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Breaking Up with My 9-5

Not getting what you want in your career? Neither was I, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

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The Dalai Lama said, “Sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.”

When I didn’t get something I wanted, I wrote those words on an orange notecard and pinned it to my cubicle wall. I hoped to believe them, so I read it every day when I sat down at my small, sad desk to begin another day of work.

I don’t need that notecard anymore because not getting what I wanted led me to something even better. Could the same be true for you, I wonder?

I had my doubts about Corporate America after the first few dates, but still I fell deeper and deeper into the relationship. It looked good on paper—the travel, the benefits, the security, the prestige—so even though it didn’t feel right, I committed.

It took me over a decade to admit that Corporate America and I weren’t compatible. I was afraid to leave, but I wanted more, so I had an honest chat with myself about what “more” could look like.

Unlike most of my colleagues, I wasn’t motivated by money or promotions, and I wasn’t passionate about generating revenue or maximizing profits. Through my people leadership experience, I learned that I was happier when I was helping others achieve what they wanted in their lives than I was when I was driving business results.

With that indelible truth in mind, I decided on a second career: I would become a psychotherapist.

My day job was the envy of many New York professionals. I sat alongside executives in board rooms with mahogany walls and a view of the Statue of Liberty. But for me, it didn’t even compare to the engagement I felt when I exited the turnstile at night and arrived at my windowless office, one floor below ground, where I supported clients who had the courage to share their stories and ask for help.

I toggled between those two worlds for the five years it took me to earn my Licensed Clinical Social Worker credential. When I did, poetically, my boss told me he was retiring, and my job would be eliminated.

If the Dalai Lama had anything to say about this, I suspect he would have encouraged me to let go of “impermanent states” and embrace the change. I interpreted the circumstances in a less enlightened fashion: Corporate America was breaking up with me. Now what?

Even though I had found a second career that I loved, I wasn’t willing to give up medical benefits, a 401(k), and paid vacation days, so I decided on the nonprofit sector. I knew I’d have to take a pay cut, but I wanted to feel more connected to the work I was doing during the day. It was a trade I was willing to make.

I sent an online application for a position that seemed like a fit. I was delighted when I received a reply a few hours later expressing an interest in me. When I interviewed, I took no notice of the lobby decorated only with a dead plant and a deserted desk.

I started on Halloween. That was the day I learned that the desk in the lobby was perpetually ownerless: not even the ghost of a receptionist past had sat in that empty chair. Guests simply pressed a black button and waited to be buzzed in through the nondescript glass doors like trick-or-treating in a dystopian era.

After being on the job for several weeks, I began to see the lobby as a symbol of the culture. I started to feel trapped between the gray walls and the exposed, industrial pipes running along the ceiling.

I bought a small, colorful lamp to brighten my workspace. I volunteered for projects. I led group activities. I suggested new initiatives. When my efforts were met with indifference, I asked my boss how I could add more value to the organization. She provided a few ideas, but they too were dead ends.  

After six months of trying, I knew this relationship wasn’t working either. I was making less money, and instead of being more engaged, each morning when I walked through the glass doors, I felt like a toy whose batteries had died. 

I had another choice to make. I still wasn’t ready to take a risk, so for the second time, I chose safety. After resisting Corporate America’s allure months earlier, I was going to ask for another chance. “Please take me back. I know I can make it work this time.” 

I did all the right things in my job search: I updated my LinkedIn profile and posted content on the platform. I told my network that I was looking for a new role, and I went on informational interviews. Because I was pursuing positions that I was highly qualified for, I didn’t think it would be long before I was negotiating my comp package and giving my notice. I was wrong.

My talents seemed as unwanted in the market as they were by my current employer. Just as I was starting to lose hope things started to progress with an insurance company in Midtown. After several interviews, the hiring leader committed to speak to HR about my salary requirements. I took a deep breath and envisioned myself buying a panini and sparkling water in the shiny, corporate cafeteria overlooking the East River. 

The next week, I received an email that said the funding for the position had been pulled. The gray walls seemed to close in on me, and the 40-watt light from my little lamp was no match for my despair.

In that moment, I needed to escape from my small, sad desk. I went out for a walk, so I could think. I had no more ideas and no more answers. From a place of utter defeatedness, I asked: “What is the message I’m supposed to be hearing?”

This was what I heard back: I had been wasting my time in a 9-5 job that wasn’t serving me while I treated work that I loved as a hobby. Why? Because I was afraid.

In that moment I decided to stop holding myself back from committing to a career that I cared about, and just like that, the heavy feeling left my chest, and the gray walls fell down around me. I gained renewed purpose and clarity.

For years I’d wanted to blend my understanding of human behavior with my knowledge of corporate culture. The best way to do that would be to become a certified professional coach and launch a leadership and career coaching business.

Looking back, there was one essential ingredient that led me to where I am today: not getting what I wanted. Although it caused me excruciating discomfort at the time, that discomfort was exactly what prevented me from getting another corporate job, eating paninis in a shiny cafeteria, and longing for 5 pm.

This is how I arrived at the day when I threw that orange notecard in the trash, gifted the colorful lamp to my favorite colleague, and walked out the door to launch a career that charged my batteries and made me come alive. 

So now I ask you: What is it that you’ve been wanting and not getting? I wonder if it could turn out to be a wonderful stroke of luck.

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