I’m still waking up almost every night around 3AM to the sound of my own thoughts humming in the engine of my brain. It’s the one major side effect to the Lexapro that I experience — this hour of nightly insomnia. My brain spins for an hour and then finally seems to relent, allowing me to sleep again from 4 to 7:30 or so.
Last night the subject of the spinning was unused potential.
The most common thing that teachers used to write about me in grade school evaluations was something along the lines of “J. is overflowing with intellect and sensitivity, he has a lot of potential.”
I scored in the top 99% of statewide tests across the board. I hit 1480 on the SATs back in 1994 when that score meant something. I went to a top 20 college and mostly applied myself there, too, getting all As in my major (computer science) and mostly As in my other classes. I got a decent job out of college and have been steadily employed from 1999 to the present. My second employer emphasized they hired me based on what they saw as “what I could become in 5-10 years with the company.” A powerhouse, a sheet of human bedrock for the IT team.
I did OK at that job but every time they asked me to work a lot of overtime — to “tap my potential” by working on special projects, like writing code to automate application deployment — I tapped out. I said no. I wouldn’t work for free. I didn’t find the work to be meaningful enough to do it on what I considered to be my own time, and they kept me busy enough during the workdays that I couldn’t do the “extra” stuff on company time.
I could have done better career wise but when I have held positions with a lot of power and authority — I disengage, I become disinterested, I burn out.
I say things to myself like well I want to be more well rounded, I want to read and exercise in my free time.
Or what is the fucking point of this? For example I worked for a software startup that tried to make certain aspects of banking more cost efficient. I was on the executive team, I coded, I did a little bit of everything because it was a startup. They wanted everyone cranking 70 hours a week. When I go above 40 I get burnt out, start questioning everything. At this job the questions were like: Why should I do all of this extra work — for banking? To help banks save money and get richer? To help other people on the executive team get rich off stock options if this company winds up being successful? How is this good for humanity? It’s not, this is just about greed.
I couldn’t find a way to feel good about either of those things, so my motivation went into the tubes. I had to quit that job. My potential went unused.
I’ve always had the feeling I should be doing something else. I wish I could get this feeling to go away. I still feel like I have this secret hidden energy to … to what? what is it?
I don’t know. To be somebody. I don’t feel that I am anybody. We’re taught in America to seek greatness. Hustle, have ambition, create your brand, get yourself out there, be social and extroverted and successful. Always look for the next step, the next rung on the ladder.
I saw the next rung and said no, I don’t want that rung. I didn’t want to ascend to the same floor as the executives who just care about nice things all the time, nice houses and nice vacations and nice pelaton bikes and the very best television.
But now I wonder if those people were right. They’re richer than me now, the people who kept striving and hustling and thriving, getting promoted, always seeking the next opportunity.
Sure, I’m more well rounded — I’ve read more, I’m fit whereas many of those dudes are out of shape because all they do is work — I’m a decent cook, I can do all sorts of things around the house, I enjoy spending time with my wife — we don’t have a merely transactional relationship — I can write a little bit, I can play some guitar, I have (or at least used to have) actual hobbies.
But did I mention how much richer they are? They also don’t appear to have the same problems with regard to identity that I have. My friend A, for example, is one of a hundred directors of sales at (big tech company). He banks 350 a year. He is married and has 4 kids. Between those three facts lies his entire identity. He has never once said gee it might be fun to form a band or hey, listen to my idea for the next Great American Novel. Being rich and having a family was his dream, he achieved it, and he continues to go out there and make more money, hustle, buy stuff, brag, buy more stuff (last summer it was a cottage on Lake Winnipesaukee — fun fact, Mitt Romney also has a house on that lake.) He simply doesn’t have the existential chatter that fills my head at 3AM. It’s .. not there. What keeps him up at night is having to pay 30K a year for college for his oldest kid and knowing that there are three more kids that will soon be there — knowing he needs to keep hustling and striving so he can foot the bill for his other kids too — knowing that the car he drives matters because he’s in sales and people look up to him, knowing that the house and lifestyle matters because when he has a co-worker over for dinner they’re all judging him and comparing him.
My wife Jennie thinks that having a baby will help with my own overthinking issues. She thinks we’ll be so busy caring for the kid that I just won’t have the time or energy to devote to existential questions. It’s hard to think about your unused potential when you’re struggling to do the minimum to care for your family and get through each individual day’s unexpected challenges and work. And the job — my career — may automatically become more meaningful for me if I have a kiddo because I’ll feel I really need the money to help raise them.
Besides, during the only period in my life when I had extended time off work — a 6 month stretch after breaking up with my first serious long-term partner of 15 or so years — I did absolutely nothing with it. I drank, I exercised, I played guitar and League of Legends online for hours and hours — I wasn’t that social — I didn’t achieve a fucking thing. I lacked imagination and drive — I tried, a few times, to sit down and write — to really write — for hours and hours and hours, that was my goal. I read books on how to write fiction, how to get published, how to make your paragraphs sing, how to create good characters — but then didn’t write much of anything myself. It was easier to turn on my computer, launch League of Legends, and play a few games with friends. Or strangers. Or computer-bots. Anything but pursue my own dreams — it was too hard. I had no coherent vision and no mentor, no cheerleaders in my life, no encouragement in this area. Working is better — there’s day to day incentive to do it, real payoffs — paycheck, health care, your manager saying “good job, that work was great, now do some more of it.” Social interactions. Writing is going into a dark room and sitting by yourself day after day and not getting a damned thing out of it. It felt just as pointless as anything else in my life — as pointless as working “unpaid overtime” for company projects did.
My main conclusion was: If you aren’t going to achieve anything, you might as well work a soulless job and make decent money.
And although I still think that conclusion is fundamentally correct, I have to add that the soullessness catches up to you. It’s hard to ignore how hollow things sometimes feel.