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Strolling through the local bookstore’s career section, the How-To titles seem endless, and figuring out which ones have advice that you can actually apply to your life is a crapshoot at best. One book, bound in a shade of bright yellow that refuses to be ignored, is the newly published The One Week Job Project: One Man, One Year, 52 Jobs by Sean Aiken. It’s an account of the author’s journey across North America, working different jobs each week for one year. Aiken, like many young graduates, struggled with the transition into the real-world. Inspired by his lack of direction after graduation, by the end of his adventure he’d achieved a book deal, worldwide fame, and most importantly a newly expanded knowledge of himself.
Aiken is tall and athletic, with distinctive golden dreadlocks; you’d sooner picture him holding a doobie in one hand and beating a djembe with the other than sitting at a desk, preparing a business plan. Yet despite his relaxed appearance, Sean was a classic over achiever as a student. His talent on the volleyball court won him a scholarship to Capilano University, where he excelled in school and graduated in 2005 as class valedictorian.
Business teacher, entrepreneur, and mentor Todd Newfield noticed Sean’s potential early on. “He wanted to make things happen, and get things done,” he recalls. After observing his work ethic in the classroom, Newfield hired Aiken as a temp with his company and watched his young protégé “push through perceived limitations” and “march to the beat of his own drum.”
For a guy who’d achieved all of the prominent awards a school can offer, it seemed obvious that Aiken was on the road to success, like he had it all figured out. But contrary to appearances, he was unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. As the tight-knit Aiken family sat down to dinner one night, his sister put him on the spot and asked him what his plans were post-grad. After he admitted that he didn’t know, his father advised him to pursue whatever he was truly passionate about.
Not surprisingly, with advice like that, a little self reflection soon followed. Aiken recalls that he was always mindful of what people would say about their disappointing colleagues, friends, or family members; “wasted potential” was a phrase that always haunted him. As a kid, Aiken shared his aspiration to become a teacher with a high school teacher of his own. “Those who can’t do, teach,” was the response he got. Aiken knew he never wanted to be spoken about in that way. So, fairly certain of what he didn’t want out of life, he set out to find what he did want.
Newfield provided the motivation and support, Aiken his own determination and ambition, and the One Week Job Project was created. His partner in crime, Ian Mackenzie, a long-time friend and filmmaker, joined Aiken on his travels and filmed his experience every step of the way. After Aiken secured his first placement, the ball started rolling and the next thing he knew he and Mackenzie were travelling all across North America. By the end of the 52 weeks, he had enough job opportunities lined up to keep him going another three years. The increasing interest from various employers caught the eye of major media outlets including The New York Times and Good Morning America.
But the big names didn’t stop there. Soon producers from CBC and CNN, even food guru Rachel Ray, were calling. Juggling his jobs and managing the PR for his project became overwhelming, and his priorities began to shift. Initially, Sean was committed to performing well on the job; after all, he was asking his employers to donate his salary to his charity of choice, the Make Poverty History campaign. But while working in New York as a photographer’s assistant, he started to slip. When the photographer called him out on his less than stellar performance, Aiken recognized his boss’s criticism as a reality check. Not only did the lecture shine a light on his obligations to his employers, but it forced him to reconnect with his initial purpose, the whole reason he started this project in the first place: determining what he wanted to do with his life. Basking in the limelight was simply a measure of his success, not its defining moment.
And so the path to self discovery continued. Aiken accepted a job as a pizza maker for a family owned pizzeria in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. A far cry from the glitz and glamour of the Big Apple, the job at Sweet Tomatoes Pizza grounded him. He couldn’t help but notice how happy the employees were. Working in the town’s pizza parlour allowed the staff to connect with their community and their flexible schedules made it possible to raise their families. The contrast between their job satisfaction and their lack of occupational prestige did not go unnoticed. After the talking-to he got in New York, combined with the contentment he witnessed at the pizzeria, Aiken had a moment of clarity. He could now admit that validation was his prime motivator growing up, and saw how society reinforces the importance of image over personal happiness. “People will always ask you what you do for a living, rather than what makes you happy,” he explains.
The One Week Job Project is filled with many more epiphanies, especially on the topic of soft skills. Having performed 52 jobs ranging from yoga teacher one week, to firefighter the next, Aiken walked away with plenty of new abilities, but the most important development is in the area he calls “transitional skills.” He asserts his education at Capilano University helped prepare him, but it was doing the actual work that honed his ability to “walk into any environment and be successful.” Taking on each new job’s different responsibilities and being forced to adjust gave him “the confidence to know I would figure it out.”
Now, Aiken is embarking on another year long journey across North America, this time as a guest speaker at university events. With such a rich and varied experience behind him, there’s a lot to convey to his new audience. Being authentic is top priority to Aiken. “People just want you to be yourself and you will be more successful that way,” he says. It may seem like cliché advice, but it bears repeating. The alternative, as Newfield explains, is that “most people just jump on the conveyor belt and that tunnels them for the rest of their life.”
As for the future, Aiken remains open-minded and goes back and forth on which career path he will follow when the public speaking tour ends. Oddly enough, he has his eyes on a career in teaching, something that Newfield believes Aiken would excel at. “Sean can connect and inspire a generation more than any of us could ever hope to,” he says.
It looks like those who do can teach even better. jp