On Owning Ambivalence

The Gut-Wrenching Hair-Pulling Weirdly Powerful Effect of Owning Your Ambivalence

I had no idea what was happening when we packed our things into our red VW Beetle (70’s model – a classic even in 1994). At four years old I was just following my mom and older brother out the door probably thinking we were headed to grandma’s or something.

The better part of three decades later I have a much clearer understanding of why my subconscious latched onto that memory. My parents were in the process of a divorce, and my mom was taking my older brother and I to a duplex to live in while she was getting back on her feet. The tension of the moment was traumatic enough that my brain bookmarked the moment even though my conscious mind thought nothing of it.

TANGENT: Implicit memory is amazing. Brains are amazing. Both can also be tragic. Check these out: 

Article – Implicit Memory (PTSD) – Kevin Redmayne

Long Article – Types of Memory – Blue Knot Foundation

Most of you have a similar story: a memory from your childhood which held incredible significance, even though you would have had no way of knowing it at the time. A divorce, the noise, pain, and confusion of a car wreck, a last hug before a friend moved far away, a huge fight with one of your siblings – it’s there, and it’s stayed there for a reason.

I’ve spent the majority of my life looking back on that moment driving away from what I knew to be home and putting it in the “Bad Memory” box. It was the beginning of a process that the vast majority of people would regard as strictly negative. Any mention of the divorce to someone other than my extended family (the “good riddance” crowd) for the next 25 years has largely been met with some form of sympathetic word or gesture. Society has their answer locked in and the key thrown away: divorce is bad and the children are victims who will be forever altered negatively as a result.

I’m not certain when it first occurred to me that I needed to at least reframe, and at most completely rethink, the way I was looking back at that season of my childhood. Probably somewhere around the middle of college. When it did hit me, though, it crashed into me like a freight train.

If my childhood was mostly all derivative of one “big bad” event, then I was a victim of someone else’s story and would never be able to achieve or contribute what I could have otherwise. I was damaged goods, and the best I could do was use that as an excuse for mediocrity in academic, professional, and relational pursuits. Playing the victim is easy, and I got really good at it.

So if the divorce was the “big bad”, then rational thought suggests that my parents staying together would have been the “big good”.

Uh… no.

That was the biggest swing in my thinking. Let me preface this by saying that my parents are incredible, loving, and flawed people (just like me).

What I remember most from the time when my parents were together was a lot of yelling. That’s about it. There were some good memories mixed in, and a few notably bad ones, but yelling was a pretty easy result to anticipate in any situation.

Truth be told my mom and dad just don’t click. It’s not that either of them are particularly infuriating people – they just operate with different worldviews and goals, and have a very hard time understanding each other as a result. My parents got married in their early 20’s. They’re both great people and I’m certain had fun together in their late adolescent years, but anyone looking at their 20’s in the rear-view mirror can attest that there’s a significant amount of revision and refinement that happens in that life season of transitioning from child to adult. My parents are real human beings who made a judgement call with the information that they had available, and the processing capabilities they had developed to that point, and in hindsight it was a swing and a miss.

With that in mind, it didn’t take long for me to get to a life-changing conclusion: 

My parents staying together would likely have been more painful not only for me and my older brother, but for my parents as well, than them getting divorced.

My parents are both re-married. My step-dad and my step-mom are two of the best people I’ve ever met, and their personalities complement that of their partner SO MUCH BETTER than my mom’s and dad’s do. They’re not perfect, but they are good. And they are good for each other.

I didn’t enjoy doing the Wednesday night and every-other-weekend routine growing up. I still don’t like needing to plan events in such a way that my parents don’t cross paths to the greatest extent possible. I don’t like the tension and the pain that I felt from both of my parents going through court proceedings, and I don’t like the effect it had on my older brother.

I do enjoy, though, seeing my parents happy. I enjoy experiencing relationships between people who get each other – who click – who laugh with each other, at each other, and at themselves. If I came from a marriage that was a swing and a miss, then I’m beyond grateful that my parents were able to both step back up and get a hit. Maybe not a homerun. Nobody is a homerun. I’m probably a strikeout that passes the catcher and gets to the backstop, and you’re barely able to leg it out for a trip to first base on an error. My step-dad and step-mom though, call them a ground-rule double. They’re pretty awesome people.

I don’t want my children to experience a divorce. I do want them to experience a good and healthy and love-filled, peace-filled, fun-filled relationship between their parents. I believe wholeheartedly that I found the right partner for that. 

Feel like I’m giving you mixed signals? I’m not.

I went through a similar emotional progression through the first five or so years starting my career in engineering. Granted, the feelings were pretty watered down compared to my parents’ divorce, but the base feelings still fell into the same categories.

I would say things like “I hate my job”, “my job is slowly killing me”, “there’s no benefit to me even being there”, etc. I woke up most days thinking not about how I felt about going to work that day, but how I would feel if I was still going to this same job in ten, twenty, hell at the rate Social Security is depleting let’s just assume fifty years.

Safe to say I didn’t feel great about my career trajectory. 

I was venting to my now-wife one time about my job in a similar fashion to what I described above, and when I got to the part where I run out of specifics and just revert to the “I hate my job” line, she stopped me.

“I don’t think you hate your job. I think you hate parts of your job. I don’t think this is what you should be doing for the rest of your life. But I don’t think you hate your job.”

I was actually kind of floored. Sure I was just venting, but when you vent using the same language over and over again over time you end up believing the exact words you use. I really had convinced myself that I just flat hated my job. 

But I didn’t. And Steph knew it.

And now I did too.

I hated sitting at a desk all day. I hated having to track every quarter-hour of work I did so I could bill it to the right project. I do generally believe that I was in a job I wasn’t really made for, and I hated the dissonance I was feeling as a result of that. I hated feeling like no matter how hard I worked I would end up just being a remarkably okay engineer in the end.

There were things I loved about it though: Working and coordinating with a team. Seeing the buildings I’d helped design get built and actually being able to walk through them. Moments where I’d actually get my mind wrapped around abstract engineering concepts (eureka, amirite?). Building relationships with architects and builders and manufacturers reps. Even just having a stable income was something I had been taking for granted and diminishing the value of… privilege much?

I had been ignoring everything I enjoyed and was good at in my job so I could spend more energy focusing on all of the things I hated and underperformed at. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy that I would end up enjoying my job less and less every day because of the energy I spent convincing myself that I could not enjoy it.

Simply put I had a bad attitude, a narrow focus, and a glaring lack of maturity.

After the proverbial hammer-drop by my wife I was encouraged to think about all of those things much more clearly (see also: she called me on my bullshit and I was rightfully embarrassed enough to reframe my thinking and actually process the situation like an adult). I started seeing opportunities in my day-to-day where I could lean into my strengths and interests. I jumped at the chance to meet with clients to build relationships, initiate non-work conversations with coworkers to build camaraderie, participating in design meetings to better understand the vision of architects and lead designers, and finding opportunities to encourage others in their skills and jobs.

Did I suddenly love my job? No. But was I still convinced that I hated it? Nah.

I was ambivalent. There were things that I enjoyed and things that I didn’t enjoy. I was able to show more gratitude in moments that were personally fulfilling, and I was more appreciative of the necessity of tasks and assignments which were not. The major difference was that I had actually taken the time to become aware of which things I did enjoy, so that when those moments came up I could immediately recognize the opportunity and seize it.

It was still imperative that I eventually find my way out of engineering, but the remaining time I spent in that realm was much more enjoyable simply because I gave it the opportunity to be so. I recently left my job as a designer (most of the reason why it’s been so long since I’ve posted anything). I’m more than confident that leaving was the right decision. My new job comes with responsibilities and opportunities which are much more consistently in my wheelhouse. But leaving my job as a designer after that long season of being aware of my ambivalence toward it was something that I actually felt really bittersweet about – not because of the work, but because of the people. If I hadn’t taken the time to recognize what I enjoyed about my job (mostly the people), then I wouldn’t have left having built such great relationships with coworkers and clients. That notably painful but incredibly valuable aspect of leaving would have been an opportunity missed. 

We’re wrong about a surprising amount of assumptions we make about ourselves. We often think that we feel a certain way and there’s nothing else to it, but the truth is often much more complicated than that. Processing those feelings takes effort, attention, and a recognition that you’re about to go toe-to-toe with your ego. It’s much easier just to say “I hate my job”, “I had a traumatic childhood”, or “I don’t like social situations”. There is likely truth to each of those beliefs of yours, but there is also likely truth that you’re missing because you won’t allow yourself to see it. 

Catch yourself when you use blanket statements and consider the possibility that there’s more to the story than what you’re telling yourself. I’m not promising the clouds parting and the rest of your life being sunshine and rainbows, but I am promising an increased awareness and appreciation of the world around you and how you interact with it – and that’s a powerful place to find yourself.

Get to Work: Action Items

Consider three major areas of your life to consider more in-depth: your job; your relationship with your parents, spouse, or children; your close friends and the routines you have as a collective. I’m running on pretty low battery at this point so I’ll check back in if I think of any other ideas to lead you with, but if you come up with something that you’d like to dive into further then by all means go for it.

First: word vomit the feelings that you associate with whatever subject you’re looking at. Try to keep it to three sentences or less, or use five or fewer bullet points.

For example: My Job: Unfulfilling, bored, shouldn’t be there. I’m going to turn out as less of a person than I would be if I were in a job I was made for.

Second: Allow ambivalence to have its say. Take each of the concepts from the step above and find true counterpoints or rebuttals to them.

Example: My job: Relationships matter most to me in the end, and I have the opportunity to build relationships even at my current job. A lot of the reason why I’m bored is probably that I have a bad attitude – if I put in the time to master certain skills I’m pretty sure my mind would be more invigorated by engaging in the process of it. Truth be told I enjoy getting into the weeds on complicated engineering problems, I just rarely if ever actually put in that much effort. To the last point – shit. I mean the last sentence is accurate because of the direct and indirect implications of what I do all day at work and the mental exhaustion and lack of interest in other things I feel as a result of my constant lack of interest in what I’m doing from 8-5 every day. So a counter – I have to be learning valuable skills here. The fact that I’m here now doesn’t mean that I have to stay here, so my present shouldn’t be the enemy of my future. I should be making practical plans to move toward a career that is more fulfilling, but I shouldn’t have such a bad attitude as to assume that I’m getting no value from what I do every day. I can still be and become a fulfilled and complete person even if I’m not in the “perfect” job.

Third: Lean into what will grow you.

Example: My Job: Focus on relationships. Set reminders in my phone to find a reason to go ask someone a question or engage in a conversation face-to-face once every hour. Get better at follow-up e-mails from meetings to show gratitude and also to convey that you were actually paying attention in whatever meeting you had. Be disciplined about improving skills you don’t necessarily love. 

Add value where you can and try to do so selflessly. You’re not a parent yet but you hope to be one day: Do you think you’re going to find changing diapers fulfilling? Hell no. Is it valuable to focus on the comfort and wellbeing of your child and to be attentive to ways you can increase that comfort and wellbeing? Hell yes. Details matter and they make a major difference. Grow up and work on the things that deserve your attention whether you find the skill fulfilling or not.

Give credit to the work that you’ve done and the work that you’re doing now. Where you’re at can help you get to where you want to go if you let it, or it can drag you down and get you stuck in a rut. Be forward-focused, but use the value of what you do now as a positive in moving you toward success on your terms. If you make the present the enemy then you’ll be focused on your war with it instead of making allies with your future.