Sunday, April 12, 2015

Career success doesn’t make you happy

If one read the autoethnographic posts in this blog from the time I began blogging, which was back in 2001 ... ok, you can't--I deleted them all in one stroke in 2007.  I then took a break, and restarted the blog in 2008.  If one read the autoethnographic posts since then, there is a good chance that a reader can put together a composite picture of who I am and what I value most and what I couldn't care for.  

Ever since my young adult years, I have been consciously making decisions in order to lead a life that makes meaning to me.  Meaning that cannot be measured in material terms.

While some might say I had no drive and am a failure, this blog itself is more than evidence that I am trying as much as I can to follow that old sage's advice not to lead a life that is not examined.

Thus, I was immensely pleased when I came across words that somebody else had crafted, which I could then make mine as well: "I'm in the twilight of a mediocre career."  I have been largely at peace with that because I have never intentionally and mindfully worked on progressing in a career anyway.

A career does not make a person.  It is irrelevant to who the human is.  Of the people I have quoted in this context in this blog, my favorite is Bill Watterson, whose creations always make me smile and think.  Watterson said:
having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.
Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it's to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
You'll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you're doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you'll hear about them.
To invent your own life's meaning is not easy, but it's still allowed, and I think you'll be happier for the trouble.
David Brooks, who is a couple of years older than me but has always sounded way, way older (!) has yet another book coming out.  In one of those pre-release interviews:
“I’ve far exceeded my expectations. But then you learn the elemental truth that every college student should know: career success doesn’t make you happy.” In midlife, it struck him that he’d spent too much time cultivating what he calls “the résumé virtues” – racking up impressive accomplishments – and too little on “the eulogy virtues”, the character strengths for which we’d like to be remembered.
Sooner or later, most--if not all--of us realize that a successful career is not by itself the source of happiness.  Happiness is one of those strange things that comes from within.  A blue sky with puffy white clouds makes us happy. The giggle of a four year old makes us happy.  A dog chasing his tail makes us happy.  A good time with friends makes us happy.  What the hell has a career got to do with all these, right?

In his latest column, Brooks projects his book against the upcoming end of the academic year ritual: the commencement:
Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?
Even that is unnecessarily complicated.  I way prefer the Bill Watterson bottom-line: go about inventing your own life's meaning as the route to your happiness; "you'll be happier for the trouble."   As simple as that.


Ramesh said...

Well, I have half a mind to spank you, but considering that you are still a kid, I'll let you off on this transgression :):):)

Sure, over obsession with a career is not good, and sure it is not synonymous with happiness. But equally dismissing careers as airily as you have done isn't acceptable either.

I wonder what is your definition of a mediocre career. Viewed from the perspective of the life of the universe, ANY career is an irrelevant one. But taking joy from a good job done, enjoying the doing of it, succeeding monetarily, etc etc is also an intrinsic part of happiness.

Happiness is a whole mix of a number of factors, which will remain unique for every individual. But it can never be uni dimensional. Just as the uber busy executive, who does nothing other than work, is missing a great deal of happiness in life, so is the guy who is watching a dog chasing its tail all his life :)

And if somebody has really succeeded in "inventing his or her own life's meaning", I would like to shake his or her hand !!

Sriram Khé said...

"And if somebody has really succeeded in "inventing his or her own life's meaning", I would like to shake his or her hand !!"

Make sure you shake my hand a LOT every time we meet ;)

Anne in Salem said...

Perhaps the crux of the matter is the word success. I agree with Ramesh that there are many factors of a career that can make people happy. I am very happy in my career most days. It is very satisfying work, and I have a chance to help people who often can't get help. But the success portion is irrelevant to my happiness. I wouldn't even know how to begin to measure success in a traditional way. There is no ladder to climb, no title to obtain. I am already paid commensurate to my duties and skills. Traditional measures of success - the salary, title, position, etc. - are shallow and unfulfilling, garnering respect generally only from those whose respect is meaningless to a more balanced and happier person.

Sriram Khé said...

But, Anne, from what you have written it appears that your life decisions were not driven by "career" ... neither were mine. And then even within that, when people assess their careers via the salary, title, the rungs of the ladder, etc. that you write about ... we are far removed from that framework to begin with

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