Not a Happy Camper? The Problem isn’t Camp.

Here’s why you’re unhappy: Your job, your partner, your friends, your family, your pet, your apartment, your clothes: none of them are going to fulfill every single need in your life. You have to do that yourself first.

In my early 20s (and mid… and late…) I was consumed by “should.” I could never enjoy the moment because I had my one-, five-, and 10-year plans laid out. Planning my future was all-consuming. The problem was that all that planning didn’t prevent real life from knocking me down repeatedly. I would end up having to redo my meticulous plans after some seismic shift. I sometimes wondered if I would ever be happy because I could never turn off my brain long enough to look around.

Over a decade into the workforce, I’ve made some discoveries about myself. As it turns out, I don’t like waking up early. I need a lot of sleep, like more than nine hours per night, for optimal functioning. I fought it for years. I thought the world spun for early risers and I just had to become one of them. For years I worked in low salary jobs doing social services, which is usually beholden to the judicial or educational systems, both of which start extremely early. I mention the low salary because a fun side effect of that was that I often had to live far away from work to be able to afford rent and food and other extravagances. So getting to early-starting work on time meant getting up even earlier to travel. As a result, I was always late. Always. Even when I set my alarm earlier and earlier, my body just refused. Somehow I could get up at 6:45, or 6:30, or 6:15, and still get to work at the exact same time: 10 minutes late.

Another thing I learned over the years is that I am hyper efficient. I am like a productivity machine. I really honed my skills when I was working full-time, going to grad school classes twice a week, completing a 24-hour per week internship in the evenings, acting as a writing tutor, and attempting to actually see my friends and maintain some semblance of normalcy on the weekends. As a result, I do not thrive in environments where the work pace is slow. If I can design a system where I can work just as hard and get it done in half the time, either give me something additional to do, or let me go home. Again, those arcane institutions of our legal and educational systems are not designed for efficiency. Yet I kept electing to work within them, and not understanding why I was so frustrated.

Once I finally allowed myself to think about my own needs, I made some drastic changes. Now, I sleep until 8:30 or 9, then I work out. I know that if I don’t exercise first thing, I won’t do it. The gym is never crowded after 9 am because many people don’t have this luxury.

I have dramatically cut back on my need for caffeine and drink decaf most days only because I still like the ritual. When I feel bursts of creativity or energy, I write, or create social media posts for the next month, or design a new workshop for clients. If I feel like doing that from my bed, I do it. If I want to go to a coffee shop because I haven’t put real pants on in three days, I do that. My success depends 100% on how hard I work, and for someone like me, that is the best incentive.

I’m not saying everyone should start their own business (although I do highly recommend it!). If that’s not for you and not what you want, don’t do it. But do sit down and spend some serious time thinking about what YOU want and how YOU work best. Don’t focus on what jobs you think already exist and how you could mold yourself to fit into them. Think about the best version of your professional self, then go out and find that fit.

If you’re struggling with figuring out your best fit, get out a piece of paper. Write down every job you have ever had, including teenaged babysitter and waiter. Write down all of the skills you learned at those jobs. Write down everything you liked and hated about those jobs. Write down the kinds of people you liked and hated working with at those jobs. Once you’ve done as much introspecting as you can, enlist some outside resources. Go to a networking event. Attend a job fair. Polish your resume. Hire a coach. Whatever it is, get after it and realize how happy you could be!