Discovering your destiny

I had planned to write about some of the major tech events of the day. Palm is saved! Apple buys more stuff to mothball!

But I’ve started a new job this week, and life lessons are cascading on me such that I can’t help but jot them down. So I’ll ask that you indulge me in a thought.

You need to find and fulfill your destiny. If you think that’s crazy, you really should read on. If you already know yours, I hope you’ll find some value in my story.

I don’t necessarily intend this in a cosmic, religious, or metaphysical sense, though it may very well be in that way that you experience your destiny. For my purposes, I’m defining “destiny” as what you want to have achieved before you die, what you want to be remembered for, or just what you want in general. Joseph Campbell would call it your “bliss”.

At my new job today, I was reminded of a story. It’s an uncomfortable one.

My desperate grasp for control

About seven years ago, I worked as a low-level geek at a large local business. I didn’t know what I wanted, just that I wanted to move up in the world. I’d come pretty far, considering that 18 months earlier I’d been delivering lunches for a living. In my year as a computer technician there, a pretty clear path emerged in front of me. If I wanted to move up, I needed to get into management or operations.

Lo and behold, positions opened up in both at once. There was an operations job and a management job for my team. I wasn’t sure what either entailed, only that I felt I deserved one of the two. I applied for one, only to have it scooped up. I threw my hat in the ring for the other, only to have my coworker slide into that position.

Over the next few months, I seethed. I tried a number of ways to fix my feeling of powerlessness: I complained, whined, and even tried to rally my coworkers into open revolt against the obviously political and corrupt organization I found myself trapped in.

One morning, we were gearing up to go on a department-wide ski trip. I had my snowboard loaded up, and as my colleagues clumped into carloads, I was pulled aside by my coworker-now-boss. I was to report to HR. I was sure I hadn’t done anything wrong, so it was with a bit of nervousness I walked into the HR director’s office to find my boss and my boss’s boss there.

“What am I supposed to tell my wife?”

The next 15 minutes are still a blur. I was being fired. They tried to be gentle, but I was hot with righteous indignation. How dare they patronize me and say “it’s not a fit”? They threw around words like “bad customer service” and “borderline insubordination”. Even now, I’m flushed with embarrassment as I write this.

So I’d been proven right. I was powerless. What was I supposed to tell my wife? I called her, not just crying; heaving as I apologized to her. How was I going to pay the mortgage? After many months of scrambling for a sense of control, it was all taken from me in one moment. I spent about a month feeling sorry for myself, but I was offered another job; a chance to start over.

At my next job, I was shocked to find the situation play out all over again. I watched for 5 years as coworkers were promoted, and I had my position, title, and pay “redefined” downward. I could feel more layers press down on me. Was this my destiny? To fumble as others succeed? I was smart, capable, and I worked damn hard. Why wasn’t that getting through to these people?

Now, it’s obvious that I was doomed to fail because I didn’t own my destiny, while I watched my coworkers claim theirs. I didn’t know, but even though I shared a workplace, lunches, and conversations with my successful coworkers, they were in a different, parallel universe. In their universe, they had direction and control, while I clung desperately to a job I couldn’t afford to lose.

Finding a compass

Just over a year ago, exasperated, I had a long talk with the person whose career had rocketed while mine stagnated in the same company. Ostensibly, it was about learning to program. But really, I was profoundly unhappy and was hoping he could point to any exit.

That talk set off a chain of events that led to more than a career change; it was a chance for me to grab a compass and choose a direction for my life.

In the year that followed, I watched as the workplace tore itself apart in desperation as the company crumbled and sank. It was the worst work environment I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot at this point. But as my personal course became more clear, this became less relevant.

More recently, I spent several months helping start a company from the ground up with a small group of close friends. With no job title, manager, or ambition, my only responsibility was to create something of value. Although my compass has now led me in a new direction, this experience helped solidify my understanding that it’s me who shapes my destiny.

You can cheat to win, but not to succeed

Today, when I hear people grumble about bosses, politics, and promotions, it is with an odd detachment, and I realize: I’m in a different universe now. I’m not at a job to try to win a promotion, a ribbon, a prize, or raise.

Promotions, raises, and awards are simply how the world reacts to good work. My goal is to produce good work, and match myself with the kind of organization that shares my idea of good work. Trying to “game” this system offers a mere illusion of control, and is a fast track to an unhappy life.

I’m at a job to apply my unique and valuable skills to create things of consequence. If that’s not the deal, we could part ways with no hard feelings, and I’d find a place to create things of value. As it stands, it seems to be working out great. Someday, I hope that place will be my own company, and I’ll apply my skills to my own projects full time.

The magic ingredient

As it is, I’m confident that I’ll succeed in my current role. It was my choice to accept it. Every day, it’s my choice whether I give my best.

And although confidence is the magic ingredient that puts you in the “other universe”, it’s simply a byproduct of doing things. You do something, then you know you can do it. That’s confidence.

I repeat: confidence is essential, and it’s a byproduct of doing.

There is a real lesson here, and in case I’ve couched it too deeply, it is this: If you don’t believe you have a destiny, if you think you’re powerless, life and the universe will prove you right in the most exquisite and painful way.

If you’ve found your destiny, your mission is to fulfill it. Seize it.

Here’s a hint: If you don’t know what your destiny is, creating something is probably a good start. Helping people is a great start. Creating something that helps people? Now we’re talking.

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Brandon's been bringing the pain via blog since '02. Word. Er... Press.