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The Adventures of Being a Dad: Part 2
The Problem with Work
I was one of the many unfortunate people who leave college in worse shape than when they arrived. Not because I spent all my time and liver cells partying instead of studying (I don’t and never did drink much). Not because of some unmarketable dance theory degree (I was a Business major). Not even because of crushing student debt (thanks, Mom and Dad). No, I had bigger problems. I went into college knowing who I was and what I wanted to be, but I graduated feeling utterly lost about what I was doing or where I was going.
Once I moved past the being-an-astronaut stage of life, I knew exactly what I was going to be when I grew up. I was going to be like my dad, a software engineer. I’d been fascinated by computers ever since my dad first brought home that first orange-screened, microwave-sized, “mobile” computer, completed with a handle on top for convenient carrying. It wasn’t until later that we got a 14.4kbps modem, but I was hooked instantly. I grew up playing games, fiddling with new components, testing out HTML sites, and generally spending way too much time in front of the screen. I took a few courses on VB and C++ in high school. I knew I what I was going to college for. I almost ended up at Virginia Tech.
A single semester was all it took to destroy that confidence. I can’t say exactly why. The classes weren’t hard. I could do the work. But I knew it wasn’t right for me. So I shopped around a bit. Some PoliSci, a little psych, a handful of classics and philosophy. I settled on Business, because that’s where the smart money was. At least I could do something with it. That “something” was as indefinite then as it sounds now.
I was looking for the wrong thing. Maybe it’s reasonable to go to college looking for a career. That’s what they put on the brochures. What most kids need at that age, though, isn’t a marketable set of skills. Even if it were, a full-time University might just be the most inefficient, least economical, most bloated, least productive way to acquire them. There are plenty of ways to quickly and easily learn how to do a job, most of which involve actually doing it. What kids need as they prepare to become adults is a purpose. Everyone is looking for it, even if they can’t name it. Why do you think college campuses are so overrun with activists? But politics, like work, is a volatile and dangerous place to put your identity.
I struggled with my first job. Not knowing what to do, not having a wide choice of industries in Charleston, SC, I took the first thing offered by a contracting firm, doing basic data entry at a software company. I was good at it, got hired at the end of the contract, and hated it. It was boring. The money was terrible. My boss was a jerk. After a few months, I was promoted. Better job, better money, better boss. I started having panic attacks. I wanted to quit but couldn’t afford to. I would cry on the drive home from work. All my life up to this point had been leading to this?
That was unfair. Work was never going to fulfill that longing for excitement and adventure and meaning and purpose. Microsoft Excel wasn’t designed for that. I was asking too much, and it made me miss the good things about the job. I was proud to be earning (barely) enough to support myself and my wife as she went through graduate school, on our own for the first time, just like real adults. I loved the productive aspects of work, the creation of something, even if it was mostly spreadsheets, the solving of problems, the push to find better, faster ways to get tasks done. And I enjoyed working with my colleagues, either collaborating or chatting, happy to be a part of a team. When we talk about a fulfilling job, we are generally talking about these three things: security, creativity, and community.
And yet I was still miserable. I wanted an identity. In hindsight, it was all rather stupid. Let me tell you, guys, “office worker” is not a great identity. Doctor or Lawyer or Entrepreneur or Teacher isn’t much better. For one, they can be taken away. You might be fired, lose everything on one terrible Friday afternoon. You might get injured, unable to do the one thing you built your life around. You might get old, fall behind, lose your touch. Or you might succeed, having struggled to reach the top, to make partner, to sell out, to get paid, suddenly wondering where else you can go.
You don’t want to stake your whole life on something you can fail. Success in the corporate world, like anything else, depends a great deal on luck, on timing, on a chance encounter with the right boss or a moment of sympathy from a mentor. Life had infinite variations. You may not get the chances you need. You may not have been born with the personality or the aptitude required. Not everyone can be the best. Not everyone can do the job. The dice don’t always fall in your favor. You’ll end up worn down and warped by the pressure or cynical and depressed at the unfairness of the all.
Put your self into something more secure. You don’t need special skills or incredible luck to be part of a family. It generally comes with being born. Some families may be better birthplaces than others, but they all offer some basic advantages: people to call your own, to love, to work for the good of, regardless of how nearby or distant, how rich or poor, how crazy or awkward. Some family might hate you, might hurt you, might deny you, but you can’t stop being family. You can lose members of your family—you will lose them—but you can’t lose your membership. You can never not be part of the family. You will always have someone to care about, if you choose to. When you start your own family, you have more say in the matter, but the same conditions apply. You don’t have the be the best husband or father to keep the job, you just have to show up. Your weakness and faults may cause tension, may cause rifts, may cause separation, but no matter how often you fail, you can always try again. You can alienate and estrange your entire family, drive them all away, but you can never make them not yours. It’s an important distinction.
I remember being asked, at some event after college, one of those insufferable icebreaker questions about where I saw myself in five years. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my career, but I did have a serious girlfriend, so I said something about being married and starting a family. Looking back, this was an important question. It’s worth considering. I guarantee you have some idea of where you want your life to be, even if you’ve never verbalized it. You are working toward something. That goal determines what type of person you are likely to become.
To succeed in business, you will need to be industrious, diligent, educated, ambitious, to make connections and communicate with others and work with a team, all good things, but doesn’t success also require, at times, a little but of staying late and working weekends, a little bit of rivalry in chasing the top job, a little bit of greed in striving for the highest achievement? If you put your work above all else, you may also feel tempted to overwork, to obsession, to unhealthy competition, even to greed, to cheating, and to pride or to discontent. You will become, whether you intended to or not, someone who measures yourself by how hard and how long and how successfully you work. Or you will fail.
The same is true of having a family. You will need to become someone who is capable of creating and sustaining a family. To start, you’ll need to become someone who is reasonably attractive to women who want to get married. And while there is no accounting for taste (or looks), it’s safe to say you can’t go wrong with some combination of being strong, protective, not a pushover, competent, capable of holding a job, a good listener, a humorous, compassionate, supportive, forgiving, etc. The bad boy may be fun to date, but is there anyone alive who actually desires negative qualities in their spouse? Getting married forces you to be better. Or at least pretend.
Being a father, furthermore, requires patiences, care, self-sacrifice, and a love like you’ve never known. There are risks here too, of course. You can become obsessed with a woman, dependent on her, as easily as you can a job. You can become needy, desperate to please. And it’s possible to care too much, to smother a child with concern. But it’s a lot harder to love your wife or your child too much than to love money too much. Because family naturally orients you toward others whereas a career is ultimately a personal endeavor.
The question isn’t one or the other. You can have a great career and a great family at the same time. They compliment each other well. Being able to provide financial stability, have an outlet for your creativity, and have a productive way to spend your days will benefit your family. The same qualities that make you a better husband and father will also make you a better employer or employee. The question is where you put your identity. Which one comes first? Which one is a better, more secure, more abundant, less dangerous source of meaning and purpose in your life? Which one, if you put your whole self into it, would most likely lead to happiness and satisfaction across your entire life? Which one would make you a better person? Who would you rather be?
This is hard when you are young. I don’t remember anyone in college who aspired to being a dad. I certainly didn’t. I wanted to be a programmer or a banker or a writer. Nothing wrong with that. I actually became two of those things, but I paid a high price for not understanding what would be the defining aspect of my life and not orienting myself toward it sooner. My marriage was a mess. I hated my job. My anxiety was spiking. Nothing short of a total reorganization could change that. Truthfully, it was forced on me. Only a tiny baby girl could accomplish it. It’s the kind of thing no one tells you in college, when you’re dreaming of wealth or fame or activism or the higher good. Who would admit that all those girls with their MRS degrees had something right all along? You probably wouldn’t have believed them anyway. But if the idea of starting a family, of being a father, doesn’t stir our young imaginations, it’s only because we don’t understand what an adventure it will be.