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C.J. Burton

Sean Aiken didn’t know the answer to that question, even at age 26. So he began an odyssey to find the perfect career.

This story is one Confucius could have written. A story whose end might be found in its beginning and whose beginning might lie at its end. One in which the search became the grail; the question, its own answer; the journey, the destination.

Very deep, right? It’s almost the kind of thing you’d expect to find when consulting the I ching online. But to find this particular tale, you’d have to visit OneWeekJob.com, the electronic diary of Sean Aiken, seeker, searcher, and modern-day pilgrim wandering the one landscape nearly every adult shares: the workplace.

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C.J. Burton
Last February, Aiken began a one-year journey. Every week for 52 weeks, he worked a different job, hoping to find wisdom along the way.

So this is the story of a 26-year-old who hit the road attempting to find answers to that age-old question: What do I do with my life? As with all archetypal tales, from Greek myths to Disney movies, it is chockfull of familiar characters and events and themes. Perhaps that’s why it resonates with so many, why OneWeekJob.com has built a base of supporters who, with loyalty like that of Caesar’s armies or die-hard Deadheads, follow Aiken from place to place (albeit electronically). And all the better, in this postmillennial world, if it wins Aiken a book contract and a TV deal.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning.

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C.J. Burton
YEAR: 2005. Place: Capilano College, North Vancouver, British Columbia. Sean Aiken graduates with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. There is much rejoicing in the Aiken household. But Aiken, like so many of his generation, doesn’t feel prepared for the working world. With the support of his parents, he decides to explore for a while. He starts out with a quick hop to a French-immersion course in Quebec and then catapults to Southeast Asia, about as far from Canada as he can get and still be on the same planet. He visits Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, never stopping long enough in any one place to hear the question he dreads most: “So, what do you want to do next?” As in, “How exactly do you plan to earn your keep in this world, buster?”

A weighty question, that one -- especially for those of Aiken’s generation, brought up on equal parts cynicism and idealism. On the cynical side of the scale: Job security? That’s something the company promises six months before hiring hatchet-job management consultants. Company loyalty? Forget it. Only saps believe what they hear in marketing campaigns, including the internal rah-rah that passes for company culture.

But amid all that distrust lives a sort of naive idealism. A job shouldn’t confer only a paycheck or social status but also personal, even spiritual, fulfillment. Work should make the world better.

Blame their baby boomer parents, if you must, for preaching. Do what you love and the money will follow, they say. Find your passion. Don’t do what I did, kid; don’t sell out your idealism for a 30-year career that paid the bills but fatigued the spirit.

The exact words Aiken heard were a bit different, but the import was the same. During Aiken’s last year in college, the family gathered around the dinner table and, as families of soon-to-graduate students will, started debating his future. What should he do? Everyone had a different idea. Finally, dear old Dad cut to the chase. “Just find something you’re passionate about,” said the elder Aiken, a retired accountant. “I worked for 30 years, and I have yet to find something I’m passionate about besides your mother.”

That comment played as an endless loop in Aiken’s brain. It was a kick in the pants -- I’m not going to settle, he immediately decided -- but an albatross too. Though he had the family support to make a search for passion possible, that very support was like an investment expected to pay dividends. Passion became a prerequisite. A get-the-job-done, collect-your-paycheck career could never be an option.

“We’ve been coddled a bit,” Aiken says about his generation. “And that adds to the angst, that we have all this support, we can take the time to search, we can have those higher expectations.”

It’s a curious sort of inner conflict that’s difficult to resolve in the reality-based community. For every save-the-world nonprofit job, there are hundreds of positions for selling blue jeans and T-shirts or toting up profits for a global conglomerate so sprawling, even its executives can’t count the links in its supply chain.

Aiken’s a smart guy; he graduated from college with a 4.0 GPA and was valedictorian. But even as he took a year and a half off to travel around the world, deep down he knew how difficult it would be to escape his father’s fate. Hence, the flight from his future. But as even the longest flights do, his came to an end. He had to get a job.

BY DECEMBER 2006, his parents were talking less about passion and more about paychecks. “Just get a job,” his dad said. But the earlier lesson had stuck, and Aiken wasn’t about to settle for an entry-level position that would lead to an entry-level career that would eventually progress into a midlevel management job. When his initial search turned up nothing inspiring, though, Aiken had his second brainstorm. After 16-plus years in school, he had no idea what the working world would demand of him. Job titles meant nothing to him. Why not try a few jobs out on a volunteer basis?

That, of course, led to his destiny. Plans for a few weeks of dabbling became the outline of a yearlong quest, complete with its own website, sponsors, and charity campaign. He started out by sending a mass email to friends and family, and then those people passed the message along, and so on, until the offers started coming in. He used a mix of hard sell (“I’m energetic, a hard worker, a quick learner”) and soft soap (“You’ll be doing good for my generation by helping us figure out what to do with our lives; you’ll be donating money to a good cause, alleviating child poverty”). It didn’t hurt that he got media exposure from the very first week, when the Vancouver newspaper picked up his story; after that, he used the probability of publicity as a selling point to potential employers.

By the time Aiken showed up on the first day of week one at a bungee-jump operator in Whistler, British Columbia, he was ready for his close-up. Prince Valiant in blond dreadlocks, he’d take the symbolic leap of faith into the void. On behalf of himself and his entire generation, he’d find out what made the so-called real world tick. And along the way, he’d find the job that fit him precisely, the Aiken-shaped hole for his own unique peg.

On February 28, 2007, he strapped himself in, literally, counted down from five, and spread-eagled into the Cheakamus River gorge, mouth wide open and fingers splayed in surprise. Hollering. “You don’t realize the fun you just had until you are back safe and sound on the bridge,” he mused at the time.

AIKEN TOOK ON roles that spanned the Bureau of Labor Statistics gamut: high-paying to low-end, highly skilled to not so much, glamorous to downright stinky. But though Aiken had a few shaky weeks at first, leaving every job as soon as he got comfortable with it, he quickly adapted, accepting uncertainty as -- well, as corny as it sounds -- a growth opportunity. Being able to enter the unknown every week, he came to recognize, was a skill in itself.

So he went from bungee-jump operator to talk-show intern to snowshoe guide to florist to yoga instructor to dairy farmer (the stinky job). Marketer, caregiver, framer, talent broker, storekeeper, brewmaster, cancer fund-raiser, bartender, exterminator. He hasn’t been a butcher, but he’s been a baker and a pizza maker. Stock trader. Hollywood producer. Advertising exec. Fashion buyer. Firefighter, Air Force recruit, and cowboy.

Some jobs gave him plenty of fodder for future conversations around the company watercooler. He lost $1,000 as a stock trader but then made it back by day’s end, just as he and his travel buddy/videographer Ian MacKenzie were about to leave for the airport. As a real estate agent, he learned the importance of kissing up to a potential client’s family pet. At the martial arts studio where Aiken worked as an instructor, a nine-year-old girl had him circling the room, backing away from her high kicks toward his face. He left the job with a pot of Chinese ointment to relieve the soreness in his legs.

Other endeavors were leaps of faith in miniature. He started at the yoga studio Monday without much practice to speak of and ended up teaching a class on camera that Friday. Less than a week into his crash course as a fashion buyer, he had to take a meeting with a designer alone and decide which clients’ retail stores should carry the designer’s goods.

Before long, Aiken realized he probably wouldn’t experience a “magic moment” when, like Harry Potter grasping his wand for the first time, he would light up like a video saint and hear an angelic choir singing “This Job’s for You, Sean.” At best, he’d discover the things he wanted most in a job -- camaraderie among coworkers, the feeling of making a difference -- as well as the strengths and weaknesses he brought to work like the pack and suitcase he carried from one job to the next.

Then, his aims changed again. MacKenzie shot video footage and still photos each week to illustrate Aiken’s blog-o’jobs. Often, local newspapers and television stations came to call. The national media started taking note, too, and soon Aiken had more job offers than he could take in three years of one job a week.

Clearly, he’d hit a nerve. Letters were rolling into the website. Aiken’s e-mail inbox was full of messages from people confessing their dissatisfaction. Some happier messages arrived from folks who had found their purpose in life. Fans answered Aiken’s call to “take the pledge” to find their life’s passion:

What you do is inspiring! I promise to get myself a job I’m truly passionate about. ... Thanks for the wake-up call!

I think that you are hitting the nail on the head! In a world where people love not to question anything and prefer to march along silently, our generation needs some positive examples of people who are not afraid to commit to what we are all thinking! I hope that this project explodes, inspiring the masses to look a little deeper.

Sean, I am where I am, and I no longer fear the future because of you!

I just left a cushy corporate job in February to follow my passion. It’s wonderful – blood pressure is down, taking fewer pills, sleeping through the night.

Sean, I am twice your age, and your words nearly made me cry. … I am ... now trying to figure out what my real “life’s work” is.

Your ... project is out of control … it’s even starting to make me rethink my choices in life.

GRADUALLY, AIKEN’S JOB search had become emblematic, a living metaphor for the restlessness and dissatisfaction many people feel at work. The change wasn’t lost on him. What had begun as his own personal quest for fulfillment was now collective, communal. “It’s a funny thing, how it’s grown and evolved,” Aiken said last March. “At first, it was just about me. Then, it was about inspiring other people. Now, it’s almost a career in itself.”

A lasting career at that. A few days later, Aiken and MacKenzie traveled to Los Angeles to meet up with the Hollywood producer who’d hosted One Week Job back during week 42. Randall Emmett, cofounder of Emmett/Furla Films, took them on the rounds with a highlights reel from the One Week Job video trove. The aim: Sign up MTV, VH1, TBS, ABC Family, or one of their ilk for a reality show starring Aiken.

Even if that doesn’t pan out, Aiken and MacKenzie are determined to bring the One Week Job story to a video screen near you. They’re collaborating on an educational documentary aimed at high school and college students that uses Aiken’s experiences to address the question: What should I do with my life?

When he wasn’t pitching ideas to TV execs, Aiken spent a good portion of 2008 writing a book about his experiences. It’s scheduled for publication by Random House and Penguin Books in September 2009.

The next year will be a whirlwind of activity for Aiken -- the kind that doesn’t lend itself to big-picture thinking or even to planning more than a few months ahead. Where might he be five years hence? “I can think about September or October at the most,” he admits. “All I can say is that I think if I get into a situation where I’m unhappy, I’ll have the guts to get out of it.”

Looking back now, after his 52nd job -- mayor of his hometown -- it’s hard for Aiken to deny that, yes, the end of his journey may in fact be the beginning. That uncertainty probably will be his way of life. “I say it’s almost finished, but is it?” he muses. “It may be just starting.”