Back in the early 1990s, I had the best job I ever had.
I worked for a not-for-profit corporation whose mission was compatible with my values, I was at the top of my game, I had a boss who respected and supported me and I was making enough to understand the meaning of the phrase “she doesn’t know what to do with all her money.”
That however, doesn’t mean it was an easy job. It wasn’t.
Because I worked so many hours, I had to pay to have my house cleaned, my laundry washed and the yard done. I didn’t go grocery shopping because I never ate at home and when I left for the office at 6 a.m., I’d turn the porch light on so it would be lit when I got home long after dark.
After six years of the best job I ever had, I was exhausted and overwhelmed, and no amount of money could take away the feeling that I was trying to empty out the Pacific Ocean with a spoon.
It was on a three-day meditation retreat conducted at a retreat house in the desert about 30 minutes from my house that I finally made my decision.
“You look like you’ve been really far away,” my secretary said when I showed up at the office on the Monday after the retreat.
She was right. I had been far away—far away inside myself.
While I was gone, I had been walking back to my room from the meditation hall, ruminating about what I wanted out of my job and why I was holding onto it, when I looked down at the Birkenstock sandals on my feet, and of all moments, realized that I didn’t want to live the corporate life—a life in which the biggest reward was money—anymore.
I wanted to live a Birkenstocks kind of life.
Several days after I gave my resignation notice, the vice present came into my office. He had been assigned to make me an offer—you know, the kind you can’t refuse. We sat and chatted for a while, and when he asked me the basis of my decision to leave such a lucrative position, I told him my Birkenstocks story.
“What kind of work do you think you’ll do after this?” he asked me.
“I didn’t know,” I told him, “but whatever it is, it won’t involve fluorescent lights, an air-conditioned building or offices with windows that don’t open.”
He seemed at a loss and as he made a gesture to leave, said something I’ve never forgotten: “I don’t think offering you more money would motivate you to stay.” His straightforward comment struck me as an important clarification of my values.
“You’re right,” I said. “It wouldn’t.
After I left the corporate world, I changed my lifestyle to fit a much smaller salary and then worked tons of different jobs including owning my own business, modeling for artists and singing and playing cocktail piano to name a few. Today, 25 years later, I’m still working and probably will continue. I get too much out of it to stop.
Back when I was drowning in more work than I could handle and had too few hours to accomplish it in, I wouldn’t have been able to experience all of the benefits I experience today, no matter how much money I made. I was simply too busy.
Someone asked me recently, “Why do you work?”
“Why do I work?” I responded. Besides the money, I had several reasons and was able to call all of them off from a list I had made for myself:
- It connects me to the world outside my window.
- It gives me interactions and relationships with people of all ages.
- It allows me to contribute to society.
- It gives me a sense of belonging to a community beyond the people I’m related to.
- It gives me the satisfaction of accomplishing common goals with others.
- It keeps my mind and thinking sharp.
- It forces me to be accountable to something and someone outside myself.
- It introduces discipline into my life.
- It helps me structure my days.
- It provides me with recognition from my employer for a job well done.
“Wow,” my friend remarked. “It sounds like you’ve given it a lot of thought.”
I have a quote hanging over my desk that was written by the great social observer and author Studs Terkel.
“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
Terkel’s cogent words remind me of my “Birkenstock moment” way back when I was on retreat in the desert. I don’t ever want to forget it—how it changed my life and why I have never regret quitting “the best job I ever had.”
Author: Carmelene Siani
Editor: Evan Yerburgh