The author realizes it’s not about what you do, but who you are.
Mood music for this post: “We’re in This Together” by Nine Inch Nails:
I used to have stupid ideas about how to measure a person’s worth. And when I say stupid, I mean STUPID. In my warped mind, you were nobody if you didn’t have a big important career. Then I slowly learned that it’s the overachievers like me that cause the most trouble.
It’s a not-so-surprising tick in the brain for someone with OCD and other flavors of mental illness: You feel like you have to do something big to prove your worth as a human being. In my case, it was to become a big journalist.
The guys who filled boxes with shoe orders in my father’s warehouse, the old high school chum who went on to manage a drug store; the other friend who can never seem to settle into a job and stay there: I always thought I was bigger than they were.
It’s a funny thing OCD does to you: Your mind spins with worry, fear and anxiety that in turn leads to episodes of depression and a life of addictive behavior.
I’ve always carried a huge ego. I’m the first to admit that humility isn’t one of my strong suits. I’m working on it, because as a Christian that’s what I need to do. I’ve always been a better talker than listener. I still need to work on that.
Achieving big things is one of the ways we try to fill in that hole that’s always dogging us. In my profession, getting access to the major power players of information security is a rush. I feel like I am somebody as a result. When I don’t make it to a big security conference, the wheels in my head start spinning. I start to worry that by not being there, I become irrelevant.
When I make it someplace and score, like the time I was able to corner Bob Woodward of Washington Post/Watergate fame at a conference in Florida four years ago, I can be insufferable for months. In that encounter, Woodward was there to deliver a keynote on the state of security. His forte was the larger war on terror and how the Bush White House was waging it. He needed to bone up on the IT aspect and started asking me about antivirus and firewalls, and whether those things really work. Later, during the Q&A part of his keynote, when someone asked him a cybersecurity question, he mentioned that he had talked to a fellow earlier (me) who mentioned that the emerging trend was toward a quiet, sneaky brand of attack. My ego boiled and rose. I told EVERYBODY about it.
Today, when I write what I think is a good article, I promote it nonstop. That’s part of my job, of course. If you don’t promote it no one will read it. But I do it with an uber-sized dose of zeal. I’m sure more than a few people on Facebook have unfriended me because of it, and I’m fine with that.
God has a funny way of teaching me a lesson. Eleven years ago my big dream was to be an editor at The Eagle-Tribune. I got there, but most of my tenure was marred by a deepening mental illness. To top it off, the environment there is not good for someone who needs constant praise to feel like he’s a real human being. It could be a viper pit. In hindsight, I worked with great people. But back then, I was looking for anyone I could blame for my unhappiness so I wouldn’t have to face that most of the blame was mine.
I’ve learned that it’s not what we do that makes or breaks us. it’s WHO we are. Take Gretchen Putnam, managing editor of The Eagle-Tribune. The woman led the team that won a Pulitzer Prize. But when I think of her, I think more about what a great Mom she is to her three children. My wife’s talents as an editor, organizer and blogger tower over my own skills. But when I think of her, which is pretty much all day, every day, I think of the woman who glued me together when I was falling apart and who deserves most of the credit for the compassion and intelligence my sons have developed.
My Father-In-Law has been a truck driver all his life. I used to think of that as a lesser profession. But he raised four beautiful daughters and has been there for his family through thick and thin. The man has a heart like no other. My Mother-in-Law works at McDonald’s and is shy to the core, but she has a silent peace about her that just calms you down in her presence. She doesn’t have to say anything to put you at ease.
Then there’s my cousin Melanie. I’ve teased her a lot over the years because she told me she had no real ambition to do anything but watch TV her whole life. But here’s the thing: She’s been there for everyone in her family. She doesn’t judge you. And she will always make you laugh — even if it’s at her own expense. To be honest, I don’t care what she does for a living. She never needed a career to be a force on this Earth and make a difference.
As for the guys in my Dad’s warehouse, they toil away for many hours a day on tasks I always thought were beneath me. But they always understood what I could never grasp as a 19-year-old punk: That their Faith and family were priority one. They were providing for wives and children who in some cases were still in their home countries. That’s all that mattered.
All these people figured out the key to Heaven long before I did. I’m still not sure I’ve earned my keep in that department.
But this much I do know: They have all taught me something about myself and about what it takes to be a better person. We’re all in this life together, and helping each other is what counts.