Friday was my last day at a place I worked longer than any job I've ever had: nearly five years. I'm not going to talk about them or the specifics of my job; it's not important.
I went in making a certain amount of money that was more money than I ever made before and left making more money than I ever made before. It was my first job with health benefits, vacation days, and a 401-k match. I had a cubicle and a laptop, and I got to submit expense reports and everything.
I met a metric ton of people, most of whom were either good at their jobs, or awesome, or both. My wife and I rented a spare bedroom to a co-worker, and he's now one of my closest friends and boardgaming buddies. I had a group of cool people to hang out with and we had fun and got things done.
I was a department expert, and that was great. I was an old hand, was regularly solving crazy-hard questions, and generally had time to research and refine solutions.
However, recently I'd gotten a whiff of my own brain going stale in the cubicle. Maybe it's the kids waking up eleventy-hundred times a night and frying my circadian rhythms. Maybe it's paying the bills for said kids, or the fact that I flat-out couldn't put in the hours I used to. Maybe drinking less than the rest of my department was holding me back somehow. Maybe I'm getting older or wiser or more foolish. Definitely fatter and balder, which is encouraging.
A few days ago, after I really, really, really decided to go to another company, I had an experience I haven't had in over a year: I awakened refreshed under my own power. No kid, no alarm clock, no barking dog, whatever. A weight was dropped from my shoulders.
Let's try that again, in the active voice: I dropped a weight from my shoulders. I was lying to myself for the past year, pretending that I was still going to be a good worker most of the time, and that's not the way to be. There's a saying that goes something like, "If you're going to wait tables till your film script sells, be a good waiter 'til the world learns you're a good writer." I wasn't waiting tables, but the principle stands.
Doing your best work whenever you can is a rebellion against negativity. Doing your best work from 9 to 6 lets you hold your head high as you leave, so you can hold it high the rest of the time. If you have no regrets and don't hold back your strength at your day job, it teaches you how to go full-tilt. Also, if you hate your job a lot of the time, even when you're not actually there, please, dude/dudette, get another one - it's dragging down everyone and everything else you meet. That's the realization I had been fighting for the last year, and it was making me bitter AND stupid because I was fighting my brain about it.
Something was missing, but I couldn't figure out what.
There are a couple of books on my nightstand that have given me a lot to think about over the past few years, and both of them want you to put together a "Success Checklist" of the experiences you need to feel complete. After that, you figure out what's working and what's missing, and go from there.
Here's what I figured out about myself in the last year, and finally managed to put into words:
"I am happy when I help people with their problems by applying new information they didn't have before to the equation."
There you go. That's me. I'm a clever helper monkey. Could be anything...
Lend someone a book I like, teach them a board game, fix their computers for them or empower them with new computer skills, engage them in a dialogue about their current situation, talk finances, whatever.
Requests from someone else help focus and frame my research into a coherent product. Without an actual angle to work from, I'm content to just skim through and enjoy the easy parts. It comes with the speed-reading powers I got when I was bitten by a radioactive bookworm.
I'll start the new job soon.