“Craig was a poster child for the post-Princeton urban-professional dream. He was getting an MBA and had a job as a vice president at Continental Bank, and he and [his partner] had bought a nice condo in Hyde Park. He wore tailored suits and had driven over for dinner in his red Porsche 944 Turbo.”
It sounds like a dream life, doesn’t it? A good job, a stable relationship, a nice place to live and money left over for expensive clothes and other luxuries. This is an extract from Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming, in which she describes her brother Craig in his early professional life.
But the next sentence reveals something else: “I didn’t know it then, but none of this made him happy.”
It might be surprising to some of you that this high-flying lifestyle wasn’t making Craig happy, but most likely you already knew that money doesn’t bring happiness. What surprised me about this sentence is actually the first part – Michelle had no idea that her brother was unhappy.
She was also unhappy at this time herself, as she describes: “I wasn’t happy with my job, or even with my chosen profession - that I was seriously unhappy, in fact […] I was desperate to make a major change but worried about not making enough money if I did.”
So why did neither brother or sister acknowledge their unhappiness and resolve to make changes?
“Knowing how thrilled our father was by what his kids had managed to accomplish, neither of us ever brought up our discontent over dinner.”
Both children were desperately unhappy with the versions of life they had pursued, but couldn’t bring themselves to say anything because of their father’s pride in those very versions of life.
This can happen to all of us. After all, if you love someone, a partner, a good friend, or a relative it is natural to consider their opinion. In particular parents can have tremendous influence, often far more than they intend, as in the above case of Michelle Obama. If they have given you a great or reasonable start in life to the best of their abilities, how could you not make sure that your life fits the image that will make them most proud?
Unfortunately, something is eventually bound to crack. As we are told by countless coming-of-age books and films, pursuing someone else’s dreams can only get you so far. Eventually there comes a point at which the unhappiness you buried in a bid to make someone proud bubbles up to the surface. This can be more injurious than disappointing a loved one ever could be.
Of course it’s tempting to try and make others proud: it’s a way of showing your love, gratitude or respect for them. And it may make them wonderfully happy in the short term. But in the long run, it has potential to cause more harm than good.
What we know deep down is that our lifestyle and chosen profession needs to align with our ambitions and principles. However, it's not easy. To follow your own path takes courage, and a leap of faith. Belief in yourself. Being true to your own aspirations, respecting what you feel, cultivating your own skills, and identifying values you want to adhere to. It means committing to your own moral compass. Perhaps those same people who love and care about you, whose opinion may have swayed you in the past, would be simply delighted to see you navigate your own route and thrive?