The Power of Reinforcement

Gardener's Supply Company - Deal of the Week

Folks, I have to thank everyone who sent me comments, emails and Facebook messages in response to my last post. Truly, I am honored and grateful for every bit of advice you sent.

The remarkable thing is how many people in my immediate circle are also searching for meaningful change in their careers or lives. Some are Doing It, others are Thinking About It, still others are Resigned to Not Doing It. Some are people I would not have guessed are in this same spot. All had insightful perspectives to share.

No pretty pictures here, nothing to break the monotony of me and my thoughts droning on and on – my apologies.

Much of the feedback is available  in the comments section of the post, and if you’re interested in Life Change, I recommend reading over the dialogue there, but I’d also like to share some exceptional thoughts sent privately. I am keeping the identities of the senders anonymous, going by “T” and “M.” I respect each of these friends, and his viewpoint.

Excerpts of what T wrote:

“I’m doing what you contemplate in your post. I’ve gone back to school for my PhD so I can be a college professor. I’ve completed my MA now and am at Purdue working on the PhD. I did it in my 40s, with a wife and daughter. If you want it, you CAN do it.”

It makes me very happy T decided to pursue his dream, his passion. I feel marginally better that he can do it in his 40’s, with a family. And he had to move them all far, far away from “home” to do so, as well.

“But here’s the deal: I’m doing it, but it terrifies me. I cannot yet tell you whether this is the bravest, wisest, and most transformative thing I could possibly do, or if this is the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my life. We’ve gone from being pretty flush to being really poor. On the other hand, as my friend pointed out when I was agonizing over making this decision: Just because you have a good paycheck now and are comfortable in spite of your deep dissatisfaction, that’s no reason to think that keeping the dissatisfaction will allow you to keep the paycheck and comfort. If you don’t leave [this company] and take this giant step, he said to me, there’s still no reason to believe that something won’t happen to deprive you of the paycheck and comfort anyway.”

This is indeed very scary! He’s uprooted himself and his family to chase something down, yet he’s not sure if it was the right move. I can’t help but feel it was the right move, because he would always have wondered about that Path Untaken. Now, he’ll know. At what cost remains to be seen, of course, but I am a leaper. I like to make changes and then deal with the consequences as they come. The unfortunate part is when others are also burdened by those consequences, of course, and so I empathize with his stress.

“As it turns out, very soon after I quit, [my team] was dissolved in a reorg and most of the people were laid off. Only a few got to stay, and they were split up onto different teams. That sounds dramatic, but it doesn’t really mean much. Just because that happened doesn’t mean that I would have lost my job.”

– Every day I spent at [that company] felt like a giant waste of my life and a betrayal of myself. Sometimes the pain of that was pretty intense.

I feel for T here so much. I can’t go quite so far as to say I feel working in IT is a betrayal of myself, per se, it is somewhat tortuous. I do feel like I’m wasting my life and any talents I might have in another, more meaningful, field.

“- Leaving the pain of comfortable stagnation and leaping into the void didn’t feel invigorating — not even for a moment. It was and remains scary. Of course, much of that is rooted in my concern for my family, especially my daughter. Objectively, she’s in a good place and seems to be thriving–and if things ever got really grim, we have a robust family safety net; but I can’t still the chattering monkeys inside my head that keep telling me that I’m being an irresponsible father. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a concern for you. When last we talked you didn’t have children who depended on you, but I don’t know what other attachments you might have.”

When I responded to T, I wrote the following on this point:

“As for ‘being an irresponsible father,’ I couldn’t disagree more. As you said, you’re not at risk of being out on the streets or going hungry due to your safety net, and in the long run, if you are happier, not only will you be a better father, but she’ll have an ever great role model in you. She will internalize she has the power to make positive changes in her life, even if it takes hard work and Balls. It seems like she was really really young when I was back at [our former company], right? So she’s probably at an age now where she can begin to understand things like hard work, being happy and so forth, perhaps?”

This is me, heeding my own advice – “even if it takes hard work and Balls.”

“- My wife supported the change as long as it was theoretical, but when the move was made and the hypothetical became real, she lost all her enthusiasm. While she’s feeling much better now than she was for the first year or two, I don’t know if she’ll ever completely forgive me.”

I am extremely lucky to have Mike Neir. His response to my thoughts has been, “let’s make it happen. You shouldn’t have to hate what you do every day.” I can understand where T’s wife is coming from – it’s one thing to be excited and supportive beforehand, but when the family is moved cross-country, and the budget is severely impacted, that can certainly diminish one’s enthusiasm for a new venture. Fortunately, I am not nearly the breadwinner Mike is. While I don’t think I can quit working entirely, we at least have some potential wiggle room. We aren’t going to move, and we have no children. We just have to make a plan. Before we can plan anything, though, I have to figure out What I Want to Be When I Grow Up.

“- Graduate school is incredibly difficult. The work is hard and isolating and ill-defined. I’m working my way through what essentially amounts to an elaborate and extremely expensive hazing ritual designed for people half my age. Happily, my life experience actually does seem to give me a little bit of an edge; on the other hand, I don’t have nearly the energy and stamina my colleagues do. It’s not unusual for them to stay up for 48 hours working on a project. My body simply won’t do that anymore. That means I have less free time than they do.”

I worry about graduate school. The thought of taking the GRE gives me fits. Given I will be shifting fields entirely, though, I’ll probably have to start out with another bachelor’s degree, and that will at least give me time to get back into the swing of things before being floated out on my own into the stormy seas of an MS. The “S” there stands for “science,” and this is, in itself, marginally terrifying. I’ll go into that in another post, though.

“- To my horror, my inability to focus didn’t go away when I started doing something that was interesting. Whereas I used to spend hours of [that company’s] time reading about Anglo-Saxon literature and material culture, now that it’s what I’m SUPPOSED to be doing, I find it hard to focus on it. This says something really terrible about me, but I’m unwilling to analyze what.”

This terrifies me, too. What if we make all this happen, and I just suck at it? What if I don’t have the drive? What if I fail is the primary question there, of course. This isn’t going to be a cheap endeavor by any means; there is real money, real time and effort, at stake. The one thing that gives me hope here is that when I was doing my pre-nursing stuff, I kicked ass and got 4.0’s, even in the difficult classes, even in (holy crap) The Math. I focused, I worked hard and I did it. A lot of it was really, really interesting, but a significant portion was excruciatingly numbing (The Maths.) Some of it I do not have a natural gift for (The Maths, The Chems.) But dammit, I worked hard, and I did it. So, in theory… I could do that again, for a more sustained time.

I also empathize with his difficulty focusing on something he is supposed to do. Oh boy, do I ever! When I “should” do something, that is when I am least wanting to do it, by sheer virtue of its perceived necessity. Still, I cling to the 1.5 years I was back in school and doing well. I think those abilities are here, just… sleeping.

Working in IT has, to a great extent, undermined my self-confidence. Pre-IT, I thought I was pretty smart. School was a breeze, I learned new things easily, et cetera. Having been doing this for nearly twenty years now, though, doing something at which I am not naturally gifted, something which I cannot stand to spend my own time researching… it’s made me question my intellect and abilities. I am at the low end of my peers in this field, and am not inclined to climb the ladder anymore. My eyes glaze over when I read technical documentation, my brain rebels. Anyone at LW can attest to how many asinine questions I asked during my time there. My eyes slide over paragraphs without any of it sinking in – I feel like there is a physical barrier between what my eyes see and what my brain can comprehend. Even if I deliberately refocus myself, bring everything to bear on A Paragraph About Drupal, I find myself oozing away from it, word by word.

“- We all miss Seattle desperately. The chance that I’ll be able to find a position at a university in the Northwest, let alone in Seattle, is vanishingly small. And yet sometimes I think I’d give up all my dreams just to have us all be back home, in the city we all love, with our friends in our favorite places. I know that this is folly. You can never go back. At least not deliberately.”

I miss Seattle and the Pacific Northwest deeply myself. I have, from time to time, toyed with the idea of going back. However, I think I am likely in Michigan to stay. Part of committing myself to Mike Neir was consciously becoming ok with that idea. It wasn’t something he required or even asked of me, but his family is here,  my family is here, we now have a house and a home here. I accept this, and even welcome it. Still, I fully understand T’s yearning.

“- I still have no firm proof that I’ll like academia better than my old life, or if, after all this, it’ll just be more of the same. That thought keeps me from my rest.”

I am so impressed with how T stated this – it keeps him from his rest. It is concise and elegant, and paints a poignant picture. I vicariously feel a little of his terror here.

Here, though, is the bottom line:

“But I saved this one for last:

“- When I think about what it would be like if I were still at [that company], doing the only marketable thing I know how to do, in the city my family and I adore, I feel an enormous, consuming emptiness start to grow inside me again. I’m not sure I could face that. It was truly intolerable–not because the work was odious or the people unpleasant (on the contrary), but because it was antithetical to who I am. I hated every second of that job, and I loathed myself when I was doing it. I had lost a great deal of my self-respect. I can’t say I’ve completely regained it by doing what I’m doing now, but at least I see the possibility of regaining it in the future.”

T’s eloquence shines through here. He precisely pins his situation down, puts a name to it. I am in a similar spot – the work itself is not “odious,” and the people have generally been wonderful. It is just not at all Who I Am. I find it dull and awful and disappointing. And I’m just not at all good at it. Case in point, I have just rendered our main server unbootable. Granted, it won’t break until it reboots, but if I can’t figure out how to fix it before we lose power or something, I am utterly screwed.

I was talking to a friend and former co-worker recently, who is also vastly dissatisfied with his current job situation. As we were talking, I realized what I really want, and what is wholly impossible at this point, is to be a “professional volunteer.” I would like to flit about and volunteer my time to a bunch of different, worthwhile organizations, and, of course, do it largely on my own terms and schedule. This is not feasible, but it surely would feed my craving for variety. Lead tours at an aircraft museum! Volunteer with the Red Cross and at the Emergency Department! Clean glass cases at the Natural History museum! Read to the blind! Sign me up, man, I am all about that.

(Alas.)

My friend remarked upon how some people will just never be happy in their work. “Maybe we’re both that kind of person,” he said, with a sad little smile. That possibility had occurred to me, as well. What I truly want to be, is Retired. But that’s a long damn way off, because I have almost no retirement savings to speak of. So it goes.

Another friend, M, who also works at [the company] where T and I worked, had a different perspective. His is something I have also considered, but I’m just not ready to accept it yet.

“In the immortal words of The Replacements: ‘It beats picking cotton and waiting to be forgotten.’

“We all long for simpler times…But I bet if you asked our ancestors who did back-breaking work 6 days a week to make a meager living, they would beg to differ. One side of my family came from Ireland and worked in the copper mines of Butte, Montana. Many of them still do. Almost all of them have college degrees—some in engineering—but they work for the mine because that’s the only game in town. They choose to stay, so they play the cards they are dealt. The other side of my family came from Ireland too and moved to North Dakota. They first took menial jobs and then scratched together enough money to become farmers. And to this day many of my relatives still farm the land…But they are literally dying off. When I went to a family reunion in the mid-90s to visit these relatives for the first time, one family was asking if I was interested in farming because they were hoping to keep the farm in the family. It’s a noble profession and I actually seriously considered the possibilities. But I realized that, in my heart, manual labor is not my calling. I’ve been raised to use my brain in intellectual pursuits and this would be a waste of the talent I was given. Also, living in isolation, would drive me mad. I thrive on human interaction and you have to be very stoic and a rugged individualist. That I am NOT.”

I do recognize that the significant health and safety concerns of those same “simpler times” which I so romanticize often rendered life difficult for people. In my response to M, I noted that I’m not 100% wild about manual labor myself, but I think part of that has been culturally ingrained. While I may intellectually know that manual labor is no less important than “brain labor,” I have internalized the message it should be avoided. I’m working on that.

“But I have my doubts about what I do. I have an infinite array of choices. But I HAVE choices which is a good dilemma to have. In the end I think our jobs don’t define us—they’re just a means to an end. We trade time for money. What matters is the people we love and the people we affect in our lives. And in that, I feel very fortunate indeed.”

M is right here, too; we trade time (and stress, and frustration, and everything else) for money. But is the trade-off worth it, is what it comes down to for me right now. I surely do not have an infinite array of choices, but I have some.  M is a social critter, with a wide circle of friends, and he takes a great deal of his pleasure from socializing. He is energized by being around others, whereas I am sometimes overwhelmed and drained by intensive, repeated social interaction. I chalk a lot of this up to a.) being an only child (which is a whole other post unto itself,) and b.) having parents that (at the time) did not socialize overly-much. There may even be a genetic component to this, as loud noises and sustained auditory stimuli do not sit well with me. I envy M his socialness, though.

“Ideally we all would love to do a career that is self-actualizing. But that’s rare indeed. It’s a great thing to strive for, and if you know what that is, you should go for it! But if not, realize that it’s a good thing to have a job that provides for your material needs—that’s not something everyone in this world can claim. And if you’re good at what you do, you can make a difference with your job, even it seems insignificant to you on a daily basis. In the words of MLK Jr, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” (I had to look that up to get the exact quote truth be told :-)). But the point is, be passionate about LIFE and everything you do. We can’t all find the cure for cancer or create social justice on the planet. But we can all make a great difference in the world around us.”

M is very pragmatic here, and again, I agree in principle with all he says. Still, I feel as if I’ve done my time doing the shit I hate, and now I’d like to do something else. This brings to mind the hundreds of thousands of, say, automotive workers in Michigan who worked hard on the assembly lines for 30-odd years, perhaps not enjoying it much at all, but they still worked hard, did their time and earned that prized Retirement. Why should I be any more exempt from unrewarding labor than they are? I shouldn’t; I am perhaps just less able to put up with tedium. This is a shortcoming in me, but I’ll own it and work with it.

“And sometimes someone’s great gift is to enlighten people…make them think…make them consider greater possibilities. And in that you have succeeded immensely!”

Humble thanks for the kind words, even if they’re not entirely deserved. 🙂

There’s going to be a lot more on this subject; volumes, in fact. I have thoughts and possibilities like mad little whirling dervishes in my head. It may be why I couldn’t sleep much last night.

Gaiam.com, Inc

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