Monthly Archives: March 2009

self and profession

my sense of self is inextricably linked with my professional life.

this isn’t true for everyone, but it is for me. as i embark on a critical analysis of my goals and ambitions and professional direction, i find myself looking deeply into the mirror. who am i, really? what is it that drives me as a human being? how do my deepest fears and desires manifest themselves in how i do my work? what are my true strengths as a person, and how do i use them to full effect? what are the things that inspire me to achieve?
in my case, it turns out there aren’t any easy answers to these questions. you could argue pretty easily that i think too much about these things, but as it turns out, i haven’t thought that much about it for the last decade. i’m now at the point in my life where i can say i’ve ignored things for decades, and maybe that’s why i’m peeling back the veneer or my day-to-day life and looking at what’s underneath.

at the end of it all, what i seek in my career seems pretty simple: to help people by solving problems. it’s the fusion of the intellectual and the emotional, the scientist and the artist. it’s the dichotomy that i’ve always felt inside me, the polar opposites of the purely rational and the intensely emotional.

in rational pursuits, i can exercise and apply my mind to bring order to chaos, to simplify the complex, to create and discover new things. i can come up with ideas, make them real. i can try to decipher the mysteries of the world, learning and growing in the process. but all of these pursuits are meaningless without the emotional component, without the way my actions affect others.

and so with this emotional dimension of helping others, i build the connections with people i’ve always wanted deeply (yet that have often eluded me). i can try to make a difference in people’s lives, which seems to give more value to my own. i do my best to make the world a better place, however small my contributions may be. maybe it’s my fight against existential angst, or maybe it’s just my desire to be loved and accepted. maybe it doesn’t matter.

what are the ways i manifest these twin desires in my professional life? what’s the best course, if any? or can i satisfy these desires, achieve my goals, regardless of the literal course i take?
i’m currently on a journey to answer that very question…

The Yearbook

after several years of career tumult, combined with post-dot-com survival-oriented myopia, i am standing back and assessing my professional goals, my direction, my aspirations. that it comes as i approach (or have entered) middle age is probably no coincidence. it gives me the benefit of having enough years under my belt to ask, who do i really want to be, and how does my professional life support my goal?

unexpectedly, as part of this process, my personal history has found its way into my thinking, as i realize how some of my experiences have led me down the path of my life to today. the first clear manifestation of this personal-professional connection comes as i examine what motivates me as a human being.

recognition of my accomplishments is certainly one theme, even though on the surface i shy away from public accolades and dislike being in the spotlight. in my mind, this desire for recognition is connected with a deep need for acceptance. as shallow as it may be, i want people to accept me for who i am, to value me as a human being, despite whatever faults i possess (in abundance). i’ve always been very independent, but looking back, i see a continuous thread related to this need.

while our childhoods are filled with formative events, there’s one that stands out for me as particularly painful, something that crystallized my feeling of otherness and burned to the ground any notion i had that i was truly accepted. as i try to integrate this need for acceptance into who i am, i need to give a voice to this past pain.
this isn’t for any of you reading. this isn’t to provide anyone with a window into my soul. this isn’t to gain your acceptance or sympathy. on this one occasion, i don’t want it. this is for me.

in 1979, i was in the seventh grade at Thurston middle school. in that era, there was no MySpace with all your friends, no Facebook to show how popular you were, no Twitter to show how many people cared about what you were eating for lunch or what you thought about the events of the day. one important social currency that did exist then, however, was the school yearbook.

the yearbook represented your community, your friends, your standing in the tiny world in which you lived. who you got to sign it, who was willing to, was manifest popularity. if someone was willing to sign your yearbook, it was some show of validation, and what they wrote even moreso. the humorous entries, the serious confessions of enduring love and friendship – these were the gems we all sought. the "have a great summer" entries were clearly penned by those who neither cared much, or knew us so well that it didn’t make sense to say more. i remember looking back on those inscriptions for months following signing week, depositing good feelings in the bank, and maybe being sad that some accounts couldn’t be filled…would never be filled.

i went away to England at the beginning of that summer, leaving before school was out. i would miss the annual ritual of yearbook signing, so i asked one of my friends to take my yearbook around and have people sign it for me. when i returned from my trip, and contacted him to get this treasure back, he told me to come by and pick it up. my mom and i drove there, and i remember feeling excited to see what had been written. he wasn’t there when we arrived. dark house. doors locked. and my blue yearbook sitting in the outdoor mailbox. maybe he couldn’t be there to hand it to me personally, i thought. and so we picked it up and went home.

as i feverishly read through all that had been written, i realized that in addition to the perfunctory "have a great summer" inscriptions, there were perhaps half a dozen others with a different purpose. my friend had had people (popular kids, kids i didn’t know) sign it, spewing the soul-crushing sentiments that only children can conceive. i was a jerk. i didn’t really have any friends. people loved laughing behind my back. one after another. and then came the denouement, the crown jewel: an obviously fake entry from the girl i was transparently in love with (but who was unattainable), saying how she cared for me and couldn’t wait to see me at the beach.

no building was tall enough to jump off. no amount of tears could wash away that betrayal and the hatred i felt. at that moment, though, i think i turned a lot of that anger and hatred and sadness inwards, feeling that i didn’t deserve to be accepted. that maybe they were right. after all, how could i confront the friends who i knew did this, to even give voice to what i was feeling? that would just prove my weakness and need for their acceptance. and so i swallowed it. for years.

i may have made a few remarks to them later about it. i don’t remember clearly. i do recall telling one of those who i suspected was involved, and his response was basically, "we were kids. we did some bad things." and this is probably exactly the right response. children to terrible things, manifesting their own deep-seated insecurities and needs for acceptance by making others feel lower. and on that level, i can forgive what happened. at the same time, it was deeply wrong what they did, and it’s hard to just overlook that kind of viciousness.
but there’s no point in excoriating them for their actions, however childish or wrong. after so many years, it hardly matters. certainly not to them.

what does matter is what it did to the little boy that was me. what does matter is that i accept that little boy’s sadness at feeling different, that i accept him, despite all his faults. that he didn’t do anything wrong to deserve what was done. i have grown from him, and he is part of me. his need for acceptance lives on in me, and perhaps i’ll overcome it one day. but for now, i will live with this flaw and try to let something positive grow from it, rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. it does. it’s in my closet of shortcomings, but i’ve just opened the door, and at least now i can choose whether or not i want to wear that shabby old coat.