feel like I have heard that in every graduation speech probably I’ve ever heard. And you say that it’s bad advice. What’s, what’s wrong with characterizing things like that?

Bruce: Well, the simple answer to why it’s bad advice is it describes almost nobody who is happy and does not capture how they got there. Because I asked everybody, like, you know, is what now you’re doing something that you wanted to do as a child, you know, as a young adult, or did you change along the way, right?

You know, and most people changed along the way. And that’s the key ingredient. So, look, the history of this is quite fascinating, right? It comes from the kind of people that in the circles you and I travel in are quoted all its Joseph It’s like the perfect storm of Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, right?

Because Joseph Campbell was writing about this and it was Bill Moyers who popularized it And so the idea of follow your bliss or follow your passion as it’s as it’s you know, sometimes called became default Only 15 percent of people who are happy and do feel passionate about what they’re doing, say following their bliss is an accurate description of what happened to them.

The reason? Because what you care about changes. Let’s go back to Huai Te Kua, who I mentioned in passing, right? You know, he was a high school debater, grew up in a Chinese American home, and somebody said to him, plastics, right? Your plastics is, you need to understand Chinese, right? Because it’s going to be a big thing.

And he goes and he runs a kind of Asian American interface, you know, back and forth digital ad company. First of all, that wasn’t his passion, but that is what he did, and he was very successful. And his wife says, oh, there’s this movie down at the multiplex, let’s go watch it.

And as he said, she drags me to see An Inconvenient Truth. And he comes back and he says every day, like for the next six months, I look in the mirror and I say, what am I doing today to make the planet a better place? My kids are too young. If we wait for my kids to do it. Like it’ll be another 20 years and he said I’m sitting there arguing about should you know, should we have square edges to the box or round edges to the box? And he walks away. That problem didn’t even exist when he was 22 when someone was telling him follow your passion. So the problem with it is the idea that passion is like the star. I’m dating myself again. It’s like the star that Johnny Carson. Wow. I don’t even know what that is anymore.

Johnny Carson used to walk out from behind the curtain and stand on a star and make his jokes. And we have this idea that the passion is the star. And if you can find it and stand on it, you’ll be happy. But the truth is we live in a constellation of stars. And at any given moment, you may want to hop from star to star to star.

And there’s no reason to deny yourself that because of some corny graduation slogan.

Tom: That’s where I think it’s really valuable to think about those five different kinds of work that you can decouple money making or salary from meaning and certain parts of your life may be incredibly meaningful and that’s really what, why you wake up in the morning, but you do. These other parts as well, that all taken together make for a meaningful life. And that’s, that’s what I think is encouraging, to decouple these different needs that we have, um, and make sure that all together that they are, uh, working organically.

Bruce: By the way, it goes both ways. It goes the way of maybe you have to do this job for the salary and the benefits, and you can have a hope job that will bring you meaning, or you can have a volunteer job, right? You can give back, you can work for an organization, you can devote your time. So you can have the meaning and your salary, but it also works the other way, right?

Because maybe you walk away from a job that is stability and benefits and salary because you want to become a foot soldier in fighting climate change or making your community better or running for political office, right? Or, you know, caring for your special needs, child or whatever it might be. And then you can do a side job for money.

Because it will help you do the other thing.

I tell the story of a Korean American lawyer who goes to work at Goldman Sachs to fulfill his parents expectations and to get the money and the salary and the prestige. But he grew up sharing a bathroom with three sisters and he, you know, that’s what he cares about. So he was helping his friends redo their bathrooms and their kitchens. And then he opened a side job an interior design business. And then when that became big, he jumps in that becomes his main job, but he takes a few law cases on the side to give him time to get his entrepreneurial thing up and going.

Tom: Yeah, I want to read a quote that I really love from one of your interview subjects. They said, “what I’ve learned is that our dreams don’t necessarily work out, but sometimes the dreams that do come true are better than the ones that don’t.” And first of all, that’s just great insight, and good to reflect on.

But I want to ask you about how do we handle the in-between times? So, our original dreams are crushed, and the next, the next wave where we feel like, thank goodness that I’m in this other situation, it has not occurred, and we’re riddled with anxiety, self-doubt, sometimes outright terror. Do you have any advice for kind of handling the in-between times?

The quakes are gonna happen, and when we’re kind of in that gully, how do we think about it? How do we frame the situation we find ourselves in?

Bruce: Three words. It’s the most powerful three words in the English language part of me believes: you’re not alone.

And that’s the words to say to yourself. What I mean by that is, what I’ve been talking about is the larger change in life from the linear way that we expected to live our lives, where everything does, everyone does the same thing in their twenties, everyone does the same thing in their thirties, and everyone has a midlife crisis between 39 and 44 and a half.

This has been the expectation since the idea of midlife crisis was popularized by Gail 1970s in work plagiarized from Roger Gould and Dan Levinson at UCLA and Yale. And we now live nonlinear lives. But we still have the expectation that every job is going to be bigger and higher with a higher salary and take the occupy the next line of my resume. So, the thing that’s quoted back to me most often in my own work is that we have linear expectations. And nonlinear lives.

Tom: Yep.

Bruce: And so, what I would say to you, if you’re having that feeling where you’re in the moment where you’re in the sound, time curve is dipping, or you’re in the bottom of the isolation is number one, I would say you’re not alone.

The second thing I would say is, the problem is not your life. It’s the expectation that your life was going to be a certain way.

And the third thing, because you’re you, and because you and I have just had a conversation, that began by talking about the greatest stories ever told, Is it in the greatest stories ever told in the Hebrew Bible, the greatest moments of growth happen in those periods when Abraham leaves his family’s house and goes, to the unknown,

That’s when the growth happens, and odds are that’s what’s going to happen to you.

Tom: It reminds me of something my grandmother wrote to me a lot when I was growing up and is in the valleys you grow.

I think that’s absolutely true looking back on it.

With the short time we have remaining, I want to circle back to where we started and ask you again about your childhood. If you had a chance to meet that childhood self, what would your childhood self think about the life that you’ve lived, through all the ups and downs, through the adventure, through the, heartache, through disability, what might that kind of conversation look like between the two of you?

Bruce: I would like to think that that conversation is not that dissimilar from the conversation I had with my own 18-year-olds who just left the nest, so to speak, and went out on their own and are grappling with these questions themselves. And the first thing I tell them is don’t listen to me, though, in effect, I’m telling other people or inviting other people to listen to me.

I say to my kids, I’m your parent. Like, don’t chase my, the first thing I tell them is don’t chase my dream. Like, don’t do it because you think I want you to do it because I don’t want you to do that. What I would say to my own 18-year-old self is, what I’m most proud of you 40 years later. And by the way, I described, this is the 40th anniversary of when I graduated from high school, is that you did chase your own dream, and it was a dream that you didn’t fully understand, and it was not clearly articulated, and doesn’t exactly have an existing path.

Tom: Yeah.

Bruce: But I’ll tell you the question I’ve actually had with myself, which is, what if I had taken a test when I was 18 years old that would tell me that that broken leg I had when I was 5 years old would turn into a 9-inch osteogenic sarcoma when I was 43?

And would I have done something different? That’s a hard question that I don’t fully know the answer to. But I think what I would say to myself is something is going to happen to you.

Tom: Yeah.

Bruce: The roof is going to be blown off in a tornado, I mean, or a hurricane, because I come from hurricane country in Savannah, Georgia, right?

You’re going to get a diagnosis. You’re not going to believe this but there’s going to be a pandemic that’s going to come along and kill tens of millions of people and force people to rethink and reimagine who they are. And at some point in your life, you’re either going to be in a plane that goes down, or you’re going to get a diagnosis that you can’t recover from, or something’s going to happen to you and you’re going to get a disease that you can’t defeat.

And at that moment, what you’re going to think is, did I make decisions in the course of my life that were true to who I was? So, when you go into your life, make sure that you are writing your own story. Be the hero of your own fairy tale. That’s what I would say.