Personal Freedom

I have been avoiding this topic for most of my adult life. Even when I’ve been at my lowest point. Even when I felt the worst. It was just too hard. Too much work.

But wait, let me back up and give you some context. What am I talking about? Sounds serious, right? So, about two years ago I had a mental health crisis. Or at least I thought I had one.

I was having panic attacks. I felt extremely anxious and occasionally depressed. I started drinking more than normal. My world felt like it was closing in on me. And it was. This was all toward the end of summer in 2018. I’ve never felt anything like this before.

After loads of hesitation and some fits and starts, I made an appointment with a therapist. We had the first meeting and I filled out all the assessments. It didn’t take long to figure out what the problem was.

A few months before this appointment, the team I worked on in my job was suddenly disbanded and I was assigned to a new role that I didn’t have the skills or background to succeed in. I was never consulted on this move, I was just told one day that I would be working on this remote team.

Once I was in this new position, it became clear that I was in over my head and that my manager was unable and unwilling to help me in any meaningful way. As the weeks wore on, I started to miss deadlines and my work never seemed to satisfy anyone.

So, it was my job basically. I was panicking because I knew I couldn’t do the job and my family depended on my income. But, there were some other factors as well which contributed to this. Because, as you might guess I could have seen this new role as an exciting opportunity and I could have thrown myself 150% into it. But I didn’t.

There were a lot of other things going on in my life. My wife was just been diagnosed with a serious illness and we were struggling already at home. I had a hobby that was potentially turning into a side gig. We had a young child that was active in an enormous amount of activities. I had almost no time to myself. Most importantly, I never loved my day job. Even before the random reassignment issue.

The most important criteria I had for my job was that it didn’t take too much psychic income so that I had energy left over for pursuits that were important to me. The new assignment threatened that.

My therapist helped guide me through addressing the immediate concern. So I met with my supervisor. I asked for more help. I made suggestions on where my skills might be put to better use. There was some promise. I felt a little better because it seemed like I was taking control back.

The result was that I lost my job. After a promising first meeting with my supervisor, I was ambushed with an ultimatum in my second meeting: agree to leave with a settlement package or stay and master the job in six weeks. There would be no help and no criteria for what “mastering the job” really meant. So I left.

After this happened, I had started to work on figuring out why I was unhappy in my career. The truth is that my original job that I was reassigned from also caused me problems. I never liked it, but I had the skills to do it well and I worked with good people on a solid team. Still, I was often annoyed with myself and felt like I was wasting my talent in a wrong job. Basically, I felt what I later learned 85% of people in corporate jobs felt.

But, after losing my job I was angry and the urgent issue became replacing my income. So I left therapy and didn’t do the self-reflective work that I needed to figure out this nagging question about myself that I had and that I couldn’t run away from.

Things went downhill after this experience. I was lucky to have unemployment and severance, but I didn’t know what to do next. The pressure was on from my family to just get a new job quickly. So I went on job interviews, but I was unfocused because I didn’t know what I really wanted to do. Even though I knew it was irrational, I had lost confidence in myself after losing that job.

So I started to do freelancing here and there. I wrote blog posts for businesses, helped with SEO, and even coded a prototype web app. I worked on a book deal with Apress. None of it was enough, so I supplemented my income with driving for Lyft.

That wasn’t enough either. I was broke, exhausted, and humiliated. And I still didn’t have any answers.

Ultimately, I needed my income back so I took some other advice that I got from my therapist and started to look for jobs at colleges. The theory being that colleges are more humane places to work than corporate offices. Eventually, I found another job which was very much like the original job I had years ago. The whole process took about a year.

This new job has been a major disappointment and the same issues I had in my original job appeared here. The only difference is that the college job has an extremely dysfunctional workplace. And we recently got a new executive director who has changed all of our job functions.

So, I’ve found myself right back to where I started. Working in a mediocre dysfunctional job where I appear to have no control over my situation.

And that is the core of the issue that I’ve been trying to write about here. Because I finally did that difficult self-reflective work that I’ve been putting off all these years.

My self-reflective work came from the book What Color is Your Parachute which makes use of something called the Holland Code. The Holland Code is a set of three attributes that define what type of work you are most attracted too. You can learn your Holland Code by taking an assessment. My therapist basically had one that I could use but you can go online to do this yourself.

My code is ISE which stands for Investigative, Social, and Enterprising. So I’m a problem solver who likes to analyze situations and social situations in particular. I’m also high on Enterprising. These were not much of a surprise to me. After all, I’ve been a programmer, data analyst, mental health counselor, and entrepreneur during different periods of my career.

This scale really focused mainly on skills and I would say that generally speaking I’ve been able to match myself to the correct skill jobs. So I believed that there was more to this story.

But, before I move on to the other topics addressed in the parachute color book I wanted to point out the Holland skills that I DO NOT fit. Because, I think that tells more of the story of my unhappiness in my job.

The three factors I scored low on were Conventional, Realistic, and Artistic. Realistic and Artistic are pretty obvious: one is working with your hands and the other is creating beautiful things. I definitely fall short in these aspects.

Conventional is the problem. People with this score like to fill out checklists, check grammar, are detailed oriented and like to be in a highly structured environment.

All of my data analysis jobs have had a very large C aspect to them. I would categorize them all as either IC or CI jobs. My current job would be a CI. I’ve had other “data analysis” jobs that have been IE (Investigative, Enterprising).

This was the first revelation I had about my current predicament. Where I work now I have to read manuals published by the government and gather data from various sources to fill out surveys. It requires paying attention to loads of nit-picky details. The main skill is remembering where reports are saved so that numbers can be typed out into other reports. It is mainly a Conventional job with the occasional Investigative aspect thrown in.

This is evidence that my current job needs to change and since both the job and the work environment are unacceptable that means that it’s time to start interviewing again.

That is not the whole story though. I think that even if my current job was a little more in line with my skills I would still be unhappy. Skills are only part of the picture. In the parachute book, the author also makes the point that these other things are important: salary, work environment, purpose, and people.

My current job falls short in all of these areas and again, it’s clear what I need to be doing. In previous jobs, salary and people were positive. In the past, I always worked with great people and my salary was on-point.

Some work environments were better than others, but all fell short in one way or another and this is also related to purpose. Purpose is the common denominator where all my jobs have fallen deeply short. Except for one very notable expection.

Purpose. This is the hard one, whenever I’ve come to this point in my life in the past I’ve never really be able to articulate my personal purpose or so-called mission. It’s just not how I’m used to thinking. But, it’s so important. It’s the thing that gets you up in the morning.

It took me weeks to make progress on this. I had clues because there have been times in my life when I loved what I was doing and couldn’t wait to get back to my work. Actually, there were only two times this happened.

The first was at end of an eight-year stint at ETS where I spent a six-month period independently creating a software application that solved problems for my entire department. The second was a six-year time period when I built my online business. My recent FPV drone hobby and the time I spent in college also like this, but these were only semi-professional activities.

The online business. This analysis always comes back to the online business I started in 2008. This was the last time I was truly happy. But, what really ties all these positive experiences together? Is this a clue?

My first stab at my personal mission was insight. It ties data analysis and mental health counseling together. It’s essentially the I and S. But, that felt contrived and neither of those things has been enough.

Then I went to independence. The clue was the ETS app and my time in my business. I was happy because I personally was independent. And it’s true, this type of independence is something that is desperately missing in my life. I do feel that this is a major cause of my unhappiness. However, it that good enough for a life purpose? I think that a life purpose should extend to more than mere self-interest. At the time, I noted this as an essential part of my long-term plan for fulfillment.

But then I thought: why not combine these two things into one concept: Personal Freedom? It sounds cheesy at first, I mean who isn’t into the idea of Freedom? And how many online gurus tout Freedom of one kind or another. In fact, I remember years ago a mentor of mine decided to start down this road of promoting personal freedom and I felt that it was somewhat too obvious.

However, the notion that we can have personal freedom and I can help other people get more personal freedom makes a ton of sense. That is what I worked so hard for in those six years of my business for myself and that is what made all the sacrifice worthwhile. I was in charge of my own destiny. I would like that back and I would like to help other people get more of that.

This notion of personal freedom ties in many of my life themes: psychology and mental health counseling is about removing thoughts that hold people back, data analysis is about providing the insight into a situation so you can be clear and make good choices, teaching skills like programming gave customers choices in their jobs, life-style design was about automating or outsourcing boring tasks so that you are free of them. Personal freedom is about escaping situations that drain your time and energy so that you can focus on what is most important to you.

Personal Freedom is a purpose worthy of my time. Let me restate this more clearly as a mission statement:

My mission is to promote personal freedom by providing the insights, tools, and skills needed to unlock personal independence from the forces that distract and drain energy from you.

Ok. So now what?

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Matt is the author of five Apress books including Learn RStudio IDE, Quick, Effective, and Productive Data Science, Objective-C Recipes, Swift Quick Syntax Reference, Objective-C Quick Reference, and the upcoming Pro Data Visualization with R and JavaScript. He has over 20 years of experience in technology, psychometrics, and data analytics working in major higher education institutions such as The College Board and Educational Testing Service. He has earned a Master’s degree in Information Systems Management and a Bachelor’s degree in Quantitative Psychology.