Happiness Project: Career Implications of “Being [Yourself]”

Yesterday, I finally got going on my discussion of Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin’s personal commandments. I was talking about her first one, “Be Gretchen” (i.e., “be yourself,” i.e., in order to have fun, you have to figure out what you enjoy which isn’t as easy as it sounds).

When I left off, I was reflecting on the implications of this idea for recreational activities, but Rubin isn’t just talking about hobbies and diversions. There is also the question of what makes you tick, what sort of work you should do and that sort of thing. As she writes, “it doesn’t matter what I wish I were like”:

“Once I realized this, I saw that this problem is quite more widespread. A person wants to teach high school, but wishes he wanted to be a banker. Or vice versa. A person has a service heart but doesn’t want to put it to use. Someone wants to be a stay-at-home mother but wishes she wanted to work; another person wants to work but wishes she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. And it’s possible — in fact quite easy — to construct a life quite unrelated to our nature.”

This thought strikes me where I live. I know I’m supposed to love being a freelance writer for the flexibility and freedom it gives me, and I do, but there is also a part of me that wants to be part of teams (and wants to work on more important issues than what I write about). Rubin’s concept of a “service heart” feels familiar.

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a cop, and the main activities I enjoyed during my first attempt at college had nothing to do with the classes: safe-walk escort, safe-ride driver, security dispatcher, RA, first responder for the campus’s emergency medical service. I loved being part of the infrastructure of the campus and helping to make the place run. More specifically, I took pride in being someone who looked out for others, who was “on duty” while other people were getting drunk and having fun. I liked being on the fringes, watching for trouble.

Later, when I was in the Coast Guard, my expression of this urge reached its zenith on overnight watches. There I was, doing work during every minute of the day that qualified as being part of the infrastructure of the country and helping to “make the place run,” but even then-even on a ship full of people with similar urges-I most enjoyed being awake while everyone else was asleep, making sure they were safe, making sure the ship kept going where it needed to go.

At the “Kiddo Care” course (first aid, CPR, etc.) on Saturday, I really wanted to talk to the teacher, who works as a paramedic, about her job. I still think that could be a line of work I would enjoy-at least as much as I enjoy helping sell server computers, anyway.

But could I do it as a job? I’ve already spent a good deal of time in a hierarchical protective-services-type job, and I know that kind of work requires more than a strong stomach and the technical skills to render aid in emergencies. It also requires getting along in an environment that can attract petty tyrants who care a lot about unimportant rules that have little to do with why you signed up.

While I’m not always what I would call “inspired” by the nature of some of the work I’ve been doing lately, I love how little it gets in the way of enjoying my family. It feels great to be really present with Amy and Coen. On the other hand, I’ve always been put off by the prospect of people who, upon popping out a little one, announce something like “it’s all for my kids now.” It seems obvious-default-that it’s “all for your kids.” The question is what you are doing for them, and giving up on dreams and the things that really excite and motivate you because now it’s “too late” doesn’t seem like much of a gift to give them or behavior to model.

There’s work and then there’s work, of course. Another part of me is really interested in being a novelist. Of all my dreams, this feels like the most important one not to give up on. I don’t want to be mumbling shamefacedly to my son about how I once wanted to be a writer, but I never got around to it. (I am working on something now, but it’s slow going.) I can see a scenario in which my job exists simply to make a living (hoping to make a living as a novelist is almost as unrealistic as hoping to obtain a tenure-track position as a humanities professor), but I’ll find satisfaction in working on my own creative writing in my off time.

Food for thought.

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