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You are not your job
On the unbundling of work and identity, and the search for purpose
"So, what do you do?"
There it is. The most annoying, most prevalent, and most "second" question in the Bay Area.
(The most "first" question is still "What's your name?" But I wouldn't bet on it being #1 forever.)
Out for dinner. Drinks with friends. House party. School pickup. Weekends in playgrounds. Getaways to Lake Tahoe. It's all anyone wants to know. And why? Because of a deeply held belief in the Bay Area: Your job is the most important thing about you—it defines who you are.
It's not just San Francisco. It's everywhere. We’ve inherited it from our fathers, and their fathers before them. They were the breadwinners. They won the bread. They went to work, leaving their kids at home with mum (ever wondered if your dad took any time off when you were born?) They went out, worked hard, and saw their kids evenings and weekends. They did a job—probably one job, for a long time—and they did it well.
If you go back far enough, that job just didn't define their identity—it became it: Smith, Taylor, Dyer, Slater, Miller, Baker, Spicer, Cook, Fisher and Shepherd—a short selection of surnames and jobs you’re familiar with. When the time came, their sons would take up their tools along with their name. So RIP James Carpenter, and hello to his son Joe Carpenter. That's how the Carpenters started. And we've only just begun ... Dads handed down well-worn trades and successful family businesses to kids who—ready or not—would take the reins. It still happens: I know a handful of people who run (or are in the process of learning to run) their father’s business today.
For the generations of men that came before us, it wasn't just the type of work they did that defined them. It was the length of time they did it too. How many of you grew up knowing a dad who had the same job his whole life? That was what you did. You sat at the same desk, worked hard, racked up the years (and the pension), and then bowed out with a gold clock. If the shit hit the fan, you'd get a new job. But—with hope, and a bit of good luck—steady as she goes.
Or steady as she went. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, men born in the years 1957-1964 (my parents are right in that sweet spot) had an average of 12 jobs through their career. Hands up if you've already had more jobs today than your dad did his whole life? If I add up my first few bar and retail gigs, along with my early "getting a foot in the door" advertising jobs, I think I'd hit that number by my mid 20s.
We're working our way through more jobs, at younger ages, and moving from "just the bread winner" towards equal co-parents too—playing a more active role in fatherhood than any generation of dads before us. Coupled with the ability to forge our own paths, to do what you want to do, and not just do what your dad did.
These factors are leading to all kinds of opportunities. But Kierkegaard famously saw anxiety as “the dizziness of freedom.” And Uncle Ben made sure we never forgot that “with great power comes great responsibility.” So it's only natural we're questioning the role that work plays in our lives.
"You used to be interesting"
Back to SF. And the relentless focus on what you do. It was one of the reasons we left. Back in 2015, I met a good friend Nick (yup, same one) for a pizza and a few beers in Noe Valley. We'd known each other for close to 10 years, working side-by-side at an ad agency in London. He came to SF to work for Apple a little while before I moved over with Google.
We were talking about work. Of course we were. He was about to take a top secret job in a top secret lab at Facebook and was wondering if it was the right move. I was talking about some work-related drama or project that was incredibly important at the time, but has since faded into the ether of "shit that didn’t actually matter."
We talked about family, of course. But conversations kept coming back to work. At one point in the evening, he turned to me and said "Kev. In all the years we've known each other, I've always thought the most interesting things about you were what you did outside of work. You spent years running that music blog, set up that Tumblr about people turning up to work dressed up like each other, organised that concert in a church in Manchester. But then you got a job at Google. And now all you do is that."
Ooooooof. The indescribable pain of a searing truth. Something that cuts you to the core, instantly. It's a feeling that can initially make you mad—and can occasionally get you to react in a way you'd regret—until you realise that you've been seen by a friend in a way that you could never see yourself. Yeah. That.
It was one of the first times I realised that what I'd been chasing—get the dream job, climb the ladder, and then ... something else—maybe wasn't what I wanted. That I'd started following the same well worn path that ambitious young men had followed before me, without actually asking "why?" It was what lead me to start working with a career coach, an investment in myself I've never regretted.
So if that wasn't the path I wanted to be on, what was?
Scaling the Second Mountain
"When you have nothing but your identity and job title to rest on, then you find yourself constantly comparing yourself to others. You are haunted by your conception of yourself."
— The Second Mountain, David Brooks
In 2019 "The Second Mountain" was published, written by New York Times columnist David Brooks. Say what you want about Brooks (most people already have: Gawker called him "the nice old man with Alzheimer’s at church that everyone chooses to leave alone as long as he doesn’t hit anyone”; Rolling Stone went pithier with "the biggest windbag in the western hemisphere."), but he was able to codify something I'd spent years trying to understand myself. After the birth of his first child he began to question his previously relentless focus on career success (or "scaling the first mountain", in the vernacular of the book):
"The goals on that first mountain are the normal goals that our culture endorses—to be a success, to be well thought of, to get invited into the right social circles, and to experience personal happiness. It’s all the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends, and so on. Then something happens. Some people get to the top of that first mountain, taste success, and find it…unsatisfying. “Is this all there is?” they wonder. They sense there must be a deeper journey they can take. Other people get knocked off that mountain by some failure. Something happens to their career, their family, or their reputation. Suddenly life doesn’t look like a steady ascent up the mountain of success; it has a different and more disappointing shape."
If you're signed up to this newsletter I'm going to guess you've been asking yourself some of these questions since becoming a father—and especially over the last year when 40% of us are considering quitting our jobs and we venture into the YOLO Economy.
After landing my dream gig at Google in 2011, it felt like the final box had been checked off my career to-do list. I was on the inside of the company that constantly topped the best places to work, getting compensated well for it, with a clear path to work my way up. But—unbeknownst to me at the time—I’d reached the peak of my first mountain. I quickly started to see the paint flaking off the perfectly painted mural of my professional life. Just one example, from a list that could fill a book: a company-wide obsession with promotion. It was all everyone talked about, and the only meaningful measure of progress. But was it progress? Or was it an incremental number to your artificial "job level", to stroke your ego, add some digits to your bank account, and have to deal with more internal bullshit? Mo’ money, mo’ problems. Once I started seeing these things, I couldn't stop. The man behind the curtain, uncovered forever.
In “The Second Mountain”, Brooks outlines four areas of commitment that define a meaning of life and purpose: family, philosophy / faith, community and vocation. Our personal fulfilment is dependent on how well we choose and execute against these commitments.
"If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second mountain is about shedding the ego and losing the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution. If the first mountain is elitist—moving up—the second mountain is egalitarian—planting yourself amid those who need, and walking arm in arm with them. You don’t climb the second mountain the way you climb the first mountain. You conquer your first mountain. You identify the summit, and you claw your way toward it. You are conquered by your second mountain. You surrender to some summons, and you do everything necessary to answer the call and address the problem or injustice that is in front of you. On the first mountain you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent. On the second mountain you tend to be relational, intimate, and relentless."
It was sometime around 2015 I started asking myself these big questions: a year after my daughter was born, and around the time a manager told me that "leaving work at 5pm to go see your kids isn't working for the team, and it's hurting your chance to get promoted." I started to become disillusioned with the company and what I'd been working towards my adult life. The thing I thought I always wanted? It wasn't what I wanted at all. I felt lost. We moved to SF, because maybe that's what I needed: a new challenge, a new team, a new set of problems. But I was papering over cracks.
I'd descended down the first mountain into what Brooks' calls "the valley of bewilderment and suffering", which is where many stay. But some head into the valley and find something more: "For others, this valley is the making of them. They find a yearning to transcend the self and care for others, seeing familiar things with new eyes."
Making my way out meant understanding the promises of the second mountain: to be the very best father I could be, and instil in our children the attitudes, values and beliefs to help them grow; to support friends as they make their way up, down or through whichever mountain they're on (occasionally pointing out the second one if they haven't spotted it yet); and to explore the depths within, understanding myself like never before.
6 years later, and 3 years after leaving Google, I'm deep into my second mountain journey. While writing this essay, I realise that of Brooks' 4 commitments, vocation was one I’d struggled to figure out. I've volunteered my time and effort to good causes. I've been part of an ongoing family-run project in Kenya for 10 years, but always felt more like IT and Marketing support for something my parents did.
I'd never found a calling of my own.
But—after 6 months of this thing you’re reading—I’m starting to think maybe I have.
"Find that place in the self that is driven to connect with others, that spot where, as the novelist Frederick Buechner famously put it, your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger."
— The Second Mountain, David Brooks
If this piece resonated with you …
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3 things to read this week
With Father's Day happening in the UK and US last week, it was a boon for great writing around fatherhood. Thank you to all of you who bombarded my inboxes with these articles over the weekend.
Dr Anna Machin, an evolutionary anthropologist and "dad scientist" wrote about the 10 ways the traditional fatherhood role has been transformed. Some of this will be familiar to long-term readers, but fact around testosterone was new to me: "All new fathers experience a permanent drop in testosterone around the birth – up to a third in some cases. This drop is crucial as it not only motivates the father to be an empathic and sensitive hands-on parent, but it also removes the inhibitory impact of high testosterone on bonding hormones, ensuring that dad gets a good hit of feelgood chemicals whenever he interacts with his new baby."
Arthur C Brooks continued his phenomenal "How to Build A Life" series in The Atlantic with a father's day special where he reflected on his own father, tried to square the circle of how he seemed happiest when he was under the most strain, and pulled in a body of research of how fatherhood makes us happier and more satisfied in life. "The idea that staying childless and footloose is more satisfying is, on average, wrong. Everyone has a different experience of fatherhood depending on many factors, including the quality of one’s parenting partnership. But all things being equal, fatherhood is an excellent investment in happiness."
Both the NYT and The Guardian featured photos from "Dads" a new book documenting gay fatherhood in the United States. Heartfelt photography that shines a light on a lesser-seen side of the fatherhood experience.
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One thing to watch with the kids this week
Summer holidays started here in Spain yesterday. 11 weeks! Send help. I'll be sharing some of what I'm hoping will keep my 7 year old busy so that it might help you too. Here's the first.
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