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Back to What Should I Do With My Life?

New Person, Same Job?

A Different Kind of Hard Work

 

Her Volvo wagon swung to the curb in front of the Louisville Public Library’s main branch. I got in, and she drove towards Cherokee Park. A summer rain threatened. She wore sandals, khakis, a striped prep shirt, and a silver choker necklace. On the back seat rested that week’s reading: library hardcover editions of Frank Owen’s “Clubland” and Mary Roach’s “Stiff.” She devoured a couple books a week during her two years of soul searching. She’d also spent many hours with a therapist, who had been incredibly helpful in getting her to let her real self out. The therapist at one point suggested she try to express herself through art. In the back of the Volvo she’d brought along her most significant self portrait: on black chalkboard, actual sized, the white dashed outline of a person – like from a murder scene, the body fell here. Her arms were crossed above her head, and bloodied nails held her wrists to the spot. Twine then circled the board, knotted in small bow ties around the bloodied nails, invoking several possibilities.

I asked, “why the dotted line?”

            “To me, it suggests she doesn’t know where her boundaries are. It begs the question, ‘who belongs here?’”

“Sometimes twine is used to wrap presents in that way. She’s being offered, even as she’s being crucified.”

This complexity appealed to her, though she wouldn’t reveal if she had intended it.

            Complexity had replaced simplicity, and in that ambiguity there was an outlet for whatever bubbled up. She enjoyed being open to interpretation.

            Last week, her therapist said, “You don’t have to come back any more. Things are going well for you.”

            “It was like I graduated,” she told me, finding it kind of funny.

            Her two years of netherworld – of purgatory, of “in-between” – were about to end.

            In Cherokee Park, we walked out to a shelter overlooking the forest.

            “Did you get the call?” I asked.

            “Yeah, I got the call about an hour ago. I got the job. I start in three weeks.”

            “Congratulations.”

            “Thank you.”

            It seemed important to be in Louisville the day she got the job. But this moment didn’t live up to that expectation. The mood wasn’t celebratory. We knew it was sort of a gamble to go back to her former employer, one she nicknamed “Corporate America.” She’d been there for several years and proved herself a fabulously successful corporate warrior. But that bottom-line mindset was no longer her mindset. That go-getter culture of long workdays and hitting the bars every night with her coworkers had robbed her of something important. Or maybe she had only herself to blame. Sometimes, people use their work addiction to avoid genuine emotion. Work becomes a dam, holding back what wants to naturally flow. If you’re afraid of what might come out, you work harder to beat it back, same as people who drink to forget.

She’d assumed that her period of self-examination would culminate in a major career change. She figured she’d turn into a social worker or therapist. (To pay bills, she’d held several day-jobs during the two years where her ego and identity were uninvolved). Then, over the last couple months, her intuition had steered her back to the place she’d left. Knowing herself was its own reward, she’d realized, and didn’t have to be reflected in a new occupation.

            Like the dark clouds that rumbled overhead, one question hung over the afternoon: when she returned to that corporate culture, could she still be herself?

            Her name was Evan Hambrick. She was thirty.

            She surveyed the clouds. Unintimidated, she asked, “Should we take a walk?”

 

In Corporate America, she had been a financial auditor and internal consultant, squeezing divisions for more profit. She bossed people around, acting like the expert. She transferred between divisions, including stints in New York and Hong Kong for two years, before settling in Cincinnati so she could be closer to home.

            One day she made plans to attend her younger brother’s dress rehearsal for an upcoming play. He was a senior down in Lexington. The play didn’t start until 8 p.m. She would finish work early, drive down and make it in time. At 5 p.m., she was summoned to a conference call. The call droned on endlessly. Evan watched the clock, panicking, suffocating. She snuck out.

            Her brother and fellow students had adapted a book to the stage. The book was Frank X. Walker’s “Affrilachia,” about the African American experience in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky. The students danced, had a good time, improvised. Evan had never seen her brother’s work before. How talented he was!

            “They seemed so free, so spirited, and happy. I wanted a taste of it. And that was it. My eyes were opened. Seeing him, I knew I couldn’t do this kind of work any more. I went in and quit the very next day. With no prospects or plans for the future.”

            I asked, “Did you really just quit? Cold?” I’d found that people used this phrase when it was often more complicated.

            “I told them I had some personal issues going on. They told me if I went to therapy, I could take a leave of absence. I had no intention of going back. But I thought the therapy would be good for me.”

            Evan was aware that she’d mistook her career for her life. So in Louisville she built a life with plenty of room – room to read, room to socialize, room for love (there’d never been time for love!), room to learn about her roots from her parents, room to build a tighter bond with her parents, room for complexity and ambiguity, room to exercise regularly. Room to take classes in art, psychology, and writing. Most of all, it was a life with room for emotional closeness and introspection. The kind of life in which her career was going absolutely nowhere, the kind of life that MBAs often sneer at, the kind of life that might provoke the comment, “You want to find yourself? Look in the mirror! Now get back to work!”

            Her father had been devastated when she left Corporate America. He often woke her mother in the night, confused, worried for their daughter. He was from Alabama in the Jim Crow era. He’d left college and become a railroad machinist, building axles for rail cars. He coached his daughter to choose activities not because they’re fun, but because they make sense. Get a degree in business, not political science. You will not fail, there is no alternative. He drilled into her, “People will always be looking at you. So you have to stand up and be a good example at all times, or you will confirm their suspicions. We have to work twice as hard.” She felt she owed it to her race; she owed it to a long line of people who sacrificed, a line beginning with her parents and stretching a long way back. She fulfilled their hopes, but in proving the corporate world should (and could) be colorblind, she’d blinded herself to all the parts of life that didn’t contribute to the bottom line.

So maybe Corporate America wasn’t to blame? The job might have crowded out the rest of life, but maybe she let it do that. Maybe she’d wanted it to do that. A demanding job is sometimes the safest place to hide from your true feelings. She’d always worked as a way of suppressing anger, worked so as to feel needed, worked so as to feel accepted. Maybe she’d created her own experience at Corporate America. Maybe it wasn’t her boss, it wasn’t her coworkers.

Sometimes people don’t need a new profession, they just need a better life outside work. So often, we use the demands of our job as an excuse for not having that life. The truth is, we’re afraid of rejection from would-be friends, our relationships with our family are strained, we don’t feel cool enough, we don’t think we quite belong. Meanwhile, our work is always happy to have us. It’s easy, emotionally, even as we take pride in how supposedly “hard” we have to work. It’s far more threatening to slow down and listen to needs that have been ignored.

If you ask the wrong question, you’ll get the wrong answer. Leela de Souza found fulfillment when she stopped asking what will make her happy and instead asked “to what could I devote my life?” Evan Hambrick stopped looking for her needs to be met entirely by her career and realized the answers she’d been looking for were in her personal life.

Two months ago, she began interviewing at various companies. Her litmus test was how they responded to the two-year gap in her resume. If they accepted it and looked past it, then that was cool. If they couldn’t understand why a person would need some time off, forget them. Several companies failed the test. One interviewer at an accounting firm was so upset by the gap that he called her at home that night, trying to get her to justify what she’d done with her time. His tone was accusatory, like he was offended. “Why, again, would you do this?” he asked repeatedly. Evan was so disheartened, she gave up, and wrote me that she wasn’t going back to the corporate world. She was going back to school … she was going to figure out where she really belonged, once and for all …

When I got her letter, I worried that in some way I was an influence, a breeze of wind, inspiring this vow of new direction. I hadn’t said anything overtly, but was my presence in her life (albeit only as a pen pal) implicitly encouraging her to leave the corporate life? I reread our four months of letters. If anything, I had leaned the other way: I had repeatedly suggested that it was perfectly okay to reenter corporate life. My letters had been intentionally bland, apolitical. Careful only to follow, never lead. So I was honestly relieved when she wrote back a couple weeks later and admitted she’d simply panicked. Other interviews had gone much better, particularly one with her old employer.

In the lobby, she almost turned around and walked out. Then she went upstairs. “I met people, and it was a lot more diverse than I remembered it,” she recounted. “There were a lot of people I hoped could be my friends – people I would have looked right past two years ago. They didn’t have a problem with my time off. They accepted my explanation and moved on. I know it’s still going to be a challenge; the hours are long. But they’re a lot more tolerant than I used to believe. I’m going to be a lot more tolerant myself. I feel like I can return to Corporate America as a kinder, gentler, more self-aware individual.”

She’d put the need to reinvent her career behind her. “I guess I believed that only people who risk it all and do a career 180 have real stories to tell. Yet, over time, I’ve realized that my real goals are modest: to buy a home like the ones I run and drive past every day, find a partner with whom I can share my life, and work at a job that challenges my mind without destroying my soul. These wishes seem so ordinary. Perhaps that’s okay.”

It certainly was. But would it be okay with her employer? Were they going to tolerate her intention to live a real life? During her interview, she’d been asked if she could handle the inevitable long hours.

“And how did you respond?” I asked.

“I told them, ‘I’m used to it.’”

“You told them what they wanted to hear.”

“Enough to make it a non-issue.”

“Are you scared that’s going to be a problem?”

“My mother is.”

Who wasn’t? I wanted her wish to be fulfilled. I wanted her return to Corporate America as the prodigal daughter to be the end of the story. I even wrote a version of this very chapter, in which it ends right there, happily-ever-after. If anything my book needed that to be Evan’s story – just as a counterweight. I tried to ignore the obvious question, “Why had she chosen a job (again!) that clearly didn’t want her to have a personal life?” Maybe she believed she could change the culture?

Evan described her first three weeks back on the job as some of the worst weeks of her life. Though she clocked 60 hours a week, it wasn’t enough for her boss, who demanded her staff ask permission before going to lunch, and who complained when Evan left at six p.m. to meet friends for dinner. The Old Evan would have simply accepted these rules. But the New Evan couldn’t be silent. The tension culminated in a shouting match with her boss, and then a few days later, Evan went to human resources. The situation improved, but not to the point she could say, “hey, it’s great to be here.” In the mornings, in the shower, it was hard not to cry. She wrote, “I want my life and my happy demeanor back!” Yet she recognized that part of her just didn’t want to grow up.

She hung in there, and the situation improved. It didn’t seem like it would – she second-guessed herself several times – but over the next three months she made it work. She didn’t change the culture, but she made it clear she wasn’t going to drink the Kool Aid again. She found a comfort level, even with her manager. She liked being “the alternative one” among the business conservatives. She would never say “This is where I belong,” but she was okay with that. On her list of Things to Worry About Constantly, her professional situation no longer ranked high.

The theme for this section is exactly Evan’s conundrum. The four people whose stories follow are all practical people – or maybe the better way to say it is, like Evan, they all began as practical people, yet dared to look inward, into the murky terrain of their own psyches. They then struggled over what to do with their newfound understanding – was an attitude change enough, or was a life change necessary?