How “Progress” Without “Purpose” Robs You of Happiness

Let me start by owning my junk – I have taken the bribe I’m about to unpack in this story. I don’t want you to think, “Oh boy … here’s another ‘expert’ (who happens to pastor a church) come to tell me how little I understand my own life.”

No, I’m a sucker in recovery, a former slave to the grind, with an in-remission chemical dependency on the not-so-almighty dollar. For several years of my life, I savored the sweet-sounding lie that I’d “made it.” I was a successful entrepreneur with a great income, living it up in sunny SoCal

Some people end up shipwrecked, chasing this illusion. For me it was worse … it actually worked! I became very successful and accomplished in the healthcare industry. I knew how to sell … so much so that I became an expert-for-hire to companies looking to raise the bar.

I don’t think I’d have admitted it at the time, but my behavior made clear – on the inside, I was a train wreck waiting to happen. I was prone to anger and anxiety, which I doused with meaningless entertainment to squelch my soul’s cry for help. 

“But, at least, we could pay the bills.”

I’d rather have gone broke finding peace on the inside, but I learned an important lesson from going through this. We get offered a lot of “bribes” in life. None of them are good, but especially the ones that work. Talk about getting lulled into a false sense of security!

Why Bribes That Work Aren’t Any Better

When things actually work, and money floods your checking account, the first thing that happens to us is we become aware of choices we previously couldn’t make. Now I can buy that home I’ve always wanted, you might think. Or you might say, Now I can quit my job.

For me, it sounded more like, “Now I can relax and enjoy life.” That’s a whopper … some people work their entire adult lives, at jobs they hate, to be able to do that in retirement. But when they finally get there, they find themselves unable to relax, or enjoy life. Their insides are hollow, because they’ve spent decades neglecting them.

And so it went … the more financially successful and stable I became, the more unstable I became on the inside, until a co-worker’s suicide and the terror of the Route 91 concert shooting shook me out of my sleep on October 1, 2017. I didn’t know what to do with the pure emotional tension and imbalance … but I knew I could no longer hide in my “successful, nice little life.”

What didn’t make sense immediately was how my occupation, which brought such financial fulfillment, could be “bad” for me. Not “bad” in the sense of forcing me into ethical or moral compromise … but by misaligning with my true purpose.

I had to go on a journey to understand the entirety of my life, as a succession of stories, building on one another. Once I learned to connect the dots, based on my formative experiences, I realized that I pursued money and success to “prop up” my false self – the guy who just wanted to live for pleasure, distraction and self.

More than anything else, that awful night in Las Vegas made clear to me that my quiet, suburban, pleasure-seeking life wasn’t going to cut it. Have you ever had a moment like that, where you were just trying to mind your own business, be a “productive citizen” and arrange for a little fun on the side?

Our culture feeds us some rotten messages about this, from every source you can imagine. We keep trying to keep each other in a neat little box. Plenty of people rebel against it, but I felt more like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son – the guy who stayed loyal, did everything he was supposed to and it still wasn’t enough.

So What Do We Do About Work?

The first question I’d ask is this: Do you consider your professional role a “job,” or a “career”?

Be careful how you answer. I considered my professional role as a sales coach a “career.” It was a business I owned, complete with public speaking, a podcast and blog. I was skilled at it, and enjoyed seeing it work for my clients. How could that not be a career?

Well, I had to identify whether I followed my true passion – which is people. That’s why I pastor a church in my spare time, because I care deeply about people’s hearts and souls. You can, of course, do that in the process of being a sales coach. It’s not exclusive to ministry.

But there wasn’t room for that in the model I’d created to coach sales teams, especially when their employers were money-hungry corporate entities that just wanted “more, more, more.” I couldn’t invest the time and energy I wanted into the people I coached, because that would have taken away from time on the phones making sales.

Do you see what a bribe this was? “Just shut up and teach them to make money, that’ll solve everything.” I over-simplify it, but that’s the length of attention any of us wanted to pay to the hearts and minds of people we taught.

Now, any business worth its salt obviously needs to earn money and make a profit. But the second thing I’d ask is, “Do your personal values align with those of your business?

Could you list out your personal values, and then square them against the values of the company you work for, or the business you own? More importantly, does anyone involved actually have values they live by? A lot of people and companies have them listed somewhere, and never give them a passing glance.

Your values reflect what you most deeply care about, and if your profession doesn’t somehow contribute to them, you’ll feel disconnected. You might be very good at what you do, but progress without purpose leaves you hollow inside. 

One popular example of this in recent history is Sting, the lead singer of The Police. In their heyday of 1977-1984, the band became very commercially successful. They’d never had it so good … and Sting discovered that it did not soothe his internal pain or frustration. He left to pursue a solo career at the peak of the group’s success.

Finally, I would ask, “Does your professional life contribute to or compete with your personal life?” This is the most obvious question, the one Hollywood likes to use the most. Does what you do for a living “enhance” what life is like for the people you live with? Or do they have to fight and beg for your attention?

I wouldn’t describe my career prior to 2017 this way, except to say that no amount of success or compensation I got from giving it my best shot helped. I still faced anger, anxiety, depression and unresolved pain that marketplace success couldn’t cure. I know this for sure: working harder, longer hours would not have changed a thing.

In fact, it would have made it worse. I didn’t need a better balance between my personal and professional life … I needed a new professional life that aligned with my values! If coaching sales teams had been enough for me, the transformation I’ve gone through since then wouldn’t have been necessary.

If any of this rings your bell, you might be the right kind of person to consider Foundations.

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