to What Should I Do With My Life?
Person, Same Job?
Different Kind of Hard Work
Volvo wagon swung to the curb in front of the Louisville Public
Librarys 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 weeks
reading: library hardcover editions of Frank Owens Clubland and
Mary Roachs Stiff. She devoured a couple books a week during her
two years of soul searching. Shed 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 shed 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 doesnt know where her boundaries are.
It begs the question, who belongs here?
Sometimes twine is used to wrap presents in that
way. Shes being offered, even as shes being crucified.
This complexity appealed to her, though she
wouldnt 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
Last week, her therapist said, You dont have to come back any
more. Things are going well for you.
It was like I graduated, she told me, finding it kind of
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
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.
It seemed important to be in Louisville the day she got the job.
But this moment didnt live up to that expectation. The mood wasnt
celebratory. We knew it was sort of a gamble to go back to her former
employer, one she nicknamed Corporate America. Shed 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 youre afraid of what might come out, you work harder to beat
it back, same as people who drink to forget.
Shed assumed that her period of self-examination
would culminate in a major career change. She figured shed turn into a
social worker or therapist. (To pay bills, shed 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 shed left. Knowing herself was its own reward, shed realized,
and didnt 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?
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 brothers dress
rehearsal for an upcoming play. He was a senior down in Lexington. The
play didnt 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. Walkers 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 brothers
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 couldnt
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? Id 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 shed 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 (thered 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. Hed left college and become a
railroad machinist, building axles for rail cars. He coached his daughter
to choose activities not because theyre 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, shed blinded herself to all the
parts of life that didnt contribute to the bottom line.
So maybe Corporate America wasnt to blame? The job
might have crowded out the rest of life, but maybe she let it do that.
Maybe shed wanted it to do that. A demanding job is sometimes
the safest place to hide from your true feelings. Shed always worked as
a way of suppressing anger, worked so as to feel needed, worked so as to
feel accepted. Maybe shed created her own experience at Corporate
America. Maybe it wasnt her boss, it wasnt her coworkers.
Sometimes people dont 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, were afraid of
rejection from would-be friends, our relationships with our family are
strained, we dont feel cool enough, we dont think we quite belong.
Meanwhile, our work is always happy to have us. Its easy, emotionally,
even as we take pride in how supposedly hard we have to work. Its
far more threatening to slow down and listen to needs that have been
If you ask the wrong question, youll 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 shed been looking for were in her
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 couldnt 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 shed 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 wasnt going back to the corporate world. She was going back to
she was going to figure out where she really belonged, once and
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
hadnt 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 shed simply
panicked. Other interviews had gone much better, particularly one with her
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 didnt have a problem with my time off. They
accepted my explanation and moved on. I know its still going to be a
challenge; the hours are long. But theyre a lot more tolerant than I
used to believe. Im going to be a lot more tolerant myself. I feel like
I can return to Corporate America as a kinder, gentler, more self-aware
Shed 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, Ive 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 thats 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, shed been asked if she could handle the
inevitable long hours.
And how did you respond? I asked.
I told them, Im used to it.
You told them what they wanted to hear.
Enough to make it a non-issue.
Are you scared thats going to be a
My mother is.
Who wasnt? 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 Evans story just as a
counterweight. I tried to ignore the obvious question, Why had she
chosen a job (again!) that clearly didnt 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 wasnt 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 couldnt 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, its 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 didnt want to grow
She hung in there, and the situation
improved. It didnt seem like it would she second-guessed herself
several times but over the next three months she made it work. She
didnt change the culture, but she made it clear she wasnt 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
Evans 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