A Meaningful Life, part 1: Your Occupation

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Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life? (Mary Oliver)

I used to work with a fellow who, like me, arrived early in the morning. When I’d see him, I’d ask how he was and most mornings he would respond by saying, entirely sarcastically, “Living the dream.” I never told him how it made me sad that this was never said with any hint of authenticity.

On a recent day, I was at the local CVS drug store. There was a woman who came to ring up my order. She looked a little sad. She was heavy and walked with a bit of a limp. Her teeth weren’t straight and she did not have a perfect complexion. I made up my mind that, in our brief interaction, I would be as friendly and bright with her as I could. I could tell that my efforts had some effect as she did smile and speak a bit.

I’ve thought about this woman in the past several days. I wondered if she has plans and dreams for the future. I hope she does.

Henry David Thoreau said, “Most (people) lead lives of quiet desperation.” Though I so wish this weren’t true, there is probably a good deal of accuracy in this statement.

I want to contrast the woman I mentioned above with my friend Sarah. I once asked Sarah how she would score her job satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10. After just a few seconds of deliberation, she said with confidence, “10!”. This made me so happy, for in a world of people who live for the weekend (and can’t wait for retirement), it was refreshing to see someone who loved her job.

I think many people think, “Well, I like this occupation some and I can get a job doing it, so that will be my career choice.” While this may indeed enable you to earn a living, is it really the way to live your life?

Not long ago, I sent Sarah this image and told her how happy it made me that it was entirely applicable to who she was. (This post is mostly about our chosen occupations. In an upcoming one, I’ll address the other parts of our lives.)

When I approached my career as a young man, I did not have this Venn diagram, nor would I have let myself believe that such an intersection of talent, altruism, and emotional reward would have even been possible. I had one goal — finding a professional job that would pay me and make me feel secure. Little did I know how flawed was that thinking.

The point I want to emphasize here, mostly applicable to young people but also for all of us, is that “Doing something you’re good at” lays the groundwork.

Returning to my friend Sarah, she is a physician, and I know for a fact that she worked very hard in school, medical school, internship, and residency, and refined her trade by working in an underserved, low-income community after her formal training. She derives great joy in helping patients, and especially in delivering babies (and let’s face it, could there be a more rewarding way to make money than by helping to bring new human beings into the world?). This is only possible, however, because of the work she did to be in this position.

There is an often-cited, landmark study which showed the benefits of delayed gratification. Sarah’s work is an example of this in action. Let me sum up by adding my own experience.

I, too, would put my job satisfaction somewhere near a 10. I work in the computer industry and have made a good living for the past 32 years in information technology. For someone who much more enjoys people than machines, this isn’t a likely career choice, but it has served me well, and I hope I’ve contributed to others. My current position, which I love, is to mentor student interns who provide technical support for our customers.

This was made possible because of many late nights by myself in data centers, early mornings coding for projects, and weekend phone calls for server crises. None of this was my ultimate goal — it was a step to get there. Because I have technical skills, I can do what I love.

I’m not sure we ever completely arrive. If we don’t leave, however, we will remain far from the shores of our calling.

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