“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” – Jim Carrey
The act of “unwinding” is something I’ve struggled with my entire life. You see, living for today and stopping to smell the roses just isn’t how I’m wired. With the inability to quiet my mind, you could say I’m a bit of a worrier and a very anxious person. No one in my life who has spent a great deal of time with me would dispute this fact.
As someone who is not easily satisfied, this trait has actually served me well in my career as I’ve always been able to continually set new challenges and identify work/life opportunities. Maintaining the status quo isn’t what I’m about – things can always be better! But it’s exactly this type of thinking, this endless pursuit and desire for the next great thing or act, that is the very thing that keeps me from being happy today.
As I write this, I’ll be 37 in a couple months and while nothing is guaranteed, odds are I still have many decades of life ahead of me. And while most people are in the prime of their careers at my age, I recently found myself starting over in a new role and industry, a few rungs down the proverbial corporate ladder.
I love my new job at Disability Solutions and am excited about the work and the progress here. But if I’m being completely honest, there is still a small part of me that identifies with my former self – a hard-charging, power and money obsessed business leader. But that’s just my ego talking and what I’m certain is not the best version of myself. In fact, I would describe my ego-driven, former self as one of the most miserable people who you would ever come across.
“I Want the World, I Want the Whole World!”
For the better part of my adult life, I had believed that money and prestige would lead to happiness. This path of increasing my self-importance started in high school when I set a goal to be the President of as many clubs as possible just so I could get into a top business school. It worked and once in college, I got a job in our business school’s career services office so I could personally make relationships with the best prospective employers. This strategy was also successful and the result was a career in print and marketing starting with a fast-track Management Development Program.
As a highly competitive individual, climbing the corporate ladder came naturally to me and after just eight years of steadily progressing within the organization, at age 29, I finally got the big break I had been working towards my whole life – the opportunity to be in-charge of my own company.
As President of our corporation’s Tulsa, Oklahoma facility, I led a division of over 60 employees. The company had challenges but we were able to eventually make the facility one of the most profitable locations in the corporation. With this success, the accolades and money followed and I had achieved everything I set out to do in life. So why did I, at age 35 and in the prime of my career, give it all up?
The answer to this question can be found in what I didn’t mention above, which is the reason I’m back in Nashville, TN and now with Disability Solutions – other people. You wouldn’t know it from the above, but I have a wife, a family and many, many friends, teammates and respected colleagues. And for much of my adult life, I’ve taken these relationships for granted.
That doesn’t mean I was necessarily absent as I was surrounded by people all the time – I certainly never isolated myself. But you can completely be with someone in physical form but not be there at all if your mind is somewhere else. For me, truly connecting with people, is something my ego-driven, goal-setting version of myself struggled with. If I wanted to change and live a more fulfilling life, something had to give. I knew I was no longer willing to sacrifice my personal relationships in the interests of getting ahead in my career. As a result, my wife and I left our jobs and moved back home to Tennessee.
A New Identity
How many of you hate having to answer the question when you meet someone new, “So what do you do?” Inevitably, what they secretly want to know is how much money you make or how important you are so they can decide if it’s worth their time to continue to talk with you. We’re all a little guilty of allowing our egos to size people up like this. It’s human nature to an extent.
When I ran a company, I couldn’t wait to answer this question just so I could tell someone that I was a “President” and a very big deal. But why? What did I care if the other person thought I was important? The more I’ve come to understand myself the more I now realize, I didn’t tell them this because I cared what they thought, in fact, it was just the opposite. The reason I cared so much about my status was because I was trying to convince myself that my life was valuable and that I had a purpose. Because in my own mind, despite figuring out some level of career success, I still felt very insignificant.
When someone now asks me, “So what do you do,” the answer isn’t so simple anymore. I can tell you the last thing that comes out of my mouth now is a job title. For the first time in my life, I now answer this question framed in a way that talks about helping other people, specifically the work we do helping people with disabilities find their next career path. This mission driven response speaks to passion and humanity rather than status and let’s make a deal. And the response from others has been completely different. It’s only when we allow ourselves to be completely selfless that the world opens up and connections are forged.
Back in the High Life Again
Beyond my new career, I am thoroughly enjoying the time I now spend with friends and family. Letting down my guard and re-establishing myself as a person of the world, not career obsessed, has allowed me to learn new things about friends and family that I never knew. I find myself interested in other people and their thoughts more than I do myself or own ideas and as a result, I am creating more meaningful relationships and bonds.
My new outlook on life has also allowed me to become my authentic self, one that loves play, excitement, healthy living, rich experiences, being creative, deep conversations and a good laugh. I find myself taking long, meditative walks now, getting lost in the city with no particular destination in mind. And for the first time in years, I’m seeking out knowledge of the world that isn’t for a self-serving purpose. We experience the world differently in the eyes of others as opposed to our own eyes.
There is nothing inherently wrong with hard work and achievement, but if the only purpose of achievement is to feed your own ego, rather than to help others, your life will lack purpose and you may find it difficult to forge long-lasting connections. I know I once did.
I am not suggesting you must lose your edge and stop working so hard in order to find peace. After all, the foundation of all human progress requires some level of herculean effort on the part of individuals willing to devote their complete energy into something. And of course, we need money to survive and feed our families. But I do believe your life must have a purpose beyond money and prestige. If you are unsure of what your purpose is, maybe it’s time to evaluate your own path.
To some degree, I am the same person as I was before and I still work too hard at times. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure there is another way for me to operate – it’s just who I am. But there is a clear difference between your work and your career. A career is something that happens to you but your work is something that impacts other people. And for me, I now have an understanding of what it is I’m working for as my ego is no longer calling the shots. I now have a purpose and that has made all the difference.