I am in my mid-thirties. I have a mortgage, student loans and credit card debt. I do not have the oft-advised 3-6 months salary socked away in a savings account. I am pretty sure I don’t have any sort of retirement account. My husband and I sometime talk about having a family. And I quit the job I love.
You’re reading this thinking “That bad? Really?” The truth is, I love LOVE what I do for a living. I am a mentor to low-income high school students who are long on potential and short on opportunity. Over the last several years I have developed relationships with dozens of bright, thoughtful, hilarious, driven students. They are the single greatest reason I go to work everyday. Their altruistic hearts, their deep curiosity for the world and what lies ahead, their willingness to crack open and share their deepest thoughts with me—it’s been one of the greatest gifts of my professional life. I watched these young people walk across the graduation stage this June—many who weren’t sure if they would—and I have not felt that sense of soaring pride, for either of my degrees.
I gave my whole heart to my job. I worked—sometimes happily and sometimes petulantly—way more than 40 hours a week. When the alarm went off each morning, I reached for my magic iPhone and checked my email. I made to-do lists on my 45-minute commute on the bus. I walked the dog and contemplated how we could be more inclusive in our messaging. I prattled on about our strategic outcomes while I chopped vegetables for dinner. I struggled with burnout. In my performance reviews often the constructive feedback I received was about how to find more balance, how to take care of myself better.
I am a writer—that feels funny to say. But it’s true; I’ve been a writer for decades now. I’ve studied it in college, I’ve built my writing life in evenings and weekends, found writer friend and taken classes. In the last year though, as I continued to tinker away at night and on Sunday afternoons, something began to happen. The more I wrote, the more energy I had for the rest of my life. I felt alive, electric. It was like being on drugs—every sense was more attune to the world around me. I felt on top of the world.
It was as though I’d found the antidote, the special pixie dust that was going to continue to fuel my work at my job. Clearly the recipe wasn’t quite right—I was exhausted by staying up late writing and going to work as usual. My friendships were suffering, my husband was picking up a lot of slack and I wasn’t doing my waistline any favors either. I wanted more of all of this—more time, lord what I could do with more time! I’d still get that electricity coursing through my veins as I clacked away on my stories and essays and it would stoke this fire I had at work. I’d be more inspired, more driven…
I’d hoped maybe I could do both. I was sure I could make it work—that I could find the balance between work and writing. I didn’t know how much it meant to me until I learned that this wasn’t possible. That the organization I worked for didn’t have the systems and structure to support me having more time away from the office. I was devastated.
That sounds melodramatic, it does, I know. But I felt ripped in half, as though I had to choose between two things I loved and felt so deeply committed to. I felt as though I was at a fork in the road—I could either choose the life I’d already created for myself, or I could create a new one.
There are so many people who are fulfilled by the work they do all day. And there are a lot more that don’t really care if they are fulfilled or not, as long as they have a paycheck that affords them the lifestyle they want. I wanted so SO desperately to be one of those people.
I supplement my happiness by driving hard for the next promotion, the next raise, the perfect performance review. And when that doesn’t work, I supplement by taking trips, buying new boots, splurging on special dinners, the extra glass of wine. I train for races, I grit my teeth and do more pushups.
In short, I spend most of my life either working or trying to recover from working. I’m a hamster on a wheel. No matter how much you believe in what you do, if it isn’t fulfilling a majority of the time, it’s still the rat race. And to what end?
Every time I write it’s a battle. I pace and curse and growl and wonder why the fuck I do this to myself, why do I continue to put myself through this wringer of staring utter failure in the face. Every time I sit down to write it’s either exhilarating or gut wrenching. And I’d rather be completely empty some of the time and know that there are other times that I’ll feel complete, full.
I’m willing to sacrifice my paycheck, the weekend trips, the extra glass of wine for that sense of electricity, the feeling that every sense is on high alert, for the feeling that causes the hair on my arms to stand up.
These students, though. They inspire me. For years I’ve coached and listened and nudged them into taking great risks and I’ve witnessed astonishing rewards. They take these incredible leaps, these huge risks to be the first in their families to go to leave home and go to college. They often are facing utter failure and they stare it bravely in the face and sally forth. Who would I be if I looked at the fork in the road and chose the path that led to mediocre?