Expectations, reality, and happiness

A Facebook friend posted a link to this item about career satisfaction and happiness. I agree that there has been a change in people’s satisfaction with their jobs, but I think there’s probably more to it than the writer suggests.

The “American Dream”, by definition, can’t be more than about 230 years (say, ten generations) old. Certainly echoes of the Great Depression are still present today, though muted. My parents were born in the later 1930s, but my mother-in-law has memories of her girlhood in rural Nebraska, no electricity, and flour-sack dresses, during the Dust Bowl.

My parents are a little too old to have been hippies, a decade too old to be boomers. I’m technically a boomer, born 50 years ago, but at the very tail end and, as the oldest in my family, a little bit off that demographic.

So, my relationship to work and career has been atypical. Actually, most people who know me would say I’m just generally atypical. I am so fortunate to be able to do a job I really enjoy and get paid for it.

I enjoyed chemistry in high school, took it again in college, and just kept on going. It helped that I got shut out of intro Econ until it was too late to major in it, and that I got way over my head in History classes by taking a junior-level class as a freshman. (There was a Rhodes scholar in that class, for heaven’s sake.)

After college I went to grad school. The summer between college & grad school I had an industry internship which pretty well persuaded me that I didn’t want to do that. I enjoyed being a TA more than researching, as my thesis advisor would surely agree. So teaching was both an easy choice and one that, as it turned out, I’m reasonably competent at.

For quite a few of those years, I was unconsciously or consciously striving for my dad’s approval (which I am now pleased to have earned!) and following in his footsteps.

All this is a way of saying, for at least this one atypical case, there’s a hell of a lot more to career choices than the cold calculus of getting a good income. I certainly fit the “liberal education as important to the satisfying life” model, as well as the “career in science pays well” model and the “follow your dreams” model.

As for the self-esteem movement? Well, that’s mostly since my era. So the “everything’s great, you’re great, and the world owes you recognition” mindset isn’t mine. I’ve made my peace with being relatively obscure. I have had a trivial impact on thousands of chemistry students and a significant impact on a few. I’ve grown and improved in my abilities, partly as a rookie teacher and partly thanks to great professional development opportunities in the last half-dozen years.

Do I think the world owes me a living? No. Am I glad I don’t have to live by subsistence agriculture? Yes. (See yesterday’s post.)

Back to the context of the articles that inspired today’s post. I have had times when my career has been below expectations, but only one summer when I was truly unemployed, and that was productive in a different way. Right now, my career is above expectations (which might be lower than they once were, but also more realistic!)

So, am I happy? Pretty much, yeah. Good job, good family, at peace with myself. Always room for improvement both in the career and in the self. But without room for growth, what is there to look forward to?

I wrote before about decisions and how, though there could have been other choices, I am OK with how the choices I’ve made have shaped who I am now. I think, if you can say that you are satisfied with your life as it is, and can still see areas for improvement, maybe you’ve hit a happy balance between the dual frustrations of ambition and stagnation.


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