If only I had been introduced (at a young age) to the idea that too much self-centered thinking is an almost guaranteed source of suffering and that a compassionate concern for others’ well being is the source of happiness.
Growing up, I wasn’t taught to look out for #1. In fact, my parents always struck me as super thoughtful people, warm-hearted and generous to everyone around them. But I did witness my father maintain a laser focus on his work. He worked his tail off in the advertising business, going from basically the mailroom to becoming CEO of the 9th largest ad agency in the world. I lived through little to middle income and then into the 1% - right before my eyes. So my circumstances presented society’s typical metric – the idea that success is measured by money or power or fame or influence. This is where I hit the fork in the road and ultimately took the path most traveled.
I graduated from college and began pursuing jobs that I thought would result in more money or offer me more influence or lead to more exposure. Some of these career moves involved me subconsciously chasing a shinier penny – anything to help me advance. And each time I took the proverbial step up, I would enjoy a brief moment of happiness, but something was never quite right. After almost 20 years of working at many different jobs across multiple industries, I was still feeling aimless and vacant.
Looking back on it, it is clear that my primary focus through many of these endeavors was only on myself. In each position I held, I was not consciously looking out for those around me. It didn’t occur to me to put my own needs aside and identify where or how I could make a difference for my colleague or my boss or the company at large. I just cared about what I was going to get, what was in it for me. It’s no wonder I wasn’t always meeting expectations (for myself or others). I’m starting to see that perhaps it was my self-centered thinking that caused a subliminal form of suffering (and distraction) which took away from my ability to perform at levels I only dreamed of.
By the age of 42, my “career journey” suffered what I experienced as a fiery train wreck. I was running my own company at the time and ultimately lost not only all of my own personal wealth as well as friends/family investment. But even worse, my self-worth and internal confidence. It took me a few years to crawl out of this wreckage and to open my eyes up to my false interpretations, missed expectations, and where I may have been blind to the fork in the road.
After some much needed soul searching, I now find myself knee deep in a handful of professional pursuits that are largely selfless and not surprisingly satisfying from an emotional and financial perspective. But perhaps more interesting about this rocky path, is that I found my way not by chasing success but by putting my ego aside and following my heart. It sounds corny just saying it, but without question I am in a far more empowered and happy state of mind, getting up and going to work, not for myself (even though I’m still self-employed), but truly for others.
I share this story not to toot my own horn, but in hopes that it might flip a switch for others. I think there are many (men in particular) just like I was – working our ass off, but secretly waiting for happiness or joy to arrive. The often heard refrain, I’ll be happy when I get that job, fall in love, get rich, etc. Today I am finding some of my greatest joys in pursuing selfless action. If you had told me fresh out of college that such an approach toward my career advancement would yield financial results, I would have laughed out loud.
So while they say that 50% of our happiness is determined by immutable factors such as genes or temperament, the other half does seem to involve our circumstance. In my situation, I watched my father achieve “success” which I interpreted as money and influence. You could argue I had little control over this particular circumstance, but the attitude and actions I subsequently took were 100% in my control and that’s where we can all accomplish great things.