Searching For Something Meaningful

I’M NOT SURE WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR, BUT AT LEAST I’M CLOSER TO KNOWING WHAT IT IS NOT. I’ve often had a bit of a tortured relationship with my career. More so since I became a husband and father, I’ve been taking a more critical look at my life because some days I think it’s OK, but most of the time it seems like there’s something wrong. I know it’s not my wife, and it’s not my kids: those are things that are definitely right. It’s hard to put my finger on, because by most measurements I should be happy with where I am: I make good money, I have good management and a flexible company, and I don’t hate what I do. But I don’t think it’s enough to “not hate it”.

I’ve worked hard to get where I am. I’ve been in the computer industry, in one job or another, since high school, when I was working part time for the school district. I’ve worked in places that I truly hated, and I got out as quickly as I could. I’ve been fortunate to continue to find jobs that make use of the skills that I’ve developed, and I’ve landed myself at a company which, for the last 11 years, has provided me with good pay and a flexible work environment. If I need to be home for something, I work from home. If I need to take off early or come in late, I do. I’m not asked to do work that is morally objectionable. I’ve gone from being an engineer, to a manager, and back to an engineer again because I wanted to try something different, and it turned out that it didn’t work as well as expected. I was a decent manager, but it wasn’t quite the right fit.

It seems pathetic to complain about what I have. There are people working multiple jobs just to put the barest of essentials on the table. There are people who would be thankful to have any job, just to get paid. Yes, this does seem like a real “first world problem” that is not worth worrying about. I’ve got the basic needs taken care of, so I have the luxury of being able to evaluate my life this way. We all have problems to deal with, and I am very lucky that my problem at present is something that does not threaten my life, or that of my family. That said, it is still my problem to deal with.

I’ve often thought about making a change of career, but I don’t know what I would do if not what I’m currently doing. I have a particular, well-developed skill set, but nothing else besides that which you could call a basis for a career change. So by necessity, any change would be big and disruptive and risky: all things that are somewhat contraindicated when you have a family that depends on your job paying the bills. I’m also prone to making big decisions too quickly, so I’m trying to be careful about examining exactly why I would want to make a change, and what I’m getting away from. I feel like if I can’t define what’s wrong, then I don’t have any way of determining what’s right.

I figured out this morning that the core of the problem is that I don’t derive any joy or meaning from my job. It’s a way to use things that I know to earn money to pay the bills. The money I earn mostly goes to pay for a place to live (rent plus utilities is about 50%) and food to eat (25%), with the rest going to TV & Internet, phones, and stuff for the house. Yes, I also have bonus and stock money that we use to pay for travel and large purchases (like new furniture). And yes, I like the travel that we do for vacation, and I like many of the luxuries that we have acquired. But most of it is just things that I can take or leave. Internet and phone is pretty much non-negotiable, but I don’t need to watch TV: I’d rather spend time to myself reading a book. I often feel like a lot of the travel is more about collecting things and staking out a place in the consumer culture than it is about something that I need. The same goes for just about all the “things” we buy. Giving up those luxuries would be a difficult choice, at least at first, but I don’t think I’d lose anything important. So let’s set aside money as something that I need some amount of, but the exact amount is probably not that important. It’s a means to an end, and I need to determine what the ends are first.

Time is a fixed resource, and could be considered more important than any other. I have exactly 168 hours in a week, and about half of that is non-discretionary time (sleeping, eating meals, taking care of bodily needs). The rest of it is split almost evenly between working and “doing other things” (spending time with my family, reading, watching TV, working around the house, running errands). There’s about 15 hours in the middle that I spend exercising, which I feel is a choice I have to make based on having a sedentary job. I’ve felt the consequences of choosing not to do it, and I’ve spent enough time over the last year changing that so I don’t consider it a choice now. If we put exercise into the “non-discretionary” basket, that means I spend more time working than I do on doing the things that I choose to do.

This means that I spend more than half of my discretionary time doing something (work), and the best thing I can say about it right now is that I don’t hate it. Is that really enough? I’m having a hard time believing that it’s enough for me to spend all this time and effort just to support a lifestyle that I’m not even sure I care about, especially when I don’t get back any real fulfillment in exchange. There are other factors involved, as well. I’m dependent on the company I work for to continue existing and paying me what I make now, and I have no real control over whether or not that happens.

This is where the questions get much harder. What would I get joy and meaning and fulfillment from? If I am to make a change, what am I moving towards, and how do I know that I will be any happier than I am now? Is there something out there I could be doing that would bring that to my life and would allow me to support my family’s basic needs? Will it give me enough satisfaction that I can step away from the consumerism and luxuries I have now and be better for it?

I honestly have no idea. This is the start of an exploration, and I don’t know where it will take me. There’s some appeal to the idea of dropping out entirely and buying a farm out in the country. That has its own concerns, starting with the fact that I have no knowledge of that world. But I don’t know if that’s a bad thing.

Todd Palino


I'm a dad, a small business owner, a systems engineer, a developer, and any number of other things.

You may also like...