I’m not very well-read.
In fact, in an attempt to read at least one classic in my life, I have tried (and failed) three times to finish Homer’s The Odyssey—the epic journey of Odysseus to return home following the ten year Trojan War. I tend to balk at the first sign of difficulty or boredom in reading some books. Maybe I lack perseverance. Unlike Odysseus, who for an additional ten years struggled, suffered, and was held back in his attempts to return to his wife and son and resume a life of normalcy. Yet he continued, and finally he was rewarded by getting home, vanquishing the suitors, and spending his remaining days in the joy of his family.1
Odysseus overcame his hardships and we are left to believe that for the rest of his days his life was perfect. However, no one ever wrote the third installment of The Iliadand Odyssey series—the part that maybe plays out like an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.2 It’s the part where Odysseus tries to re-integrate himself in his family life after being gone for 20 years by trying to do things around the house. Unfortunately, his wife gets so frustrated because he’s doing them wrong that at one point she just yells, “Why don’t you just go back to Troy!”
Alas, instead of my awesome ending, the story ends with The Odyssey. He is home and all is well with the world. It’s a fairy tale. Happily ever after. That’s how we often view our lives. If we just had this one job, or achieved the one degree, or just got home after almost being killed by a Cyclops—we will forever have happiness. It’s what happened to me.
In 2004 I landed my dream job. It was consulting work that mixed my educational background and my past work experience. It included global travel, great current and future compensation, and I was going to be a part of an awesome team. Everything was in place. Happily ever after.
Five years later I was lost. Not lost in that I hated my job, but there was another part of me that was unsatisfied. In the previous five years I had been successful and had great experiences and done exciting work. But something was missing. I couldn’t find the same pleasure in doing the same activities.
In my extra time I began to focus on other interests instead of what I found interesting about my job. I began sketching an idea for a book that was the antithesis to the work-till-you-drop attitude my consulting career sometimes espoused. I wrote about how we can better understand what makes us happy and create more value by using tools such as procrastination, setting the bar low, and saying “no.” But as I continued to write I felt like I was hiding a dark secret and that I couldn’t enjoy this new passion with my work life.
I gave up on the book because I couldn’t reconcile my job and the book’s message. I felt they were in direct conflict with each other. I began a period in my career of intense dissatisfaction.
With the help of many influences, but most importantly the Live in the Grey site and philosophy, I came to understand that this book and my job weren’t mutually exclusive. The two were more similar than I ever thought. They were both about creating perspective in our lives and our organizations of what truly matters, and I began to be re-invigorated with finishing the book, and more importantly, I was re-invigorated with work. I brought my work experiences to the book and my book thoughts to my work. I felt challenged, excited, and engaged again. It was a re-invention.
I realized that my struggle wasn’t a set-back in my plan, but rather part of the plan. It was actually necessary. As I reflect on my own path now I’ve realized two things:
- Career/life fulfillment is a never-ending epic journey. What makes you happy today, very well may not make you happy five years from now. And that’s OK. It’s called life. The good news is that no one has it all figured out. We’re all on a journey that requires frequent reinvention. Finding fulfillment and “living grey” is not a one-time, check-the-box endeavor. It takes constant maintenance and listening to your internal compass as opposed to external voices.
- “Success” is postscribed, not prescribed. We’re hardwired for societal definitions of success—good schools, perfect kids, influential careers, more money, and the summer lake house. But those are all “successes” that are defined ahead of time and probably defined by someone else. In fact, the successes that fulfill us, intellectually, physically, and spiritually, can’t be compared to anything or anyone, but only evaluated against our actions that support a purpose or “why” that drives us. Instead of making decisions based on an end-state in the future, we need to learn how to make decisions based on values and purpose in the present.
We will all be challenged with re-invention throughout our careers, but if we keep those two thoughts in mind and stay purposeful, we can find fulfillment and, ultimately, happiness.
Here’s hoping Odysseus found it too.3
1Thank you Cliffs Notes!!
2I am however, well-watched, if that’s a phrase.
3Because if anyone ever writes about it, I probably won’t get around to reading it.
This article was originally published on Live in the Grey. More by Live in the Grey on Levo: