One of my most-viewed posts is “The Privilege of Existential Ennui,” written in September 2009. It’s the largest single driver of traffic to this blog from search engines, despite its modest length. In it, I mused that:
Part of me still vacillates between tiredness and motivation, between melancholy at what might have been, and zeal for what might yet be. I’m not yet ready to accept the prospect of a plump wife with 2.3 kids and a used minivan in the suburbs. Maybe I’m condemning myself to perpetual unhappiness. Or perhaps I’m prudently refusing to settle for mediocrity, and that my day will eventually come.
Interesting. I understand where I was, emotionally, at that point in my life: I found myself frustrated at why the Jason of the real world and the Jason of my mental world weren’t the same person, because I didn’t believe myself subject to any external constraints upon the range of life options then available to me.
Yet much of that angst has evaporated over the last six years, mostly because I’ve since accepted several encumbrances that, while not impervious to slicing, nevertheless offer real value to me. So my thinking has pivoted on several very big things. For example, I’ve transitioned from treating my employment as just a job, inherently fungible, to now valuing it as a career within the healthcare-quality industry, with a logical progression leading toward retirement. Likewise, I’ve largely cleaned up my financial act, such that I pay the bills on time and don’t make dumb choices about large purchases. And I’ve launched a whole different side career as CEO of Caffeinated Press, an enterprise that’s not just “me in the basement,” but includes real products and services and real colleagues in a real office with real invoices and taxes and contractual obligations.
So the interesting question, perhaps, isn’t why so many people feel purposeless, as I speculated in 2009. Rather, the question is why so may opt against anchoring their lives in a way that leads to long-term happiness and success.
The generalized ennui that characterized my late 20s and early 30s has long since vanished. In its place, I run a mile a minute on various projects. Between the day job, the night job, service in professional associations and sundry hobbies, I am not at a loss for things to do. And, significantly, the things I do, I find useful and rewarding. So in 2015 I have ties — a career, a car payment, cats, a mostly different cast of friends, a podcast, a small business — that I didn’t have in 2009. I recently reflected, in fact, at how many of the useless bad habits I used to enjoy faded from my life, displaced by tasks supporting a series of annual life goals.
Once upon a time, I believed that the key to success in life was keeping your options open. Although I still see the value in keeping more than one door propped wide, the problem with keeping all the doors open is that you cannot ever get far enough along a path of specialization that you develop an identity more substantive than “jack of all trades.” Perhaps the source of existential ennui isn’t the purposelessness I shared six years ago. Perhaps, instead, it’s rooted in a deep-seated fear of being just another blank face in the crowd — or worse, of seeing how blank your face is and instead of fixing it, you retreat into that tiny foothold of autonomy you have left, elevating it as a virtue when it’s merely a security blanket.
The only way to stand out in the sea of humanity is to be excellent at something. And that excellence requires diligent work and many long hours of dues-paying. If you’re disaffected, you might not pay those dues. You might keep your options open. But such a path is not with emotional cost.