Thinking positively, my parents and teachers used to tell me I could do whatever I wanted when I got older. But not only did this prove to be iffy from a practical standpoint (thanks to a combination of as-yet undiagnosed ADHD and the 2008 Financial Crisis), there was a bigger issue: no one ever taught me how to figure out what that actually is.
So now I sit here, a mid-level bureaucrat in a large government organ, feeling unfulfilled. I would say my job is a societal wash - neither negative nor positive once all the factors I can think of have been considered. At its core, it's peak liberalism: trying to force a human-comprehensible, rule-based structure onto areas of human life that are far too complex to be modeled accurately (at least with current technology, and God help us if this ever changes). It's thus difficult to really feel good about what I'm doing, even if I don't feel actively bad about it. What I do feel is a lot of general boredom above and beyond what can be explained by ADHD.
If I look back on how I got here, it was often a case of trying to escape a bad situation rather than moving towards a good one. I came out of grad school into the worst economic situation since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and so had to take what I could get. The result was starting low by all applicable metrics, then trying to claw back some of what had been lost. But a lot of it wasn't even about pay or prestige, it was that it took me years to find a healthy working environment (i.e. one not run by assholes). That this is the best I've been able to do in more than a decade, despite doing everything I was supposed to do, is a source of no small amount of frustration.
So I went from unemployed to temporary work doing mind-numbing grind with one of the most transparently evil corporations on the planet. From there I got into the bureaucracy, first as another temp gig and then a more permanent one in a related department. But there I faced terrible (read: actively hostile) management and little job satisfaction, plus insultingly low pay for what I was doing. I finally tried self-employment, but that was out of abject misery in where I was rather than any real desire to work for myself in the field I was in. This lasted less than a year before I went back into a different (and healthier) bureaucratic setting. The pattern is clear - just jumping out of desperation due to the building being on fire rather than a considered choice of alternatives and options. I have managed to move up in certain senses, as I said, and I'm certainly happier where I am now than I ever was with any previous employer. But happier doesn't necessarily mean happy, and there's still a lot missing.
Of course, if I'm honest, it's not at all clear what the mythical alternatives would actually have been. I ask myself sometimes, as we all do, what I would do if I didn't actually have to work. I can never really come up with an answer beyond “writing” in some vague way. On that note, my therapist told me earlier today that I'm good at pontificating (which she meant in a positive sense, despite what that word often entails). This is the first time in years that it's been suggested that I have a skill to offer that is something people actually do.
Where I start to get stuck is not having a niche to write about (which is why I write mostly about myself). I'm not a political scientist, I'm not a boffin of any kind, I'm not sure as I have expertise in much of anything. This isn't so much self-criticism as it is being realistic; how many people want to read amateurish opinions on something? In other words, I'm too conscious of how much I don't know that I don't know, and often over-estimate it.
So again, I was told that I could do anything. But as the Last Psychiatrist once said, “Everything is possible, but nothing is attainable.” The first thing I've had to make peace with is inability when it comes to career success. My brain doesn't work in a way that lets me stay rigidly focused for long, and I often have the problem of not shutting up when I should. This isn't me trying to put a positive spin on being a jerk to co-workers; it's more that I don't play office politics well. I'm not bad to people, I just don't play the game, and have difficulty sublimating my own views of what's right to those of the broader organization. I take it too personally if an authority figure disagrees but won't let me hash it out, and I do tend to try to carry on arguments for too long.
Perhaps by greatest professional sin, though, is that I refuse to network. It's not out of misanthropy; on the contrary, it's about honesty to each other. The commodification of social interactions warrants its own post, but needless to say it's something I hate with every fiber. So I don't do it or any of the other little games you're supposed to do to get a job (such as cold-message someone on LinkedIn, which I was on the receiving end of once upon a time). I've also ended up within a rather small niche within my broader field, and there's simply not much in the way of mobility.
Ultimately, however, none of this is important, because I have no clear goal in mind. Everything becomes boring to me after more or less time, and I'm not convinced there actually is some mythical perfect field that I could always do. But more significantly for the moment, I was never taught how to figure out what it is that I like.
When you grow up gifted, people just assume you'll do something great. My family all had, and even if they didn't find any significant prestige or fame, they certainly became successful, authoritative members of their respective fields. They have plenty to be proud of in terms of personal accomplishment. When they tell you that you can do whatever you want, there's an implication that it won't be a mud farmer.
So it's hard not to be disappointed, not just in my job but in myself. All my forebears did Important Things before retiring in relative luxury. I was supposed to do Important Things, but at this point I feel like I've missed my shot. Meanwhile, it feels like it's past the time I could just let go of it all and fall into some Laschian nirvana.
As in that previous post, I'm not sure what I'm left with. Letting go of these aspirations, no matter how vague they may be, feels very much like giving up on something important. I think perhaps I need to work on learning patience.
"Perhaps by greatest professional sin, though, is that I refuse to network. It's not out of misanthropy; on the contrary, it's about honesty to each other. The commodification of social interactions warrants its own post, but needless to say it's something I hate with every fiber."
Dude, respect for that take. I have no interest in social games in general but linkedin feels like marketing/commodifying yourself. My experiences become less meaningful when I tell thousands of people.
Thanks. I'm not sure I can really call it especially heroic, but it's my hill.
I would say my job is a societal wash - neither negative nor positive once all the factors I can think of have been considered.
To be honest, you are doing better, in that case, than in most jobs under capitalism, which provide clear social negatives. Generally, the higher paying, the more detrimental to humanity, though some people will do a socially harmful job just because it's more interesting than the alternatives.
That may be true, but bear in mind that my calculations are pretty limited -- hence the caveat about "the factors I can think of" =)
Meanwhile, I don't disagree with the rest of what you said. I'd just hoped to be doing more.
With regards to the feeling of giving up on something important—for some time now I've been trying to articulate a property common to many unpleasant feelings I've experienced, which is that they present not only their particular character but a sense of necessity besides.
Melancholy rewards indulgence with a heavier melancholy; anger rewards indulgence with a more indignant anger; anxiety rewards indulgence with a more acuminate anxiety; and so on. I mean reward not in any metaphorical sense; I think you can actually imagine these feelings triumphantly providing, over and over again, their own familiar substance. When you give in to these feelings, it really feels right. For instance, when I try to pull myself out of anxious spirals, the hardest feeling to fight is that of the spiral's sanctity. It's as though it were something morally commendable, a good fight I were waging from within the confines of my own head.
I suppose it's like desire in general. I find it hard to give up on any great measure of desire because I can't help but feel that there's something valuable in it...but this could very well be a quality of desire itself, that it feels worthwhile, and nothing greater.
I don't know if any of that will resonate with your own experience.
Disappointment, intention, aspiration, etc., can be heavy burdens, no doubt about it.
It definitely resonates, yes. I find that thinking of mental illness in terms of addiction is often helpful--it's amazing how many of the metaphors for addiction carry over.
Aspiration is so often the crux, I find. It's great when it's fulfilled, but disappointing when it's not and equally rough to give up upon. I don't yet know how to make realistic aspirations, more in terms of specificity than scale.
One basic, helpful tip (it's worked a little for myself, a lot for others besides) is to model more specific aspirations on inputs rather than outputs. You can aspire, for instance, to study French very consistently for a year, or you can aspire to become fluent in French; but whereas the first aspiration is always doable, regardless of the concrete results of your studies, the latter can be frustrated by things outside of your control. Perhaps French proves more difficult than you expected—perhaps you haven't quite got the hang of how to study a foreign language—perhaps your access to a native speaker for practice fell through—and so on. Outputs are imperiled in a way inputs typically aren't. The more specific an aspiration, the more you need to factor in your own control and inputs, I think.
On the other hand, if an aspiration is fairly abstract—I want to be physically healthier, I want to feel more comfortable in my own skin, I want to read more novels, etc.—it's probably wise to treat these not as concrete goals but as guiding 'themes' of activity. (I lifted this idea from CGP Grey, if I remember correctly.) For instance, if you commit to the themes of "Health", "Self-esteem", and "Reading", you can allow these to subtly guide your future behavior without needlessly tightening the screws on what is and isn't permissible, and I suspect that the likelihood of achieving these abstract aspirations to your own satisfaction significantly increases.
Even still, aspirations overlap; a balance of input-based, specific aspirations with theme-based, abstract aspirations would seem advisable.
I think this is all good advice, and is similar to changes I've been trying to make for myself. The difficulty comes in framing things in a "theme" way and having them still seem satisfying.
That's very true...desires are stubborn! How can you make something so cloudy feel gratifying?
Exactly. My thinking is very goal-oriented naturally, but at the same time my brain tends to kinda slip off the fact that I've actually accomplished something. Once I've completed a task, it's time to move on to the next thing, not process what I've done already. This is a habit I'm trying to break first of all, since I don't see how I can find satisfaction if my brain is incapable of registering it when it does happen.
Something I've struggled with, and I feel you may relate to, is enjoying the process.
I sit down to write something, and I fret about how this isn't going to be a bestseller. I read a book on philosophy, and I worry about how nobody I won't be able to become a world leading expert in this author without an academic degree in philosophy. The focus is all on how it will look in my autobiography, rather than on the thing I'm doing.
Turns out, I like writing stuff. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not; my writing gets better when I do write. I do my best writing when I just get inspired and sit down and put it to paper (or rather screen). I do awful writing when I'm fishing for a reaction of some sort. Will I ever publish anything, who even knows. Do I even want to be an author? I dunno. I have job. Maybe I don't need that.
Turns out, I like reading philosophy books. I write about what I read too sometimes and sometimes my points are good, other times they are trite. It's still a rewarding process.
The more I just let go of trying to achieve these measures of success, the more liberty I've found in doing things that are rewarding to me. For example: I have a website that gets very little traffic. I don't care. I don't even extract visitor statistics. I enjoy adding to it. If someone reads what I write that's great, if they don't, it's still great. I write for me. I don't want you to sign up to my news letter. I'm not trying to live off this. It's just a hobby. My website is a success to me because I enjoyed making it. That's the only success I really care about.
Letting go of this pressure to succeed in the eyes of everyone else has liberated me, let me dabble. I've always done a lot of programming ever since I was a child, but often I've programmed stuff in the hopes other people will find it useful, rarely they did, and I didn't find what I built useful either because I had made all these compromises I thought other people wanted. Now I just build stuff for myself. I make what I want, not what I think other people want. I sometimes offer it to other people too as a kindness, but I judge my own success.
It's taken a long while to find this... I don't know what to call it, a spirit, will, or maybe sense of agency, but I realize now that it was sorely lacking most of my life: I get to just do stuff because I want to do them. I am the only one who gets to decide what I do. I get to decide to ignore what is going to lead to success in the eyes of others, ignore what everyone else is doing; and just do my things.
I can definitely relate to everything you've said. For me the time element is a little bit different, though, in the sense that I *used* to have no problem just doing stuff for the sake of doing it. It's only as I've gotten older that I've begun to wish I had some kind of specialization, something I could claim authority on.
This was a beautiful post, and perfectly describes that modern ennui I think a lot of us are feeling. Whole paragraphs of this graph onto my life perfectly. I think you have done some Important Things with an essay like this, but also I suppose the true goal here should be to give up the idea of Important Things entirely. Conditioned from birth as we are to Accomplish, that's much easier said than done.
For some of us, it's definitely easier said than done! And thanks for the kind words.