Self forgiveness & finding a cause
The last few months have felt transformative, and I’ll be as honest about the journey as I can. But, like Tarantino, to make sense of it for you I’ll first have to rewind a bit.
I’ve been disillusioned about aspects of my work for some time, and it’s on and off led to a sort of despondence in my day-to-day.
It became clearest to me when I’d talk to family on the phone and my wife Terri would have all kinds of exciting stories to tell about what she’d been working on that week, and then inevitably family would ask, “How about Brian?”
The feeling that would stir was essentially, “Sigh… I was trying to relax and get out of the work mindset and don’t really want to talk about this.”
I felt that several times before it really sank in that you can have a long day where you’re tired, sure. But if it’s consistently the case where even having to talk about your work triggers negative emotions (such that you feel like you’re purely humoring the person asking to even reply), well, that says something particular about the work.
Is it a sense of monotony or a nagging feeling that making a business’ phone ring more often is, in a big picture sense, accomplishing little? I didn’t know the answer to that.
It’s a curious feeling to have at 35, simultaneously what seems like a terrible time to change careers and the perfect time to do it.
Exploring that rabbit hole was pretty illuminating. It’s not to say that I won’t ultimately make a change, but highlighting other careers that seemed interesting and asking myself what specifically about each one was most endearing revealed a lot about my own values.
Some of the options were more ego-driven than I’d expected, yet others were tied so strongly to sowing meaningfully into the world that the path forward felt singular. In a positive way.
Previously I’d entertained being a doctor, joining the army, being a detective, and even becoming a musician. At a glance these things never seemed to have anything to do with each other, but it strikes me now that the common thread is the direct effect each path has on others. Healing others, defending others, finding justice for others, or simply enriching others emotionally.
“Is there a way to mold what I’m currently doing into something that is more in service of others?” seemed to be a question tapping consistently at the door.
When I started The SEOptimist in 2017 the goal was to share with the community what I’d learned over 11+ years of doing SEO — whether it generated a profit or not. Out of necessity the business end of it became the focus for awhile. A guy’s gotta pay his bills, right?
Somewhere along the way, though, it became about ego. “I want to look like an industry leader,” is a very different statement than, “I want to lead by helping enough people that I cause change in the industry.”
In an instant the realization that I’d become the criticism I’d leveled at various agencies in the past hit me like a windstorm. “Looking good is more important than being good,” I’d said about them.
No wonder my work seemed to be at odds with my life.
Doing an analysis of the content I’d created in the last ~2 years reinforced all of that. Every time I’d legitimately taught people something they latched onto it. When I published “look at how smart I am” content it fell as flat as content like that deserves.
When you measure yourself this way you’ll always come up short. I realized real happiness was impossible because I’d set shallow, meaningless standards for how my validity as a person was defined.
And it wasn’t the first time I’d had this realization. I recalled a piece I’d written in 2018 entitled, “I thought I was Don Draper, but I was really Pete Campbell.” If you’re not familiar with the show Mad Men, here’s a more recent analogy that came into view for me.
It’s the reason I’ve gotten the feels repeatedly watching Captain America in the Avengers movies, despite that he was never a superhero I felt anything about growing up. He represents so much of what I measure myself against now, and I realized instead that I was early Tony Stark: arrogant, capable, but too concerned about self image to really change anything. (Of course he changed over the course of the series.)
Or, to use one last Marvel reference, I’d set out to wield Thor’s hammer and was making excuses to myself to avoid admitting I simply wasn’t worthy. Rather than making it a goal to become worthy, I kept focusing on lesser goals because they were easy and brought shallow, temporary bursts of fulfillment.
As maudlin as all this may sound, it’s been a profound chunk of self reflection in which I’ve finally felt like I’ve grasped real clarity.
If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that moments like these are perfectly healthy to have… as long as you feel it honestly and learn something from it and change. Otherwise you end up merely having one more mental whip to lash yourself with fruitlessly.
And I’ve certainly done plenty of that.
Have you ever felt like Walter from the first episode of Fringe when he says, “Whatever punishment you think I deserve, I assure you I have already endured it?”
Two things I’ve learned in this process I think are true for everyone:
First, accept your shortcomings and failures and use all of them to make yourself better. Find something definitive you want to strive for in life and spend at least a little time each day doing something that moves you in that direction.
It sounds basic, but I’m finding that a lot of paths to happiness are things we all know on some level but won’t do. Making some focused, deliberate changes in your day-to-day starts to add up to some powerful cumulative destinations.
Second, after some honest self evaluation let yourself off the hook. We’re all fallible creatures fumbling in the dark trying to find meaning. We embarrass ourselves regularly. But to truly forgive yourself, you have to acknowledge the full depth of what it is you’re holding over your own head.
Nothing you’ve done is really a waste of time as long as you can grow from it — and that’s the case more often than you might think. It certainly is for me.
All we can really ever do to “make it up” to ourselves or to someone else we’ve wronged is to do better. And as I remind myself frequently, doing it is always better than talking about doing it.
Incredible my friend. I am going to sit on this for a day and than I will reach back to you. Thank you for sharing on this level.
Awesome. Thank you so much, Bill, for your kind words here and for sharing it on Linkedin.
Hey Brian, it’s not too late for you to make a change in your career. The problem is deciding which direction you want to go in. And yes it’s going to be difficult to change but if you put your mind to it I’m sure that you can accomplish whatever you decide you want to do. It sounds to me like you’re ready for a change. I don’t think you’re really enjoy writing anymore at least why is not as a job. Just take your time give it a lot of thought do some research on different things find out what really interests you and then go for it.
The support from family has meant a lot over the years. What I was trying to get at here, though, was that it’s been striking me more recently that a complete career switch may not be necessary, that the reason the work started to feel unfulfilling was that it wasn’t serving a higher goal. And so it was a cool feeling to realize that rather than having to scrap everything and start over, that the answer might be as simple as finding more worthy ways to use my current skills to help people. For instance, I recently helped a local nonprofit build a website pro bono, and have helped a couple other struggling businesses that ordinarily couldn’t afford me by helping them on a significant discount. As a start. Bigger picture it can become questions like, “How can I use my knowledge of communication and SEO to serve other missions rather than simply selling those services?” I like where it’s headed.
This is interesting to read, because its a more filled out version of what Dennis mentioned you two had discussed during our visit. Its so good that while tempted to change gears in your life, with thought about everything involved, you can discover how to make the life you’ve built even more fulfilling for yourself. We’re so proud that you two have found ways to create the life and jobs you want working for yourselves, and when needed reinvent the dream as life changes. That’s something most of us are afraid to try.
I really appreciate the support over the years. The common story between entrepreneurs is how to persevere in spite of family badmouthing the decision or not supporting the venture. I feel blessed that everyone has stuck with me while I’ve sorted myself out — both as a man and as a businessperson. It’s the hardest yet most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
Great piece Brian! It’s funny how much you can learn about your self when you put things in writing. I have always found your writings very inspirational. We learn from others and you help me grow every time. Love ya!
Always appreciate hearing that my story resonated with others! Thanks for reading and commenting.