Coping When Your Career Seems to Stall Out

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The floor really fell out from under millennials when we finally entered the job market. A lot of us thought things were going to be different, including reluctant freelance journalist Jacob Silverman. His essay "Down and Out in the Gig Economy" went viral this week, lamenting the unchosen way he fell into his work and the impoverished manner in which he and his labor is treated.

Silverman's complaints are specific to journalism but widely applicable, even if you're not a freelancer. Personal sacrifice, superhuman effort, and good-faith goal-setting only seem to yield debt, career stagnation, and a frantic scramble to make ends meet. Maybe it started earlier than the job search, as it did for one high school student rejected from all their preferred colleges.

It's worth not despairing, even if things are hard now. That's the conclusion of a new study from the Santa Fe Institute which tracked the careers of scientists against where they received their training. "Pedigree is not destiny," as the authors put it. In fact, the thing that determined whether scientists did good work was whether they worked in a supportive environment. Scientists doing good work tended to advance to similarly good and prestigious labs.

If your present doesn't look like you imagined it would, it's also probably not dooming you to a life of mediocrity. As the New York Times Magazine's Kwame Anthony Appiah put it to that depressed high schooler, "Lots of things that happen to you — a good number of which will be a matter of sheer luck — will affect the life you make. But what will make your life a good one, along with luck, is a willingness to run with the opportunities that come your way."