Accomplished Mediocrity

“Never forget how much you hate this”.

That was the sentence I memorised on my final day of school. An instruction from my sixteen year old self to all the future Ben Elijahs. He probably (and correctly) suspected that I’d be prone to remembering things with fondness that those memories didn’t deserve.

He knew what he loved — history, information, space, human stories — but for most of that journey he never worked out how to turn it into a career. Careers advice at school was all about what he could do, never what he felt he must do. Programmer. Physicist. Computer Scientist. On the surface he was perfectly capable of becoming any of these things but he didn’t love them, and he didn’t have enough grit to stick with things he found difficult, such as calculus and smarter kids. He began to dread the days, and eventually quit.

That was half my life ago.

That kid had a difficult path ahead. It led to drug and alcohol misuse, it wound through the less debilitating pages of the DSM, to crappy jobs, to recovery, then pretty good jobs, a book deal, and me.

I still love the same things, but I’m not the same person any more. I forgave my sixteen year old self for not having the emotional tools to deal with mental illness, with people, with crap, and for not having the grit to execute. I now have all the tools he didn’t have, but if I could somehow meet my sixteen year old self today, I don’t think he’d forgive me because I haven’t used them to turn the things we both love into reality.

My career looks pretty great on a CV; aerospace, cryptography, an awesome career at Apple, writing and speaking gigs about the productivity techniques I’d developed in order to become functional. But the stuff I’ve been functioning at wasn’t the right stuff. I’d been good at all my jobs, but they were the wrong jobs.

It was a life of accomplished mediocrity, and I refuse to live it. It breaks my heart when I continually disappoint my inner kid.

So, I’ve decided to stop writing about productivity. I stand by all of the ideas in The Productivity Habits, and I believe they can help a lot of people. But right now it’s more important for me to help misfits identify the things they love, and turn them into a thing. I want to give people the kind of careers advice that I wish I’d had at sixteen. There’s a book on the way, a website, plus talks and podcasts. Watch this space.

To achieve this, I need to sacrifice a career that I’ve enjoyed for over seven years, colleagues I adore, and clients who inspire me. Today is my last day at Apple.


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