I’ve heard it said that war consists of long periods of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror. That’s kind of how my IT career was for me. Hours of tedium interrupted by network failure, complete pandemonium, and skyrocketing stress levels.
Weekends should have been a relief, but they weren’t. Instead of enjoying my days off, I’d worry about what was coming the following week. My social life consisted of going out on Friday and Saturday nights and drinking to excess.
In my defense, the foot pain that disabled me for five years was so great that I couldn’t stand comfortably for even the briefest period of time. This meant that going out was difficult because all my friends and I ever did was go to crowded bars where sitting was impossible. Excessive alcohol consumption would dull the pain while moderate consumption did not. In my drinking days, I went strong or I didn’t go at all.
At one point my misery got so bad that I began a Sunday ritual of doing…..nothing. Absolutely nothing besides lying on the couch and watching TV. Now, I realize that many young men do this for fun, but I actually had a goal in mind.
My goal was to get myself so bored that I wouldn’t mind going in to work the next day. That may seem twisted and a terrible way to live, and these days I’d agree with you. Back then, however, that’s the only way I could cope with doing a job I absolutely detested and living with chronic pain that prevented me from being mobile.
The interesting thing about coping strategies is that they can seem perfectly logical to the person using them, and outright insane to someone else. But unless you are living the other person’s experience, their exact experience and not just something similar, you shouldn’t judge.
My “What the Fuck?” Moment
When my father died unexpectedly in May of 2005 (hard to believe it’s been close to 10 years), I asked myself “What the FUCK am I doing with my life?” I had periodically posed that question before, but now I really meant it. This time “FUCK” was capitalized in my mind. Now the question had some gravitas.
There is a huge difference between pondering human mortality in the abstract, and pondering human mortality after it just smacked you in the face. It wakes you up to the fact that death is real and can happen at any moment, even to people who are relatively young. In this case death’s imminence becomes personal, not just something that happens to other families.
I ran the end-of-life scenario through my head countless times over the ensuing months: I imagined my own wake and thought about what people would say about me and what I would think of my own life.
Would people have positive things to say? Would they say I could have done more with my life?
Would I look at my dead body, so caked in funeral home makeup as to be barely recognizable, and think: I was a success, I lived fully, I led a happy life?
What I realized is that no one would give a damn about my IT work, how much money I made, how many women I dated, or what assets I owned. They wouldn’t look at my 401(k) statement and think “wow, he was so financially responsible!” Now there is a lot to be said for financial security, and it is important and it definitely removes a lot of anxiety, but no one would care about that.
I wouldn’t be able to look at myself and say that I had lived a happy life on my own terms. I couldn’t be Frank Sinatra, singing about how I had done it “My Way”. Instead, I’d have to admit that I lived a life beholden by fears. Fears about what others would think of me, fears about not having enough money, fears about being single.
In the final analysis, when I asked myself “what the fuck am I doing with my life?”, I couldn’t come up with a satisfying answer that kept me in the position in which I had found myself.
I finally internalized the fact that, for me at least, living a life without purpose, without doing something that I regarded as meaningful, would be a waste. For me, not having purpose is just about the worst feeling one can have, because it follows you through life. It’s unshakable once it takes hold. You may have periods where it weighs less heavily, but it’s always lurking.
My “Fuck this” Moment
A few months after I started pondering these questions, I had a particularly stressful day at work. It was a cold overcast day just after Thanksgiving, and it happened to be the first Thanksgiving without my father at the dinner table, so I’m sure that played a role in my state of mind. As I drove along route 24, I had a bit of an emotional breakdown.
I said “fuck this. I’m done”.
I gave my two weeks notice the next day.
The Value of Purpose
Finding purpose, and living a life of purpose (however you may define it) may require you to give up certain things. It will probably require you to give up on what you think will make you happy, or at least those things that society tells you will make you happy. But once you start living a life of purpose, you realize the self-evident truth: those things that you thought would make you happy aren’t necessary. In fact, those things may have been the impediment to your happiness the whole time.
For example, if your belief is that once you make partner at the firm, have a big house in the suburbs, two or three kids, and a nice car, you’ll have “made it” and happiness will then be found, you may be in for a rude awakening.
It’s not that there is anything wrong with doing all those things: firms need partners, a big house could be nice, kids are usually good, cars….cars are more ego than anything else. The problem is in your belief that those things have to happen for you to be happy. The pursuit of those goals may make you miserable because of the amount of work you have to do, and the attainment of those goals may be a disappointment because you realize nothing has changed once you met them. That’s the classic example of the mid-life crisis.
I had my crisis at 28, and I’m thankful I got it over with instead of waiting until I was 50, because the question, “what the fuck am I doing with my life”, and my conclusions would have been the same.
Once I realized what I truly wanted to do with my life, teach salsa and get into training, I had to give up certain beliefs and not care anymore. I had to not care about what others might think about what I was doing. I had to not care that my friends would have “better” jobs than me, and likely be making more money than me (which they already were, so that would be nothing different). I had to give up the belief that women wouldn’t be interested in me as a potential mate if I wasn’t corporate, but “merely” a salsa teacher and personal trainer.
I’d love to say that it has been all smooth sailing since then, but life isn’t like that. Life change often involves exchanging one set of anxieties for another.
I lived around the poverty line for a few years as my career took shape. I experienced heart-break, I’ve experienced betrayal. I’ve experienced the hardships of being in business for myself. I’ve known the anxiety of not having health insurance.
But I’ve also learned that living a life of purpose makes you immune to much of the day-to-day nonsense that most people take much too seriously. You also learn that the things you may have given up, material goods and certain beliefs for example, were an impediment to your happiness all along. When you first start out on your journey and aren’t making any money, you learn to live without. You spend wisely. You learn the importance of financial stability and investment.
The value of purpose lets you in on the secret that everybody else is desperately searching for but often refuse to believe once they hear it: that happiness truly comes from within, from self-actualization, from living a life with purpose free from attachment to external things.
It’s one thing to hear the truth, it’s another to experience the truth.
What If You Already Have a Family?
I’m quite aware that not everyone is in the situation that I was. I had no kids or anyone to support. I had absolutely nothing to lose.
But having a “what the fuck am I doing with my life” moment doesn’t mean you have to quit your job and find a new career. The transformation can come in any area of your life.
It can come from realizing you’ve been treating your kids or spouse like dirt, or that you are completely selfish and only think of yourself. You then dedicate yourself to becoming a better you, and thus a better father, mother, husband, or wife.
It can come from finding a cause–preferably a cause that helps people. You could commit yourself to serving a deity, or give up trying to believe in a deity if you really don’t believe in one.
The important thing is to let go of the inner conflict that is occurring right now; to bring your heart and mind into agreement.
But a reminder: do not believe for a second that the problem is coming externally, or that the solution is external. If you do that, you completely miss the point.
Yes I hated my job and the environment. But for many people, IT work is great. The problem was inside me! I was doing it for all the wrong reasons. The job wasn’t to blame for my misery, I was to blame for my misery.
The only thing that could change was my limiting beliefs and thoughts about life. That’s what changed, nothing else.
You are the source of your problems, and you are also the solution. If you have a “what the fuck am I doing with my life” moment, I can guarantee that the answer will be only found by looking inward, not externally.
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