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When Work Isn't Your Purpose

Do you remember Mr. Anderson? What about Neo? Chances are you had to think about Mr. Anderson but the name Neo immediately brought you back to 1999’s The Matrix. So where does this fit into a broad topic about jobs and careers? Well, Mr. Anderson HATED his job as a computer programmer for a boring, run of the mill corporate entity (MetaCortex for my fellow nerds.) In fact, he hated it so much that he moonlights as a hacker and after a little prodding he decides that taking a red pill from a stranger is a better alternative to his banal existence. And thus, Neo becomes who he was born to be – yes that’s a nod to Hugo Weaving who in addition to playing Agent Smith plays Elrond in the Lord of the Rings movies. Action movies aside, what Neo really needed wasn’t more excitement, he needed purpose.

For me, I never truly found purpose in my work life. You see, it all started in 1995 when I was 17 years old and dead set on going to West Point (United States Military Academy.) I wanted to protect people that couldn’t protect themselves and decided to apply for early admission to West Point. Applications to the service academies are bit different from a typical university. Not only did you need the grades, but you had to perform and pass a physical test, a psychological exam, and earn a Congressional nomination – all before the academy would even consider your application. Fortunately, I passed or achieved all this well before the deadlines for early admission. But when I hadn’t heard back from West Point by January (1996) I called them up to ask about my application. You’re missing a letter of recommendation they told me – and therefore the application was incomplete and hadn’t even been considered yet.

I had been so diligent with my application process and was devastated at hearing this. As it turns out, my track coach never mailed in the letter of recommendation he wrote for me. I was even more pissed because I had provided an addressed, stamped envelope for him to mail it and when I’d asked him months earlier if he’d written it, he said yes. I had thought I was golden. As it turns out, he had written it, but failed to mail it. In any case, by the time my application was in order, West Point informed me that I was an extraordinary candidate – but that they had already accepted the quota of new cadets from my district (another thing that’s different about the academies.)

The following year I decided to reapply West Point, which is what they had recommended (I did all the things again, got a congressional nomination - again). However, after spending several months in a ‘regular’ college while doing ROTC I decided to withdraw my application and go into the Army through ROTC. Well, to make a long story short after sustaining a traumatic brain injury my sophomore year (not related to the military) I was medically discharged – my dreams of becoming an officer, an Army Ranger and protecting people who couldn’t protect themselves was over. And thus began my Mr. Anderson phase.

I was lost. I graduated and got jobs in IT and tech through family and friends finally settled in a company where I would spend the next 12 years. During that time I’d have many roles at the company. I’d travel, make new friends, ran some marathons, got married, finished grad school, had children. I kept myself busy. I defined myself by my personal relationships – not my career. Because my career “wasn’t me”. In fact, what I have done my entire adult life for work never really felt like me. I always thought of myself as an active, personable, creative, funny guy – who just happened to work in some insanely boring jobs! I kept myself busy enough to ignore the fact that my work wasn’t fulfilling - at all. There’d be spurts sometimes lasting for years where I felt proud and productive with work. But when the anxiety crept in or a looming deadline for a project that I considered myself woefully under qualified for, I could feel deep in my heart that I wasn’t becoming who I was born to be.

So how do you get out of the Matrix? It’s not easy and it’s not a one and done red pill – sorry. For me it took a few big slaps from the Universe/God/Destiny to even start me moving in the right direction again. A divorce and then being laid off from two jobs did a number on myself worth and even in my belief that I was good enough for these roles. But what if we could spin this equation upside down? What if these situations weren’t good enough for me? What if the reasons I had failed wasn’t so much a reflection on me, but really more that these situations, ultimately, were not a good fit for who I am? We spend so much of our lives and worry about our work life and what we’re putting into it – but what is work giving back to me? In many cases, work is a user, it chews us up and spits us out by demanding so much of us that we forget who we are, what makes us happy, and what our purpose is.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a pragmatist and totally risk averse. I know that we all need a source of income to provide for ourselves, our families, enjoy life and live our dreams. But what if we could get out the rat race, the Matrix, and stop working for a corporate machine and start working more for ourselves and others? I’m not going to sit here and say I’ve figured this out, but I can say that the veil has been lifted and I am no longer satisfied trudging through work and dreading Mondays because I am acting my part in someone else’s dream. I am sick of ruining my mental and physical health for a paycheck, doing things I really don’t care about because that’s not really living is it?

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