Breaking the Cycle and Chasing Success on Your Terms
Spoiler alert for Catch-22, Looney Toons, Die Hard, TED Talks, Game of Thrones, Office Space, Inception, and my 6th grade homeroom class.
I read Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 when I was in 6th grade.
That sentence would usually precede a twice-as-long-as-necessary breakdown of the novel’s plot, characters, and author’s influences, all with the ultimate aim of reinforcing the post-writer’s opinion of their own intellectual superiority.
So let me rephrase:
When I was in the 6th grade I opened, looked all of the words (comprehending a few along the way), and eventually closed Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22. I did not do it in one sitting, and I certainly did not understand the book the way I pretended to my classmates at school that I did. I got the main plot points, but about 90% of the book’s nuance flew right past me.
Luckily it’s the 10% that stuck with me that the rest of society latched onto anyway. So, for those of you who haven’t read the book or had the concept explained, here’s the catch-22:
If you’re in a warzone and you get the doctor to declare you insane, then you’ll be discharged and sent home.
If you’re in a warzone and you ask the doctor to declare you insane so you can be discharged and sent home, then you’re clearly not insane. Unpack your ruck and get comfy.
The story is humorous as it is enraging. It’s presented almost lightheartedly – as if Bugs Bunny were using the idea to pull one over on Elmer Fudd .
But all the while the plot’s periphery is filled with the protagonist’s squadron flying missions over Axis-occupied territory again and again and again until anti-aircraft guns toll the bells of each soldier’s luck running out one after the other.
Real men fall from the sky to their deaths and Heller brings you back time after time to this almost Office Space-esque dilemma of our “hero” trying to get a doctor’s note so he can skip out on the remainder of the second Great War.
TANGENT: I’m reading reviews on George Clooney’s new Hulu miniseries and I’m strongly considering biting on that free month they keep e-mailing me about. It’s got potential.
Cool. What does all of this have to do with the fact that I can’t find a job I want to stay in?
For those of you “Just the fax, ma’am” types I should start putting something like a big neon sign at this point in these posts so you can breeze past the prologue and get straight to the good stuff.
The actual catch in Catch-22 in its broad form shows us a picture of that vicious cycle that we often find ourselves in with our career, relationships, and lives in general:
We want our circumstances to change, but for our circumstances to change we need to change first.
We want to change, but we believe that for us to change our circumstances need to change first.
What we want isn’t just extra money or time. We want…
- That “more” that the people on the TED stage are always telling us is out there.
- A job where our skills are put to good use. Our real skills too; not just what our diploma says we’re good at.
- Relationships where we can grow and challenge each other to be better versions of ourselves than we were when we woke up this morning; and find some enjoyment in those relationships along the way.
We’d even like to contribute back it we ever find ourselves with excess money, time or energy, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Now we roll right into the catch. We can’t…
- Have more because we can barely afford to spend the money, time, and/or energy on the shit we’ve attained to this point.
- Find a job which utilizes our inherent skills because we’ve been working other jobs “paying our dues” for the past however many years, and now we’re not even sure if those natural skills are things we’re good enough at for them to be marketable anymore.
- Have better relationships because we’re terrified of what will happen if the so-so relationship we’re in right now ends.
- Build better habits and rituals because the time it’s taken to read this post to this point has already taken all of the “free” time we had left today and there’s just too much shit left to do.
We’re trapped by the system we built for ourselves.
And so the march toward someone else’s idea of success continues.
- We want more, but that will take work that we don’t have the time or energy for.
- We want to get unstuck, but that will risk all of the security and stability we’ve already built.
- A very predictable and safe path got us here, but predictability and safety alone paints a very grey picture of the future.
We’ve set ourselves up carefully to guarantee a future that we don’t even want.
The cycle (see also: “wheel” if you want to get all dracarys on it) needs to be broken. So how are we going to break it? How do we start chasing success on our own terms?
Corny as hell, but here we go:
I’m calling it a Pitch-22 because it’s baseball terminology’s inverse of Catch-22. It makes enough sense and sounds tolerably catchy, so let’s just roll with it.
Taking control of the cycle requires that we interject ourselves and our ambitions into the cycle itself. We have to disrupt the process before we can adjust for a different output. So, here’s the new iteration:
1. If you’re in a career situation that’s unsatisfying and unfulfilling, start investigating.
Before our circumstances can change we need to understand what our circumstances are and where they’re leading us. If we have no interest and feel dead in our work then we need to explore areas that peak our interest. We need to analyze the things that make us come alive.
At EtheaLab we call this “investigating our passions.” Investigation is important because telling you just to follow your passions without any deeper processing or analysis is bad advice. We need to determine where logic can back up our emotional pulls. Remember that emotions are information, not directions.
This is the spot where most of us fall off the wagon, which is frustrating to watch because it’s the beginning of the process. Self-assessment has gotten the Nickelback treatment of near-universal hate thanks to the self-help “chase your dreams and don’t apologize to anyone” crowd. Thanks to these well-intended and poorly-executed characters the idea of reflection and analysis has largely dubbed by society as worthless, childish, and irrelevant. It is none of these things, but I get why it seems that way. Nickelback may or may not deserve their stigma, but self-assessment largely does not.
I AM NOT
telling you to sit at your desk, stare blankly into the abyss, and daydream about how good things will be “someday.” That’ll get you exactly nowhere. There are a good many studies which show that it will make you more dissatisfied.
telling you to take a hard and rational look at what exactly it is that leaves you feeling dissatisfied. Happiness comes from the fulfillment of passion. That’s great for a moment, but passions change and happiness is a cheap substitute for joy. Joy comes from the actualization of your core values. You may be passionate about photography, but your core value is more likely seeing and sharing beauty it with others.
If we find that we’re interested in things that are not only personally exciting but also logistically and financially viable. Then and only then can we consider that idea as a real and rational possibility.
For now we need to research, educate ourselves, and analyze our capacities to actually go after these things. If it’s emotion that is pulling us toward a profession or cause, then our pursuit of it has to be defended by logic. If it isn’t then we’ll end up ineffective and unsatisfied just like we were before. We’ll get into why that is another time.
2. Make decisions that you would make if you had the confidence to pursue what you know brings you satisfaction and fulfillment.
What actions would you take if you were a more confident person? How would your decisions be different?
Notice that we’re the active origin of this part of the cycle. I’m not telling you to look harder for opportunities, scheduling daily times to check job boards and the like, though that will be valuable for some of you.
What I’m telling you is to manufacture opportunities. Take control of the narrative and take steps to adjust it. Write e-mails, make phone calls, handwrite a letter to the office of industry professionals and thought leaders who interest and inspire you.
Yes, seriously. This part requires effort.
You’ll be amazed at how many positive responses you get. Most creative and business leaders love to share their knowledge and expertise. Many of them are chomping at the bit for us “snowflakes” to have the guts to reach out to them.
How I reached out to a Fortune 100 VP of Operations
For those of you looking for an effective alternative to standard “networking” advice, this is it. The answer to the endless question between what you know and who you know is “yes”. It’s both, but getting someone to accept your connection request on LinkedIn does not put them in the “who you know” category. It can be helpful to interact with peers at networking events like happy hours if you develop the relationship further. If they stay shallow they likely won’t benefit you greatly in the short or long term.
A little less than a year ago I reached out to an operations VP at Bayer Corp. He’s only a few years from retirement in the higher echelons of one of the world’s largest companies, asking if he could grab lunch and share stories and lessons learned from his time working through his industry. He’s a Professional Engineer like myself, and I ran cross country with his daughter in high school. I used that as a stronger basis for reaching out beyond “Hey you’re important can you help me feel less insecure about my career?”. You won’t always have that ace in the hole though.
I’ve reached out to many more industry professionals and small business owners. Many of them I had no connection to whatsoever before, yet they were still excited to meet. So I’m asking you to follow my lead and take the risks. I have excellent and growing relationships with many business leaders in my community simply because I reached out.
The Bayer VP and I have now gotten lunch twice. We’ve also texted back and forth about potential career trajectories multiple times. For those of you wondering: it absolutely felt weird at first. If you’re genuinely interested in learning from someone in your current or prospective industry, or from an advocate for a cause you’re interested in, they often cherish the opportunity to help out curious and ambitious young people. This is a way to end up exchanging of stories and cell numbers, not just business cards. This is a “quality over quantity” networking approach. While we’ve gotten away from it in the age of LinkedIn, it’s still the past and future of business relationships.
Take a step back and look at what we’re doing here:
We’re developing a virtuous cycle where a vicious one existed before. The two elements of the Pitch-22 are constantly fulfilling and making each other more accessible. Investigating our passions (or lack thereof) gives us a clearer look at ourselves and our core values.
Understanding our core values informs us of where we’re living our lives in a way that’s dissonant to our true nature. Recognizing that dissonance changes the way we make decisions and interact with the world around us.
These decisive changes bring us into contact with people, organizations, and projects that weren’t even on our radar before. And our interactions with these people, organizations, and projects teaches us even more about ourselves and our core values.
And so the march toward our own idea of success begins.
TANGENT: If any of you saw the movie Inception this looks like the way they describe the inception of a thought. Leo Dicaprio goes into this spiel about how in dream states we’re simultaneously creating and perceiving. The inception of an external thought happens by interjecting the dream-sharer (this is where it goes science-fictiony) into the otherwise perpetually symmetric cycle.
Don’t think about elephants.
If you interject yourself in the cycle by working to understand your values better, then you’ll be more confident in taking courageous actions that satisfy those values.
If, in turn, you take different and more courageous actions than the ones that had brought and kept you stuck in the spot you’re in, then you’ll begin to understand your values better.
Run it again. And again.
Welcome to the march toward success on your terms.
Get to work: Action Items
(Choose Target A or B to Start)
- Pitch-22 Target A: Start investigating your passions. Passions aren’t the answer, but they are on the path to it. Write down at least 5 things you’re passionate about and begin to analyze them for the underlying core values.
- Pitch-22 Target B: Start taking courageous actions. If you wait until you have the confidence and courage to do challenging things I’ve got bad news. It’s not going to happen. A life of success on your terms requires courageous actions when you don’t feel courageous. A life of success on your terms requires acts of confidence when you don’t feel confident in yourself. Emotions are information, not instructions. Account for them, but act in spite of them.