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Finding meaning in life and business

I started my undergraduate degree as a computer science and physics student. But despite my love of technology (and physics, incidentally), I quickly realized that I didn’t want to end up as a software developer. I was interested in so many other things: art, design, business, real estate, entrepreneurship, cities, and so on. And at the time, I was struggling to remain focused on writing code.

So by the middle of my second year, I decided to drop every single one of my classes and construct my own program until I figured out what I truly wanted to major in. My course schedule ended up spanning everything from the urbanization of ancient cities to the philosophy of aesthetics. It was a pretty great program if you ask me. But others wondered what I was doing.

I did, however, already have leanings toward architecture. It felt like the perfect combination of art and science. And so while enrolled in my made up program, I started exploring the possibility of transferring schools and switching majors. Around this time I also started meeting with architects to try and learn more about the profession and see if this is something that I really wanted to pursue.

I’ll never forget this one lunch. The architect I met with — who will, of course, remain nameless — told me very clearly: “You should do anything besides architecture. If you like drawing become an animator. If you like design, do graphic design. Just don’t become an architect.” Naturally, I came out of that lunch and decided to spend the next seven years getting two degrees in architecture.

And even though I never became a licensed architect, and almost certainly never will, I would do it all over again given the option. I loved the journey and it is this circuitous journey that led me to where I am today, which is in a highly fulfilling career in real estate. I create new things and those things have the opportunity to improve people’s everyday lives. I’m grateful for that. But the path was anything but clear at the time.

I am telling all of you this story because I was reminded of it when I read this fantastic article by Charles Duhigg called, Wealthy, Successful and Miserable. It is the story of how Charles, a Harvard Business School graduate, discovered that — despite obtaining boatloads of financial success — many of his classmates actually ended up miserable after school.

Sure, we all need and deserve basic financial security. And when we don’t have it, money can really buy a great deal of happiness. But there’s lots of research out there, some of which I have written about before, that suggests that happiness quickly plateaus once our basic needs are met.

As soon as we’re no longer worried about money, we actually crave other things from our paychecks. We want it to also be a source of purpose and meaning. To give one concrete example, the article cites a study about a set of enthusiastic and high performing janitors in a large hospital. What was ultimately found was that they saw their jobs not just as cleaning, but as a kind of healing for the patients. They had purpose.

But what I found most interesting about the article was the discovery that finding happiness in life and business might require, or be aided by, a bit of struggle along the way:

And many of them had something in common: They tended to be the also-rans of the class, the ones who failed to get the jobs they wanted when they graduated. They had been passed over by McKinsey & Company and Google, Goldman Sachs and Apple, the big venture-capital firms and prestigious investment houses. Instead, they were forced to scramble for work — and thus to grapple, earlier in their careers, with the trade-offs that life inevitably demands. These late bloomers seemed to have learned the lessons about workplace meaning preached by people like Barry Schwartz. It wasn’t that their workplaces were enlightened or (as far as I could tell) that H.B.S. had taught them anything special. Rather, they had learned from their own setbacks. And often they wound up richer, more powerful and more content than everyone else.

We are, of course, talking about the “also-rans” at Harvard Business School. They’re no slouches struggling to find work. But I don’t think that negates the point being made here. It can be easy to get caught up doing what we think we ought to be doing when in reality we should be finding meaning in something we hopefully love doing.


  1. Abraham Maslow will be smiling down on you today Brandon. Your blog is a perfect illustration of his Hierarchy of Needs. Once our paycheque needs are met we all seek belonging and then purpose or what he refers to as self actualization. There is a maxim among us Career Planning consultants – Do what you love and success will follow. While it is easier said than done, it is also not as difficult as most people think. Thank you for a most excellent blog. Irene Taylor

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Siobhan Sweeny

    It makes me so sad when I hear again of an architect dissuading others from entering in the profession. I am so lucky that despite being told the same thing by many many architects when I too was trying to change my major at the very start of undergrad (human biology wasn’t the right fit for me, I quickly found out) that my dad, Dermot Sweeny, passionately spoke of architecture as the most well rounded degrees you can achieve. He is one of the only architects I’ve met that vehemently promote the profession. It is a challenging profession but very rewarding and we need more enthusiastic people standing up for its incredible value in society.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Robert Grigg

    Well done on an outstanding post and an excellent blog. Yours is the one blog out there that truly chimes with my own thoughts and interests. Incidentally I am one of those people who was given the very finest education money can buy and, like many of my contemporaries back in the 1980’s, ended up in banking. It is only now, some 35 years later, that I can see light at the end of the tunnel as I approach retirement. Over time, expenses balloon in tandem with income and it takes courage to get off the treadmill once it has reached terminal velocity. I am encouraging my children to follow their passions and keep their outgoings low. One is training as a doctor and the other as a historian and neither has much interest in materialism – so far so good. Once again, many thanks for your excellent blog. I think if I had my time again I would train as an architect and then go an build affordable but beautiful housing….

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dexter

    I’ve been following your blog for about a year now, and this is by far the best, most heartfelt post yet! And that’s saying something because you have a great blog with a lot of fantastic posts.

    Thanks again for your awesome energy Brandon!

    – Dexter
    San Diego, CA

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Pingback: The case for being a generalist | BRANDON DONNELLY

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