Michael asks: What brings you happiness in your life?
Well, it isn’t the number 42. In the end it turns out, at least for me, to be what they always say it is – do what you love, in service to others.
In a very general sense for me, happiness comes from achieving challenging goals. As a kid even my own family told me constantly I would never amount to anything so I never aspired to much. But I had a manager once who challenged his team to be the best in the world at what we did. It had never before occurred to me that i could be “the best in the world” at anything, except perhaps failing. But I took up the challenge and am now not the best in the world in my profession but recognized as being one of the best. That required repeatedly setting what seemed at the time almost unattainable goals and then smashing through them.
In a more specific sense, I love solving logic puzzles. This is fortunate because as a programmer I became really good at writing and debugging computer code. Later I moved up from code to analyzing whole systems of code and business processes and being able to find where they are weak or where they break. In fact, figuring out how to break stuff is the closest thing I have to an Aspie savant talent. Might as well do a job where breaking stuff is a good thing and people want to give you money for doing it.
I also like helping people. Perhaps I was warped by childhood as an undiagnosed Aspie because helping people was one of the ways I kept from getting beat up in school. I could make them laugh which got me out of a few scrapes, but doing their homework made them a bit dependent on me and kept the worst of the bullying down. But however it came about, I have a deep-seated and strong preference to leave the world better than it was when I got here.
Combine those passions for solving puzzles and for serving others and it turns out that programming and systems analysis is a way to do something I love and be paid well for it. Doing what I am passionate about has always made me happy, even at the beginning when I was just getting started and there wasn’t a lot of money in it. That it eventually turned out to pay well brought more stability and more opportunities, but those alone would not provide happiness if I was doing something I hated.
In fact, on 3 occasions I’ve left good jobs because of ethical conflicts. In the most recent case, I left IBM to become an independent consultant and didn’t have any customers lined up to hire me when I resigned. All I knew was that IBM’s design for Internet of Things gives more of your data to vendors and we are already at the point where that is harming people. I couldn’t make it worse by selling more of the same and I wasn’t able to convince IBM to change their corporate strategy and do it my way, so I left.
In the end, the feeling of being able to survive any hardship (and there have been many over the years that seemed catastrophic at the time) has given me the confidence to take a risks in pursuit of attaining goals. That means things others see as hardship often look a lot more like opportunity to me. I find that seeing hardship as opportunity is a key component of happiness.
So even when my family was just getting started, and we weren’t making a lot of money, and both kids were diagnosed with diabetes while in pre-school, and we couldn’t keep our two beater cars repaired and on the road at the same time, I was still happy. We took each challenge in stride, and over many years solved more of those challenges than were thrown at us. They often arrived faster than we could solve them – and sometimes still do – but we just prioritized them, kept working at them relentlessly, and tried to do it in good humor.
I’ll add one other thing, and that is I try to live in the present moment. There are many decisions in my life that led to permanent damage emotionally or physically. Like the homemade rocket that blew off a finger and almost killed me. Or times when I indulged my temper and deliberately tried, often successfully, to hurt another person. I cannot undo these decisions and if I dwelled on them I could make myself very unhappy and they could ruin my life. The best possible outcome of having made bad choices or done bad things is to learn from them so I do not repeat them, make amends wherever possible, and to double down on my efforts to help others and leave a net-positive footprint on the world.
Happiness is both a choice, and a discipline. It requires deliberately deciding to be happy with the cards life has dealt, that’s the choice. The discipline is to make that choice every day until it becomes ingrained.