I did it because it was expected of me . . .
If I hadn’t, I would have disappointed my parents and my friends would have felt sorry for me—maybe even pitied me.
And that would have made me feel like a loser.
But I didn’t have to worry. I’d done the right thing. And now my parents could brag about their son’s success. Even better, I could give that all-knowing nod to my friends, letting them know I’d scored the mother-lode.
I was two months away from my college graduation and I’d just accepted a job with a major corporation—we’ll call it Acme, Inc.—a company with offices and production facilities all over the world.
Lots of opportunity, lots of room to grow for a young man just starting out.
Along with my acceptance came the foregone conclusion that if I did what I was told—what was expected of me—I’d have a secure future. The company was offering a decent salary, and as my father had told me so many times, I’d be getting those “good benefits” which back then, meant health and life insurance and a retirement pension.
In the words of my family, I was set for life.
The idea of working for that company, of actually showing up every day and doing that particular job, didn’t feel right. Even as I wrote my acceptance letter, filling the paragraphs with appreciation and gratitude for the job offer, I wondered what the hell I was doing.
I felt like I was putting my real life on hold, to work at a job I didn’t like, to live in a place I didn’t want to live, and to associate with people with whom I had nothing in common.
All I had to do was hang in there – for thirty years.
I was twenty three.
Six months passed. Going to that office every day, talking to customers, putting up with corporate politics, was agony. And it left me feeling empty, wishing I was somewhere else, doing something else. I was a duck out of water. And while I didn’t know where I belonged, I knew it wasn’t there.
But rather than listen to my gut, I kept reminding myself of the money, the benefits, and how embarrassing it would be to wear the label of “quitter.”
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
Everyone kept telling me how fortunate and well off I was, especially since some of my classmates were still unemployed. If I left now—without another job to go to—my family and friends would think I’d lost my mind.
I told myself I was being too hasty. Maybe if I gave it more time.
I started taking work home. I came into the office for a few hours on Saturday. While the other guys’ expense statements and sales calls reports were handwritten, mine were typed. I tried to convince myself that if I did my job really well, if I stuck with it long enough, I would learn to love it. I actually remember days when I desperately wanted to love it. Because working for Acme gave me a lot of ego strokes. People were impressed when I told them what I did for a living. It made me sound like I was accomplished, important, doing something significant with my life.
The first year passed. Then the second. I began to wonder if there was something wrong with me—because I was doing well, receiving awards and recognition, even named as one of the top ten producers in the company, and yet, it meant nothing to me.
I also knew there were plenty of people who would kill for a job like mine. So why wasn’t I happy?
I didn’t have an answer. In short, I didn’t feel anything—except cheated. I missed that sense of satisfaction that comes at the end of the day, when you’ve done something meaningful with your time.
So I made myself The Promise.
I told myself it was just for a little while. Not forever, just until I was ready to start something on my own. And then someday, when the time was right, when I’d saved enough money and found the perfect opportunity, I would leave that company and do something meaningful, something I would enjoy.
Then, I would Start Living my Real Life.
Every night I reviewed my plan, revising my options, considering all the possible choices of how I would start over. As I went through my day, I reminded myself that my situation was just temporary, and after I had finished this game of pretend, there would still be time to live a real life, to do the kind of work I wanted to do, to live the way I wanted to live.
Looking back on all those wasted years—14 to be exact—I cringe at how I believed that part of my life was some kind of rehearsal, that my real life was still waiting for me, somewhere out there in the future.
What kept me from leaving?
I was waiting for “all green lights.”
I wanted my exit path to be completely free of unknowns, providing me with a seamless transition from where I was, to where I wanted to be. I spent those 14 years in limbo because I thought everything had to be in perfect alignment before I could make a move.
A practical impossibility.
I’d also become a victim of momentum.
Every day I continued working in that demotivating environment made it just that much harder to leave. After five years, I was an economic captive. Awards and perks became as commonplace as my new company car and expense account. After ten years, the thought of doing without the money and benefits, of striking out on my own, was scary as hell. Before I was willing to give up my false sense of security, I wanted a guarantee that my new life would make me not only happy, but rich.
I was ignoring the two most important rules of living life with urgency—
- The longer you wait, the more you’ll have to give up to get what you really want. And . . .
- Mediocrity becomes addictive.
I was especially guilty of violating the second rule. At first I tolerated my circumstances, telling myself I was waiting for something better to come along. Then I got used to it, rationalizing the empty, meaningless nature of it all by convincing myself that others were probably right . . .
That’s just the way life works.
I remember the subject coming up during one of the first lunches with my co-workers. They asked me if I’d always wanted to be an electrical engineer, selling industrial control systems. I made the “mistake” of saying, No, explaining that I’d always enjoyed photography, and had thought I would eventually wind up working in that industry. I can still remember their thinly-veiled reprimands delivered with impromptu eulogies to their own youthful ambitions.
“Dreams are fine when you’re a kid,” one of them said. “But when you get out on your own, you have to grow up, give up the bullshit, and get on with making a living. The money’s what’s important, so you can live in a nice house at the end of the cul-de-sac, drive a new car every year. Hell, it’s not a bad life. Certainly nothing to complain about.”
As the others nodded in agreement, I joined in, bobbing my head in obligatory tribal conformity as I wondered how a street address and owning the latest model car could be the basis of a personal value system.
Here’s what I wish one of them had told me:
- Time passes and takes no prisoners. Dreams die and ambitions fade. And suddenly, we’re asking ourselves, where did all the years go?
- Believing the time you’re spending right now on a boring, unproductive life doesn’t count is doing the worse kind of injustice to yourself.
- You may think you’ve got plenty of years ahead. Lots of time to get serious, to make your life count. Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t. I can only tell you that today matters more than tomorrow. Do nothing today and you’ll still be stuck tomorrow. But then you’ve lost a day, a month, a year . . . a lifetime.
If one of my co-workers had told me that, instead of reciting a clichéd prescription for middle-aged desperation, I might have left Acme a lot sooner. Maybe my life would have been more productive, more satisfying at a younger age. I don’t know. Back then, the general consensus was to conform, to become part of the system, to find a place that offered career tenure with a financially secure future.
I see a lot of young people in their early twenties working at large companies, doing jobs that range from servers in restaurants to buyers for department store chains. And after chatting with them for a few minutes, after they’re comfortable knowing our conversation will remain private, they often disclose their job is just temporary, and their real interest lies elsewhere, in computer graphics, broadcasting, music, photography, nursing, website design, or one of a hundred other options.
I let them talk.
I don’t tell them that I went through a similar transition. Because mine isn’t a good example. I waited too long to take action. I gave away too much time.
But maybe someday, if one of them asks me for my opinion, or wants advice from someone older, then I’ll speak up. And here’s what I’ll tell them:
Stop lying to yourself. If your job makes you feel like you’re wasting your life, be truthful about your situation, especially to yourself. Admit you would be better off—happier—doing something different. Determine what that is and put together a plan to make it happen. Taking that first step will give you direction and start the process of building a better future.
Realize that a “career for life” is an archaic concept. The majority of current workers will change jobs a dozen times. “Adjusting” your occupation to accommodate changing interests and opportunities is considered a part of career development and no longer carries the negative stigma or connotation of being flighty or unreliable.
Re-frame your need to move as a transition. Avoid thinking in terms of quitting and re-starting. Thoughts of outright quitting can create tons of unwanted stress. As we naturally seek to restore our comfort level, we also begin to think in terms of avoiding the things that created the anxiety. In turn, this reduces our desire to take action toward change—making us our own worst enemy. Assure yourself that you won’t make any sudden or irrational moves, but this process of preparation is important. And this time, you’re going to get it right.
Keep your plans confidential. If you need the income from your current job, keep your dissatisfaction—and your plans to leave—to yourself. Never discuss your intentions with anyone who is even remotely connected to the company you work for. That includes trusted co-workers, customers, vendors, the cleaning staff, building maintenance personnel, the UPS guy . . . anyone who knows where you work. No matter how tempting it is to share your plans with someone who understands your pain, don’t do it—unless you’re ready to leave. Your employer must believe your professional attention and motivation is exclusively focused on your current job assignment. Otherwise, you’ll be considered a toxic asset. Expendable, at best.
Prepare a thirty-second speech for your family and friends. Use it to explain your desire to move to a different job, career, or industry – or strike out on your own. Emphasize the benefits you’ll gain, and how positive you feel about making the move. Use it AFTER you begin making the transition, not before.
Finally, take the first step. Don’t wait for all green lights. Do what you know makes sense—right now. Later steps may not be apparent to you yet, so don’t try to anticipate what you don’t know. Many successful people have admitted they didn’t know enough to be overwhelmed or discouraged and simply started making their transition with a desire to succeed. Even though you may not know what the later steps are all about, circumstances will reveal them to you.