From an early age, Americans are conditioned to believe that what’s most valuable in our lives are our professional accomplishments. According to a Gallup poll, 55 percent of workers in the United States get their sense of self identity from their jobs. That number rises to 70 percent for college graduates. Like most Americans, I was my work. And, like most Americans, I believed that doing and being were synonymous.
Now I know it’s not true — at least not for me.
In 2014, I lost my job. In the years since, I have struggled to find meaning in what I do. Letting go of the notion that a career is the vital ingredient to fulfillment has been a difficult process, but for me it’s a necessary path to happiness.
After two decades as a journalist, I took a job at a marketing agency after my layoff. My position at a stable company affords me some flexibility and a nice paycheck, but there’s little personal satisfaction in writing email, social, and Web content for big brands. Sitting at a desk in an office tower, overlooking a tollway, and crafting copy designed to better the bottom line of giant corporations is how I pay my bills and save for the future. It’s not how I identify myself, and it’s driven me to figure out who I really want to be.
The internet is teeming with articles on seeking meaning and on doing versus being. They advise people to tap into their creativity to discover meaning. They encourage us to look inward and focus on feeling. They tell us to consider helping others — and to let go of the modern measures of success. For the last two years, I have asked (and continue to ask) myself what I love most about my life, what brings me joy and makes me happy, and how I might use that to serve the greater good and access the powerful feeling of making other people’s lives better. Some people’s jobs are infused with meaning — doctors and social workers come to mind. For the rest of us, it can be hard to cultivate self-worth and a life of consequence.
Unexpectedly, it was my unemployment that showed me the type of life that would fulfill me. With extra time on my hands, I did what people with a 40-plus-hour workweek often find challenging: I focused on physical fitness. Becoming stronger in my own body while witnessing the bodies of my parents and grandparents (and even people my own age) deteriorate inspired me to want to share what I’d learned, and to help people. I wondered if teaching exercise to others — specifically senior citizens — could provide the personal gratification I’d lost with my job. It felt purposeful.
This likely won’t become my full-time job, at least not in the foreseeable future. I simply can’t fund the life I currently live by dancing with memory care center residents. But teaching classes as a volunteer is absolutely helping me find my own sense of meaning. The point of this isn’t for everyone to run out and sign up for a yoga class; your sense of purpose could come from painting or rock climbing or baking. It doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t have to come from your job.
The conditioning runs deep — I’d like if my paycheck and my purpose were one and the same. But I also now know that it’s okay if my career isn’t my great calling. I have realized that there’s more to my identity than my business card, and that what I do from 9 to 5 doesn’t define me. I can do and I can be. My self-worth is in my own hands.
Though she plans to never give up writing and editing, Allison Hatfield dreams of more time chanting om and helping old folks with their down dogs.