About seven years ago I’d achieved the vision of my career as according to my schoolboy self. I had become an international management consultant — travelling to exotic locations to help companies improve performance then moving on to the next place (and getting paid to do it).
I remember a moment of weightlessness as I realised that I had become, by some definition, a global citizen with the wealth of experiences that the world had to offer lain out before me. Perhaps the feeling was like those trainee astronauts who prepare in specially fitted out planes that climb and dip through the air to simulate the sensation of zero gravity. I felt an otherworldly feeling…for a few seconds. You may also know that the nickname for such a plane is “the vomit comet”.
You see what happened next was that I came back to the ground almost instantaneously with a thud and an uneasy feeling in my stomach. Indiscernible in memory from the second of achieving my vision, was disillusionment in what I’d really become. I was a bachelor (at the time) who was burning my finite energy and time in the pursuit of experiences and pleasure, and living life and work in a way that I didn’t really believe in anymore. I consumed but didn’t contribute anything. It was fun but it wasn’t authentic.
I wish I could say that this was the kind of life-changing moment accompanied by clouds parting, orchestral music and a single ray of sun illuminating the place I stood. It was life changing but it wasn’t like that, for me anyway. This glimpse of truth evaporated as the busyness of work and experiences crowded out time for real understanding. It took seven more years to work out what I was preparing for, and to get to this point.
Whether you call it fate, or purpose or whatever — that thing doesn’t shout at you it whispers. Even if it does shout we can be so distracted with chasing other lights in our days that we don’t see the moon and the sun.
In practice, achieving happiness, balance and meaning comes down to how you solve your personal money : meaning equation and how agile you can be in updating it as things change (see my post on brettcowell.com for an approach to this). Most of us, by default, spend a lot of our time on the money (status, possession etc) part, and are surprised when meaning is not the result. Even chasing experiences can be egotistical grasping — it’s like owning a library of books and failing to open but one. We don’t enjoy the good times, or learn from the bad ones since we’re living in the future (or seeking meaning from the reflected acceptance of others of what we think we should be).
I spent almost 20 years doing what I thought I should. I had some great times and worked with some immensely talented people in some wonderful locations (and maybe will again). Quite often I worked really really hard, and achieved with my teams some super-human feats against impossible deadlines. The intensity led to a sense of achievement when deadlines were met…but intensity is not the same as meaning. Satisfaction is not the same as meaning either. Meaning when it’s not there still makes its presence felt — gnawing away at your soul. It takes the gleam of any shiny baubles you’ve strived to accumulate and reduces them to mere trinkets (that they always were).
People are different. I believe that there are many of you out there for whom the money and meaning are aligned — in corporates and large organisations. For example you can look around and see that your actions affect the thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that work with you — and also have a huge impact on multiple parts of society: laws, commerce, employment. You can meaningfully make the world a slightly better place.
If you choose to.
For others your job will provide a base to find meaning in other areas inside or outside your organisation. You may also be comfortable to compartmentalise work as a means to earn money, then find meaning elsewhere.
For yet others like me, I don’t want work to define me with its blueprint, values and constraints — I want work to be an expression of who I am and what I believe in. Is that too much to ask? Not if you ask yourself, and answer honestly.
The itch that you need to be on another track doesn’t go away unless you scratch it. The voice in your head doesn’t silence itself until you listen to it, and act.
So I’m listening and scratching! I’m taking a bet that others out there would benefit from my experience and what I have to say — then make it their own and run with it. Perhaps you can get on the right track sooner, whether it’s with your current organisation, on your own or elsewhere. Being authentic is not easy — but it beats the alternative.
Join the movement! You can get on my mailing list at brettcowell.com I would love to hear from you.
Have a good one!