Last week, I read a short book called The New American Dream: A Blueprint For A New Path To Success (free download). It's an awful title, but I first found mention of it in a news item about the failure of mainstream publishers to get, well, publishing in the modern age. It's not a long book, just over 50 pages. It rambles, but it's a good read.
One of the core tenants of the book is that trying to be "happy" in your career is the wrong thing to do. First off, "happy" is horribly relative and subjective, so it's hard to measure what that even looks like. Second, the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning is not the prospect of being happy, it's the prospect of doing interesting work. I suppose I've always known this, but wow does this make it concrete and obvious now.
Put in more blunt terms, as it relates to out ultimate end state, I'm reminded of the quote from Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford commencement address:
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Ultimately, the things that drive us are not about the money or objects that we think make us happy. It's all about how interesting our work is.
In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, the author cites studies that show how its the intrinsic motivators, our inner curiosity and satisfaction from solving problems, that plays the biggest role in our success, not the extrinsic motivators of money and material nonsense.
When you've identified this thing about interesting work, you start to realize that the world around you has very much done its best to prevent you from doing interesting stuff. In the white collar world, and in software development specifically, the reasons are many. They include issues of control, lack of trust in you to produce results, excess layers of management and process, business that doesn't care about your craft, inadequate mentors... you could go on.
The reality is that there are always interesting problems to solve. The trick is finding ways to get at that those problems, so you can devote the necessary attention to them. From a career standpoint, that path ranges from asking to devote that focus to changing jobs, and maybe even changing careers. You just have to ask yourself how far you're willing to go because, as Mr. Keating once said, we're all "food for worms."