In my early twenties, a spiritual teacher introduced me to the writings and teachings of Joseph Campbell. Over his life and career, Campbell became recognized as a giant among scholars on the subjects of mythology, spirituality, and comparative religion. Joseph was often asked, “What is the meaning of life?” He would respond, “There is no meaning. We bring meaning to it.” This idea is central to Campbell’s most famous saying: “Follow your bliss.” Over the years, his simple yet profound instruction has sadly become no more than a bumper sticker slogan that validates superficial pursuits of pleasure. Campbell was not talking about personal indulgence or hedonistic pursuits, no matter how blissful that hedonism may feel; he was referring to the deepest parts of our humanity. Following your bliss is a courageous path, often fraught with obstacles and powerful forces that want us to veer toward the paths of conformity and status quo. This is the Hero’s Adventure and there is no security in following the call to this adventure, yet this adventure is how we bring meaning to our lives. Everyone must forge their own path; our deepest values serve as our compass through the uncharted territory of our lives. When was the last time you checked your compass?
Are you on a path designed by you or designed by someone else?
Until recently, I spent virtually my entire professional career as a technical and executive recruiter for some of the most successful companies in the San Francisco Bay Area. Over the years, I have talked with countless people about all aspects of their jobs and job searches, as well as career planning and advancement. The technology sector tends to be fairly lucrative compared to other industries and the people with whom I interfaced were, for the most part, making good money compared to national averages. Although there are market fluctuations, the Bay Area/Silicon Valley is a great place to be if you are looking for a position in the tech world, but be warned—there is also a lot of talent here and the competition for the best roles can be tough.
You would think that with all the effort it takes to make a name in this marketplace, people would be really clear about how their values drive their career decisions.
I would ask my candidates, “Tell me about the sort of company, assignment, or environment where you feel most engaged. In other words, give me an idea of what you are looking to experience in your next position. What needs to be present in that environment in order for you to thrive?” Even after I rephrased the question several times, few candidates were able to answer it. In fact, most seemed to not understand my question at all! To me this question is straightforward; I want to get an idea of what is most likely to engage a person in such a way that they are inspired to do their best work (which, incidentally, should be the first question all employers should ask, but that topic is for another post). Answering this requires people to understand their internal values, what is important to them, and why they do their selected work in the first place. It goes back to what Joseph Campbell said about following your bliss. Most of the time, candidates would answer with something like “…well I have eight years’ experience with SQL and database development, I know TSQL, and can write triggers and scripts…,” usually in a monotone voice and completely devoid of feeling or any indication that there was anything approaching passion for their work. I would ask a question about their unique values, to which there is no wrong answer, and 95% of the time the reply was a recitation of their resume. It was like talking with a live commodity rather than a human professional with singular desires, passions, and reasons for engaging in his or her chosen work.
How did we become so disconnected?
A few years ago, I became a certified professional coach and began to pay more attention to this phenomenon of highly paid tech professionals, living and working in the heart of technology innovation and entrepreneurialism, but seemingly disconnected from themselves. While most knew how much money they expected to earn, had clear ideas about what title would be appropriate for their level of seniority or how much pre-IPO stock they should be granted, it never ceased to amaze me how many could not answer my simple question about their values and how those values related to their career. Campbell would have agreed with the title of Joan Didion’s book, We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live. Indeed, Campbell’s Hero’s Journey metaphor shows up in myths and legends throughout the ages, including the modern classic Star Wars. Luke Skywalker is the obvious hero in the story and Darth Vader is the villain. Symbolically, Vader is simply the shadow side of Skywalker. Vader, having succumbed to aggression and hate, is driven by ego, which seeks to preserve itself by asserting power and dominion over others. He is encased in the machinery that keeps him alive because his body (his true self, values, and bliss) is severely injured and can only function because of machinery that is both his prison and his life support. I am not equating my former candidates with Darth Vader, but rather I am asking the question: Which story are you telling yourself to live? Are you encased in the machinery of conformity and trapped in a story not of your choosing?
I have met many highly accomplished people who have achieved what our culture validates as success, but who are secretly miserable or numbed out.
Some of us are so disconnected from ourselves that in order to compensate for this void, we have become masters in self-delusion, with our culture aiding and abetting this delusion. There are a multitude of stories out there, but the story I call “the big lie” goes like this: Wealth equates to well-being and happiness, and material consumption is the indicator, proof if you will, that we have achieved wealth and therefore well-being and happiness. In this context, it makes sense that my tech candidates viewed themselves and their skills as commodities for sale to the highest bidder—after all, they wanted to be successful. They wanted to grab the brass ring that the big lie story promises. They were following the formula “a job plus hard work equals wealth, and wealth equals happiness and well-being.” Who would not want happiness and well-being? The irony is we unconsciously disconnect or remain disconnected from our internal values, our bliss, so as not to feel the pain of that disconnection. We usually do not think in this context when we are making important decisions about our life path. Many of us have internalized the big lie story so expertly that we have little awareness of how profoundly it shapes our choices and our actual well-being and happiness.
I am not suggesting that hard work to gain wealth should be avoided; I am suggesting that we often delude ourselves about what we are truly working for.
My first coaching clients were going through career or job transition, but now I work with clients who are in all types of transition. Transition can come into our awareness in many forms. Sometimes we intentionally choose to transition and sometimes we find ourselves thrust into it. Many people feel stuck; they are unhappy with their present situations and because they have disconnected from their inner values, they believe they lack options. Again, I am not knocking material wealth or success in any of its forms, but ask yourself: How connected do you feel to your inner self? How connected do you feel to your values? What are your values? When was the last time you took stock and checked to see whether you are making choices that are in alignment with your values? Have you ever had a moment where you wondered, is this all there is? Are conflicting pressures like providing for your family or paying your mortgage hindering you from connecting to your values?
Join my community and I will send you a complimentary exercise to help you reconnect with your deepest values. This exercise is simple, but will help you lay the groundwork to transition to a more meaningful and fulfilling path.