Volume 30 Number 13
Upstart - The Long Game
By Krishnan Rangachari | December 2015
Early in my career, I tried compulsively to find my “passion.” At first, this passion was coding, until the novelty wore off and my responsibilities grew challenging. I interpreted this unpleasantness to mean my passion lay elsewhere. Over the coming years I switched roles, companies and industries repeatedly, sometimes back and forth. I read innumerable books on careers, took personality tests, spoke to career counselors and interviewed non-stop.
I’d start a new job, fall in love with it, conclude I’d finally found my passion, then (eventually) get bored and switch again.
In retrospect, I’d made discomfort a problem to be fixed, not a stage through which to pass. I realized that my repetitive cycles had only one common denominator (me), and no matter what I fixed, I was eventually unhappy again. I was “passion hunting.” I’d imagined a career with no difficulties and a workplace of unending joy, and when reality conflicted with my fantasy, I’d bolt!
If I wanted a change in my environment to make me happy, I was avoiding taking full responsibility for my own future. For example, I believed that by switching to a start-up, I’d improve my social life because I’d have younger coworkers and develop more friendships. Alas, that was a way for me to avoid working on my own social fears. Instead of facing my character difficulties head-on, I was blaming the company I worked for!
Today, instead of seeking a hit from “doing what I love,” I abide in the possibility that I’m already there. Finding my passion isn’t a one-time event, it’s not even a one-job or one-career event—it’s a lifelong process of self development by “loving what I do.”
I’ve given myself permission to have different careers and jobs over time. When I see my career choices as all-or-nothing, make-it-or-break-it moments, I burden myself emotionally and allow zero room for error. At work, I set a loftier goal not focused on myself—say, to serve my customers and coworkers—independent of whatever role or industry I’m in. If I make any changes along the way, I’m not accepting defeat; I’m just growing.
In one of my first jobs, I quickly burned out from working 60- to 80-hour weeks. I worked myself to such numbness that I could recover only by quitting altogether. I wasted months in a haze of helpless unproductivity, as my body attempted to recover from the intensity of years of overwork.
I had defined myself by my own assumptions about what it meant to be a Real Programmer. I’d heard of start-up execs who wouldn’t go home for days, and engineers who’d ignore their families, only to achieve grand IPOs years later. I saw anything less than such commitment as a failure.
Over time, I healed the burnout by not looking to work as my only savior. Today, I go to spiritual retreats, cultivate hobbies, take self-development classes, develop close relationships, journal, mentor, get mentored, spend time in nature, take naps, meditate, read and hike. Each of these fills a need that work by itself can’t fill.
I also look to early indicators (for example, getting angry at loved ones, zoning out or feeling down) as reminders for me to take a “gentleness break.” I initially felt self-conscious in taking care of myself—leaving work on time, not working on weekends or evenings, or removing work IM from my phone—because I was surrounded by so many coworkers who didn’t engage in self-care.
As I’ve seen positive results—peace and joy, promotions and rewards, productivity—I realize I’m playing the long game, not just for work but for all areas of my life. When I take care of myself and avoid burnout, I’m just recharging so that I can make better, more consistent contributions—to work, family and friends—for the next six decades, not just for the next six months.
Krishnan Rangachari is the career coach for hackers. Visit radicalshifts.com to download his free career success kit.