Steve was a recent college graduate who had landed his dream job. After four years of studying, hundreds of hours of side projects, and a tough internship, he was now working for one of the top technology companies in the world as a software developer.
And he was miserable.
I met Steve at a social function, not an industry event. When he told me who he worked for, I asked a few casual questions about it. After a while he leaned towards me and said, “You know what? I thought working there would make me happy. But it hasn’t.”
Sure, he was over the moon when he first got the job. But after a few months he started to feel less excited about going to work. Now, he says, it’s a chore to get out of bed in the morning. He can’t even tell me why he doesn’t like it. He just isn’t happy.
I decided to pry into Steve’s life some more. I asked him about his relationships, his hobbies, where he’s travelled. Steve told me he was single, has no hobbies, and hasn’t travelled anywhere since finishing college, except for a quick trip to Bali with his friends to celebrate graduation.
Read any good books lately? Nope. Got any holidays planned? No, none. He’s due some vacation time, but hasn’t planned anything.
I’d had a few beers by now, so my advice-giving muscles were well lubricated.
“Steve,” I said, “I think I know what your problem is. You expect your job to provide you with 100% of your happiness. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to love what you do. In fact, if you can find a job you love, you’re doing better than a lot of people in this world. But let me ask you this. What is your goal in life?”
Steve thought for a few seconds, then answered. “To get a job as a software developer. Actually, the company I work for is the one I wanted to work for. I guess you could say I’ve achieved my goal.”
“Exactly. So what you probably are thinking now is, what’s next?”
After a few moments of silence, Steve agreed.
Amateur marathon runners often suffer from post-race blues, an emotional crash in the weeks following a race. Even elite athletes can suffer from this. Professional sports men and women suddenly find themselves lost without another race or season to prepare for. It’s so common that in 2016, The Atlantic published an article about “post-Olympic depression”. Not even winning a gold medal is a guarantee of avoiding the effects of total physical and emotional depletion, as life returns to an “ordinary” state. In an interview with ESPN, retiring American basketball star Dwyane Wade, who has won multiple championships during his career, said he plans to get therapy to help him make the adjustment.
Goals are funny things. We can, and should, set goals for ourselves. But sometimes we confuse goals with purpose. Steve’s goal was to land a job as a developer. But he had no purpose in mind. What does landing that dream job actually provide for Steve’s life? Does it provide him with the financial security he needs to start a family? Does it allow him to afford to travel and see the world? Does it give him the opportunity to leverage his skills to help non-profits to pursue worthy causes? Does it simply allow him the free time on weekends to go hiking, create art, play board games with friends, or write that novel he’s been meaning to write?
When he achieved all of those goals, he suddenly had nothing to look forward to. He had no purpose. And life became very ordinary and boring.
Like the marathon runner or Olympic athlete, you should certainly take some time after achieving a goal to recover from the effort. Whether you immersed yourself in a boot camp for several months, or studied for years to earn a college degree, you likely had to sacrifice something to achieve your goal. Perhaps you spent less time with friends and family, or less time exercising. Your eating habits may have slipped as you valued speed and convenience over health. Whatever you sacrificed, now is the time to make up for it, before you set out to achieve your next goal.
I believe that having goals that give us a sense of purpose is an essential part of leading a happy life. Amateur runners tend to fill the hole by signing up to another race. And that's fine for them, because the process of training and running a race is fulfilling for them. But I don't know many IT workers who get a sense of fulfilment from interviewing and landing yet another job.
Most of the happy professionals I know find that sense of purpose outside of their day job. Even those who work in their “dream job”. Some use their professionals skills for fun, or to help others. While many find enjoyment in chasing goals that are well outside of their professional lives.
I heard from Steve a few weeks after our conversation. He spent some time reflecting on what he wanted to do next. He reconnected with some old friends he had lost touch with after college, when everyone was so busy with their new jobs. It turns out one of them was working on a new open source project, so Steve agreed to help. It only took up a few hours of his time each week, leaving plenty of free time to enjoy his other hobbies. But it gave him a goal to work towards – building and launching a tool that could help other developers around the world. He now felt like he had a purpose again.
“And after that?” I asked.
“That could be years away,” Steve replied. “I’m just going to enjoy this for now, and worry about what comes next when that time comes.”