This article originally appeared in The Tennessean.
A couple of weeks ago our youngest kid graduated from high school.
It was a perfect day. Outside underneath a big tent, the ceremony was both traditional and unique. There was a feeling of excitement, pride, and nostalgia that had parents simultaneously smiling and crying as our kids walked across the stage.
With all the trials and tribulations that everyone goes through from their first day of kindergarten until the moment they receive a diploma, the pomp and circumstance of a graduation ceremony feels like the perfect way to celebrate a job well-done.
As our kid walked proudly across the stage, celebrated by family and friends, I couldn’t help thinking about my own graduation (from the same high school) over 30 years ago.
I remembered feeling the finality of an accomplishment after years of hard work. It felt like a victory lap that marked a clear line in the sand where one goal had been achieved and another was about to start.
In school, beginnings, endings, and success were well-defined.
But from there, as you make your way into the work world, things become fuzzier. The closest thing to a graduation ceremony is a retirement party. But with careers spanning 40 years or more, it’s hard to compare the two.
Without the clarity of test scores and grades, and without the clear finish line that a graduation ceremony represents, in a job, it can sometimes be hard to tell exactly what you’re aiming for.
I remember struggling with this in my mid-30s. Working day and night, I was determined to be successful. But at some point, I realized that I had no idea what that meant. I found myself missing the measurable goals and on-the-horizon finish line that motivated me when I was in school.
I asked a few friends if they were feeling the same way. As expected, the answers were all over the board.
My friends who worked in jobs that clearly made the world a better place seemed motivated by the obvious good they were doing for others. Healthcare workers, artists, non-profit professionals, and teachers—these jobs seemed incredibly hard, but the successes they could celebrate along the way were very well-defined, like getting straight A’s in school.
But for others, like myself, defining success was much harder. Most of us said we wanted to be successful financially, but even that was difficult to put a number on.
Discouraged, I realized that in order to stay motivated, I needed to understand the purpose of my work beyond a paycheck. I found myself needing a reason to work hard just like I had a reason to study hard in school.
After some soul searching, I determined that for me, the reasons I work come down to:
- Solving complex problems with smart friends. I realized that despite being an introvert at heart, solving tech and business problems with a group of people I liked gave me great satisfaction.
- Providing myself and others with the freedom to manage our own time. I wanted to build a workplace where everyone had the flexibility to manage their time in the way they see fit. This made me feel like I was making a difference in other people’s lives.
- Having the inner confidence to know I am an expert at something interesting. I’ve not yet achieved this, but it’s helped me stay motivated.
- Doing something different. I enjoy having a unique path.
The transition from life in school to life at work is not an easy one. It took me some time to realize this. My hope for the 2022 graduates is that they will create their own definition of success, and their own milestones to celebrate, and that those successes and milestones happen long before retirement.
JJ Rosen is the founder of Atiba, a Nashville custom software development and IT support company. Visit www.atiba.com or www.atibanetworkservices.com for more info.