Happiness, fulfillment, and identity

Something that has been on my mind a lot lately are questions of identity, happiness, and fulfillment. I’ve been dealing with a lot of mental angst about my career, and my place in life over the past few years. Perhaps it’s just a mid-life crisis, but I’m struggling with who I am, and where I’m going in the second half of my life. This post is probably going to get very long winded but I feel like I need to put pen to paper to help myself make sense of it all.

Growing up, I decided my career path when I was 13. I was going to be a pastor, and so I structured everything in my academic life around that goal. I got a B.A. in History with the intention of going on to Seminary. Shortly after starting seminary I met my first wife, and practical life took over. I fell into a career in the technology field because it was something that I was very talented at. I had been a computer geek since I was 8 years old, and even ran a computer BBS out of my bedroom all throughout high school.

In the early 90’s the internet boom was upon us and my proclivity towards computers came in very handy. I loved using technology to solve problems, and I was rather good at it. Being a liberal arts kinda guy, I tended to look at the big picture, and come up with creative solutions to things, even if they weren’t, strictly speaking, the best “computer science”. It made for a good career, and some of my best work was done between 1994 and 2008. However, in 2002 I still felt like I needed to pursue this theology endeavour so I started taking night classes.

I really loved going to Seminary, and I was reasonably good at it as well. I spent 2002-2007 attending classes, and over that time period changed from being a Protestant to a Catholic, and underwent a painful divorce. To say that my life went through some powerful changes would be an understatement. I completed my degree, but given the circumstances of my life, pastoring a church was simply not going to happen.

In 2008 I moved my career away from being strictly technical, to being an architect. I still played an important technical role, but I was more of a planner and designer at a system level. Enterprise Architecture can be a key component of an organization as it defines how it’s business and technology works, from a big picture perspective. My time as an architect was pretty fulfilling, but I would still feel like I wasn’t achieving as much as I used to.

I enjoyed the work, but always felt the pull to climb the corporate ladder and making more money. I made some career choices between 2008-2015 that had me jumping around every couple of years, moving up from System Architecture into Enterprise Architecture and eventually, management. I had this sense that I needed to keep moving higher and higher in the world because that was simply what you were expected to do as a middle aged guy. Now, here I sit in a job that I struggle with (but am good at), wondering what I do next in my life.

Even though I’ve never really thought about it, I think that somewhere in my brain I felt that if I wasn’t achieving new heights, I wasn’t happy or fulfilled. If I truly wanted to be happy I needed to be doing something in my job that made me happy, because my job was my identity, and my identity was all I had to define myself by. When I had made the choice as a child, to be a pastor, it was easy to equate vocation with identity. Pastors live a life where their vocation defines who they are. Perhaps that’s not the case for all pastors, but that is the image for many. My identity was to be a pastor, and then when that didn’t pan out in 2008, I ended up in  cycle of continually changing jobs trying to seek that next identity that would make me happy.

When my current wife went back to school I got a slight reprieve from my own inner angst, since I could live a bit vicariously through her, and her life change. Now that she has completed her journey, I’m once again at a crossroads. A few weeks ago, The Oatmeal, posted a comic that talked about happiness, and on the same day, my wife came home from her job with a revelation about happiness. The general gist of it all is that trying to find happiness in a job is fleeting. Happiness very rarely comes from what we do for our vocation, but is what we do with out lives. My wife LOVES what she does, and is tremendously fulfilled, but when she stopped trying to make her job account for her happiness, she ended up feeling a million times better. She finds her happiness in many other things in life, that her job pays for.

I’ve given lip service to the notion of “work to live, not live to work” many times in my life, but my wife is a living example of what that truly means. This is where I come to the crux of this entire thought process. Despite not looking to her job for happiness, she finds fulfillment in it. That is a key distinction that I think many of us often miss, including myself. The times in my life when I felt the most fulfilled in my job, were times when I was solving problems in a hands-on way. It was during times when I really felt ownership and responsibility for something, and saw it through to completion. As I was having conversations with someone recently, I realized that my biggest accomplishments in the technology world were back in 2002, despite being a lowly application developer.

That conversation got me thinking a lot about what I want to do in life, and how I create an identity for myself. I’ve also realized I’ve had a bit of envy for a friend of mine who seems to really know how he wants to identify himself with in the second half of his life. He has a plan and a desire for what he wants his life legacy to be about, and there’s a sense of jealousy around that. Not that I desire to follow the exact same path he’s following (though maybe), but that he has such a vision for what he wants to be known for in life. I’m not sure that I have that same vision yet.

So here I am, contemplating how I give up on expecting my job to bring me happiness, yet finding a job that leaves me fulfilled. I’m learning to find happiness in other things. As I’m writing this journal I’m sitting in the middle of a State Park by a campfire. I just finished volunteering at a trail race, and biking down a State Trail for 30 miles. I love being outside and being active, despite being older with a beer belly, and knowing I’ll never win any awards for what I attempt.

Fulfillment in a job will probably mean letting my aspirations for management, directorship, and executive level leadership take a back seat. I feel like I’m too young, and too capable yet, to just stop contributing in a real way. I still know how to get things done, and I want to keep doing things that actually make a real impact on the day-to-day. But I need to let go of letting my identity get wrapped up in my job. I need to find a way to let my job be my job, and my life be my identity. Maybe that means branching out into other things in my personal time, but it certainly means letting my passions drive more of who I am, and not just “stuff I do”.

Life is a long journey, and I’m only halfway there. I have a lot of time left to make an impact on the world, and leave my mark on it. Maybe that will be something new and crazy, or maybe I just need to get out of management and planning and start being hands-on more. I know I don’t have any answers yet, but I know that all of my thinking over the recent months will eventual pan out into something. I just need to be patient as I figure out what that is.

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