You spend thousands of hours studying, dedicating years to getting your degree(s). You find yourself with more student loan debt than you know what to do with. You graduate and land yourself that dream job. Finally, all your work has come to fruition – you’ve arrived and you’re now living out your life’s calling.
Then you lose the job. Or the company goes under. Or they get bought out and there isn’t room for you anymore.
They should have let someone else go. This was your dream, this was who you are. You were born to do this job.
What happens next is different for every person – depression, self-loathing, anger. You put so much into your career, so much, and in the blink of an eye, it’s all gone. Who you were is gone.
What do you do?
This specific subject ties very closely back to my posts surrounding identity, though it focuses a bit more on one singular aspect – our careers.
One of the first things we ask each other here in the States after we exchange pleasantries is ‘What do you do?’
We do that for a variety of reasons: curiosity being one, but I believe a bigger one is it tells us a lot about another person. We can quickly get a range of their salary, whether the work they’re doing matters, and even make determinations about who they are as a person. It’s a shortcut of sorts (and not a bad one, that’s just how the human brain works).
We identify ourselves by the work that we do. We feel shame or pride, joy or indifference because of the work that we do. We spend a lot of time with our employers, so that’s only natural. It’s natural for us to want our work to matter, right? Maybe this is largely a millennial issue, but we want to belong somewhere, we want our contributions to make a difference.
We rely on our jobs to give us that sense of purpose, to help us in knowing our identity.
I have a degree in Psychology. I hoped to get my Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy immediately after graduating. There was so much purpose there. I wanted to help people, help heal families. That was a noble calling, is a noble calling.
I finished up my undergrad and Tiffany and I talked (I still remember where we were sitting in Longhorn) and I said I wasn’t sure I wanted to start my Masters yet. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it at all. The strain of school and work on our relationship had been a lot, and I knew the next step would be even more.
We both agreed that I would not go back, at least for now.
I got promoted at work, but I felt no purpose in the work I was doing. I was supporting people I cared about, helping them meet their quotas, but that felt hollow. I took another job working with a mortgage company. A really, really good one that cares about their staff and the families they’re helping to purchase homes. I felt some purpose there, helping families get into homes, helping loan officers put food on their tables, but there was still that nagging feeling.
I went to school to be a counselor. Why was I doing this? I paid so much money to go to school, and this is how I was using my degree?
A friend approached me about joining his company and doing some marketing. The work wasn’t necessarily any more meaningful, but the company culture offered that sense of belonging that I talk so much about. I met some incredible people there, and I consider them family. I still spend time with them in different capacities.
Then I considered leaving, and I had to come face to face with this idea of my work being a major aspect of my identity. I had a job offer at another company, but the work would be mind-numbingly boring and have potentially less meaning than anything else I’ve done up until this point in my life.
I took the job.
I had to take a step back and look at my life. Was there still a purpose for me if I wasn’t doing something I felt was changing the world? The answer surprised me.
I was changing the world. I was writing. I run a D&D game with people that I would take a bullet for. I have strong relationships with my wife, with my brothers, with my immediate family. I have friends that I support and get the opportunity to love. What I’d been learning for a long time finally clicked into place – the work that I’m doing matters, but it wasn’t who I was. I could be running an incredible non-profit, changing the lives of thousands of people daily, but that still wouldn’t be who I was.
My identity is rooted in something simpler, and if you want to know what that is, feel free to check out this post. There was a freedom in entering a new job that… well, didn’t matter. The work was irrelevant. Sure, I’ll look for opportunities to make it better and for it to matter more, but if it never does, who I am won’t change.
Now this isn’t some nihilistic realization that ‘nothing matters.’ I’ve found it to be quite the opposite. I could go work at a fast food restaurant and find some purpose there. It’s the old adage come to life ‘You’ll find it as soon as you stop looking for it.’
The importance wasn’t ever in the work – it was always in the people around me. Odd it took me 32 years to figure that out.
So you lost that dream job. You’re working a job that you feel doesn’t matter. You feel adrift, lost in the world with no purpose. I get that. First and most importantly, you aren’t alone. Second, what you do doesn’t define you. You’re so much more than the company you work for, more than what you do at work each day.
Take some time and think about those relationships that matter the most, of those opportunities you get to make someone’s day better. Those matter.
YOU matter, and it’s not because of what you do.