Confessions of a Significance Addict
“Disenchantment, whether it is a minor disappointment or a major shock, is the signal that things are moving into transition in our lives.” – William Throsby Bridges
I found myself at the age of 34, just having achieved one of the biggest milestones in my life and yet I was not happy. Why? I had just passed the final CPA (Chartered Professional Accountant) exam known as the CFE. It is an incredibly challenging 3-day exam with a 30% failure rate and I had worked my ass off for six years to get to this point. I should have been ecstatic, but I wasn’t and at that time I did not understand why.
I had spent the past six years having gone back to school after walking away from my high-paying, secure job with the railway to get a degree in business and work towards my CPA designation. During that same time, my wife and I welcomed three incredible little girls into our lives. It had been an exciting ride for us ever since I left my job driving freight trains to pursue a different career path, but now I had settled into the monotony of a job that entailed sitting in a cubicle and staring at a computer screen for the majority of my day. It was not just work I was unhappy with either. My wife and I had lost the passion that we had once had in our marriage, and I had been telling myself that this is just how it must be for all couples once they have kids. And finally I was not being the dad that I knew I wanted to be for our daughters.
I did not realize it back then but looking back now I can see that all these issues were connected and caused by me valuing the wrong things in my life. One of the concepts that really helped me understand the root of my unhappiness was “The Six Human Needs.” Really simply put, everything that we do as people is to satisfy one of six human needs and the two needs that we value most in life become the driving force, determining how we live.
(If you are interested in learning more about the six human needs, here is a great explanation of them: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/240441)
The Pursuit of Certainty and Significance
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” -Richard P. Feynman
I think it was the fact that I grew up in a family that did not have much money that caused me to focus so much on financial security as a young man. After watching my parents struggle financially, I made a conscious decision that I would never let that happen to me.
I remember being embarrassed about the 1984 Jetta that my parents drove. The car was old, ugly, and it sounded like a tractor. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, while waiting to be picked up from high school, we could hear the Jetta coming from a mile away and my friends would let me know it. My mom, like any good mother would do, lied to the school district about where we lived. She told them that we lived at my uncles’ address, so that I could get into a high school in a better neighbourhood. I remember being the only kid in that school that lived in an apartment building. In that small two-bedroom apartment in Surrey, I shared a room with my sister until I was 20 years old. I was embarrassed to invite friends over because of where we lived.
Now looking back I realize these were clearly first world problems, but at the time it was hard for me as a young man. My parents sacrificed a lot to provide opportunities for my sister and me. By not spending money on a new car or a fancy house they were able to pay for me to play ice hockey and my sister was able to pursue competitive swimming. Still, I could not help but compare myself to other kids who I felt had it better than me and it led me to feelings of insignificance. I started to think that having money would make me feel significant.
I eventually realized that I had to get out of my parents’ apartment, so I found the quickest route to money and freedom that I could think of. I took a four-month railway conductor course and hired on with CN Rail. I moved to Northern B.C. and found the freedom and financial security that I had been looking for. I did not know it at the time, but I had been seeking significance and certainty more than anything else.
Railway conductors get paid well and I just kept saving as much as I could from each pay cheque. I felt satisfied when I looked at my bank account, knowing that I did not have to worry about money. It gave me a feeling of significance to be making more money than most of my friends and family and it gave me the certainty that I would not have to worry about finances the way my parents did when I was younger.
Five years into my railroad career I had great seniority and was driving trains as a locomotive engineer. I was even able to hold one of the most sought-after jobs, which was working on the west pool (driving trains from Smithers to Prince Rupert). The senior guys were telling me, “you’ve got it made kid. You are going to be riding the west pool until you retire.” I thought about the idea of driving trains back and forth on that same stretch of track for the next 30 years of my life. I remember thinking “I know I am capable of doing so much more in this life!” And “Is this really the best use of my talents and gifts?”
I had been valuing significance and certainty above all else for the first 10 years of my adult life and it had led me to pursue money as a way of meeting those needs.
Searching for Significance Through Achievement
“If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.” – Stephen R. Covey
In my mid-twenties, I no longer had to worry about money, but inside I still felt insignificant in other people’s eyes. It was like here I was earning over $100,000 a year with no education simply because I was a member of a strong union and hired on at the right time. I felt as though people did not view me as intelligent or worth listening to because I had no post-secondary education and no real skills that would be useful outside of working on freight trains. I realize this was all in my head, but a big reason for me leaving the railway eight years ago, to go back to college was because I wanted to be significant in other people’s eyes. I wanted other people to view me as being intelligent and successful and working on freight trains was not giving me that.
If you would have asked me back then, I probably would have said that I was valuing connection with God and other people most of all, but I can see now that it was not the case. Wanting to feel significant was what led me to leave my career on the railway to pursue a business degree and the CPA designation.
It was hard for me to give up the sense of certainty that having a secure job with the railway provided. It didn’t help that many of those around me were telling me I was a fool or an idiot for leaving such a lucrative career with a great pension. Looking back I am so glad I did leave because of the incredible journey it has taken me on. Trading the big pay cheques for the life of a poor student was not easy, especially considering that my wife and I were starting a family at the same time, but the growth that I experienced going back to college at the age of 29 was incredible and made me feel more fulfilled in life. It confirmed for me that I had much more potential than I was utilizing in my job on the railway, but deep down I was thinking that if I became a CPA, then people would view me as successful and they would value my opinion. When I left CN, I remember telling people that I wanted a more challenging and fulfilling career. That was true, but what I did not realize then is that what I was really seeking was to be significant.
“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” -Blaise Pascal
Looking back now and understanding what was motivating my decisions, I cannot help but wonder how many others out there are chasing something because they hope it will give them a feeling of significance in other people’s eyes. How many of us are pursuing career advancement, achievements, or material things because we feel they will make other people think more highly of us?
I have also realized that my fear of uncertainty and the fear of losing my financial security kept me from making changes that I needed to make in my life. I wonder how many other people out there are allowing their fear of uncertainty to keep them from living a life that truly makes them happy. When you find yourself pursuing something in life, ask yourself “deep down why do I really want this?” or “what need am I trying to fulfill by doing this?”
Having the self-awareness now to realize why I pursued money and achievement has enabled me to transform the way I live my life. I have been able to let go of my fear of uncertainty and my desire to be significant in other people’s eyes. It has enabled me to be more vulnerable as I no longer worry what others think of me. My relationship with my wife is healthier and more passionate than ever and I have become so much more present as a father.
I am consciously aware now that what I really want in life is connection with God and with other people. I have also realized that deep down I have a strong desire to positively impact other people’s lives. I want my life to be driven by a sense of purpose and contribution. And I want to inspire others to life a life worthy of what they were created for.
I believe deep down that I have so much more to offer the world then what I have been doing in the last five years working as an accountant. And I believe the same about every single one of us. So, whether you are in a cubicle, plunking numbers into Excel spreadsheets or driving locomotives on long-haul freight trips and hitting that yellow banana button over and over again, I believe that there is so much more potential inside of you that the world needs to see.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this post and if you know of anyone in your life who could benefit from reading this, then I encourage you to share it with them.
To get more inspirational content as well as tips and strategies to help you create a life that fills you with passion and purpose, follow me on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/tomlcoaching