October 11, 2010 | File under: Advice and Lessons • On the Job • Society and Pressures • Well-being
Growing up, I was always a bit uncomfortable in my own skin. I was constantly trying to live up to some social ideal, simultaneously pursuing notions of intelligence, beauty and overall worth that I believed would make me valued and special in society’s eyes. I thought acceptance from sources outside of myself would fuel my happiness, oblivious at the time that real happiness would remain elusive unless it came from myself, not from other’s affirmations of my embodiment of any ideal projected by society.
It was this quest to replicate what I perceived as society’s ideal of the “successful woman” that led me down the path of becoming a lawyer. Rather than providing the feeling of satisfaction and happiness that I expected, however, the outcome of this pursuit ultimately led to disappointment and to the realization that my many years of hard work had been motivated primarily by my impulse to prove myself in some fashion rather than by any drive to create a purposeful and happy life. I was careared, led down a path by social forces encouraging me to realize my “potential,” only to find out further down the road and past the point of return that my path was a dead end in terms of true personal growth.
For many years, I looked forward to the completion of my legal education and entry into the workforce as an end to my journey: the destination representing that I had “made it” and had lived up to the potential I had exhibited throughout my years of schooling. At that time, I imagined an immense feeling of accomplishment and happiness would accompany this milestone, the point when everything would fall into place. I don’t know what I expected to happen, but not surprisingly, the anticipation of this arbitrary moment in my life delivered an experience that was anti-climatic and not at all as vindicating as I had assumed. Like a teenage romance, the thrill of the chase and the built-up expectations I had fabricated were only setting me up to be disappointed in the reality that awaited me.
That I encountered disappointment is an understatement. Working day in and day out as a lawyer was far from the reality I hoped for. It was a job, and that is all. It did not make me happy, and in fact I learned that working as a lawyer prevented me from doing many things that truly did make me happy in life. My job consumed so much of my time and energy that there was so little left of me at the end of the day to devote to the simple things I had underestimated in my happiness equation —- spending time with loved ones, reading good books, taking long walks, experimenting in the kitchen, or just doing nothing. If I was living an ideal, it was not for me.
Society perpetuates many ideals, the pursuit of which only lead one down a never-ending path of unattainable perfection and disillusion. And yet, the whole notion of satisfaction embedded in these values is one that must be treated with careful skepticism. Not only had I not achieved the satisfaction I was seeking when I became a lawyer in terms of the “success” that was possible or expected of me —- as there are always paths to even greater success such as becoming a partner or amassing wealth; I abandoned my adherence to this notion of fulfillment altogether. When I finally reached the point where I was doing what I had long thought I “should,” the ideal was no longer what I wanted and far from what was going to make me happy. After the initial buzz wore off, no amount of social approval was going to provide the happiness that I was lacking in my job and no amount of money was going to fill that void.
It is a bit clichéd to say that happiness can only come from within, but it’s true. I used to have the carearing mentality that gaining social acceptance and validation through my career would provide me great satisfaction, but it turns out that I failed to see two important things. First, no one is really paying attention. My family has made it abundantly clear to me that they just want me to be happy. And in the grand scheme of the world, it doesn’t matter if I’m a lawyer, a farmer, or a chef, so the only person who I can please by performing a particular job is myself. And I might as well enjoy what I’m doing if it’s only me I’m aiming to please. Second, life is too short to constantly measure myself against some social ideal. I abandoned the idea of “status” long ago, realizing life is full of better opportunities to find fulfillment, leaving the ideals I had pursued as no more than empty shells of conformity. Again, this life is for me, so when I look back on it many decades into the future I want to feel confident I have lived it guided by my happiness and not by an ideal that has no meaning to me.