I HAVE THIS amateur theory that the harder your vocation is to explain, the less happy you are. That the more complex your job description, the more detached you are from the rhythm of life. I call it “The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker Hypothesis,” because I feel certain this trio was content career-wise. Never mind that they ended up in a bathtub together and headed out to sea, these guys brought hamburgers and light into the world! And if you’re feeding and illuminating people, well, rest assured you’re spreading joy. If what you do provides for the basic needs of our planet’s living things, I say you can spare yourself the angst of wondering if what you do matters.
Today, most men and women have moved out of the bakeries and meat markets (and whatever it is you call a candlestick factory), and into some sort of corporate cubicle where they work as Systems Analysts and Evaluation Agents, Market Surveyors and Unit Managers, or Procurement Coordinators and Logistics Officers. (I don’t know what these things mean, but I do see “anal” inside “analyst.”) Computer screens shine down on our faces like the sunshine of yore. The tweets that interest us have nothing to do with birds. The money we make we rarely touch. We do gather for meetings—but they don’t take place in town halls and we don’t discuss lost cattle. Instead, we brood over abstract topics like image and branding and projections and outlooks. With the technical age, we’ve quit relying on our hands and instead rely on our heads—but is it at the expense of our hearts? Since giving up manual labor, our palms aren’t as calloused, but are our souls more so? No wonder we’re so addicted to kitty-cat videos. They’re the soft place to land in this digital era.
I’ve had a lot of odd jobs, and by “odd” I don’t mean “intermittent.” One Christmas, I ran the ham salad department at a national pork franchise where I wore armpit-grazing latex gloves—the type reserved for equine vets during foaling season. One greasy 12-hour shift at a time, I lorded over a trashcan filled with one-third ham scraps, one-third Miracle Whip, and one-third sweet pickle relish. My most impressive accomplishment that December was not escaping rotator cuff damage, but never taking a bathroom break. The guys who worked in the back? With their blowtorches and giant bags of granulated sugar? They’d just been released from prison.
Then there was that summer I spent as a check counter in the basement of a small-town bank, counting Disney-themed personal checks by the thousands with the eraser-end of a pencil while middle-aged clerks discussed sermons and cancer and cole slaw recipes under the sad, sallow glow of fluorescents. Not to brag, but by the end of August, I could get through 4,000 checks before Tammy wrapped up her “house fire-or-arson?” story.
I’ve also held down a military editing job, that maybe involved proofreading giant contracts about retrofitting Jeeps for the Iraq War or maybe laid out a plan to behead Margaret Thatcher. (I’ll never tell and you’ll never know.)
And in high school, my school-assigned task took place in the science lab, where I was instructed to not only clean the mouse cages, but to also flush all babies and tumorous specimens down the toilet. “Like this,” the chemistry teacher had illustrated, scooping up a handful of squirming pink newborns and throwing them in the john. “And look for these,” he said, lifting a mouse’s tail to reveal giant, malignant testicles. “Down they go, as well.”
You’d think one of those jobs would have been my worst. That as an aspiring writer, any job that involved the formation of sentences would have been better. But my worst employment ever involved writing a “student success” textbook. It was for a company—owned by a man the size and temperament of Jabba the Hutt—that solicited high schools nationwide for their GPA records. Any student who’d earned a 3.5 or higher was sent a certificate from the company, claiming they’d be inducted into an elite echelon of United States teens. For just $39.99, they’d receive a plastic gold trophy, a giant directory listing their name alongside other “whiz kids,” and a complimentary textbook on student success.
My job was to write it.
“I don’t care what’s in it,” my boss said. “It’s a piece of promotional garbage. It’s like a shitty Happy Meal toy. Just put some stuff in there on study skills and time management. No one’s actually going to read it. Now. On your way outta my office, why dontcha bend over to pick up that box.”
It was a meaningless job—chock full of harassment and paper waste—that infused a lot of false hope into kids and scammed a lot of money-strapped families out of forty bucks. I soon moved on to another job in writing, that was also for a concocted association and that also produced a magazine no one read. This one involved Branson, Missouri, buffet reviews and was enough to make a girl long for the good-old days of cancerous mouse nuts. Still, I wasn’t bold enough to make the move to self-employment until I’d spent several years wondering: Why I am doing this? What difference am I making? What is the point?
A friend got wind of my butcher-baker-candlestick maker theory and put me in touch with yoga instructor and corporate ex-pat Sara DiVello, who knows the hollow feeling of career despair all too well. Sara details her dropout and subsequent reinvention in her hilarious book Where in the Om Am I? One Women’s Journey From the Corporate World to the Yoga Mat. Before carving out an authentic path, Sara spent years in the world of money and management, plagued by the nagging feeling that she wasn’t contributing anything to the world.
“The problem with my job, public relations, is that I never actually create anything—what I do is very abstract. Like most middle managers, I attend meetings. I liase, I manage, I oversee, I organize, I supervise, I energize. But you can’t feel, see, or touch that. I can’t step back at the end of the day, week, year, or decade and say, ‘Look, here’s what I’ve accomplished!’…I’d realized as soon as I started that neither I, nor the world, nor any of its inhabitants derived any value whatsoever from what I did.” [1.From Where in the Om Am I? One Woman’s Journey From the Corporate World to the Yoga Mat]
Add to that anguish, cut-throat bosses, materialistic co-workers, and a slew of chauvinists, most notably one who referred to himself as “The Meat,” (and never passed up an opportunity to adjust his package or name-drop Harvard), and Sara eventually called it quits.
“As with most breakups, personal or professional, there was a series of disappointments and small wounds that eventually culminated in the ‘Breaking Point.’ Most notably there was the time the head of my department called me into his office to scold me for the horrible crime of telling the truth. His disinterest in honesty was a big wake-up call,” Sara says. “But the final straw was a very dramatic and unexpected event: an announcement from my latest boss at a company-wide meeting that pretty much amounted to a giant kick in the cajones after years of faithful service. I immediately went down to HR and demanded to meet with the head honcho. I looked her in the eyes and said, ‘There is only so much shit I’ll eat before I am done eating shit. And today I AM DONE EATING SHIT!’ Boom. Done. Turbulent separation from a dysfunctional relationship that catapulted me into the next chapter of my career.”
Initially consoled by (and eventually transformed through) yoga, Sara made the giant leap from the world of the upwardly mobile to that of downward dog. “As a yoga teacher, I know that I’m contributing positively to the world—one happier, more relaxed person at a time. When I see someone come into class stressed, anxious, and tense, and float out the door after class so blissed-out they can’t even talk, I feel great, knowing that I was part of that process.”
True fact: if you get on Facebook and ask my friends what their dream jobs are, about 50% of them are going to mention cheese. “I would own a queso factory!” “I have a cheese ball recipe that the world needs now!” “I’d like to form soft cheeses with my hands!” Another 15% want a food truck. (Apparently, food trucks are to 2014 what Panama Jack t-shirt shacks were to 1983.) And about 10% mention other sorts of gastronomical fantasies involving terrines, beer, pastries, cold-pressed juices, and bourbon. (I unfriended anyone who mentioned bacon.)
Outside of “feeding people” the remaining 25% of the answers were spread fairly evenly among the categories of “healing/helping,” “being creative,” and “doing brave exciting scary stuff” (several people mentioned fire, murder, cadavers, crime scenes, and more cadavers). Inspired by what appeared to be four distinct areas of fantasy careers, I set out to not only find people with these four types of basic-needs jobs, but also people who had quit corporate jobs to do them.
The “BRAVE EXCITING SCARY STUFF” category
John lives in Colorado where he works as an EMT/Firefighter. His previous title was Financial Analyst/Business Valuation. On a typical day, he completes a vehicle and inventory check, works out, and does some fire or medical training and business inspections. His district covers about 20,000 people and his crew covers about three fire or medical calls a day. Some days are particularly interesting:
“On Saturday, we had no calls until 4:30 p.m., at which time we ran a medical call on a known drug seeker who had a prolapsed colon. (If you don’t know what that is, Google it). We transported her to the hospital. We didn’t have another call until after 9:00 p.m., after which we had four calls in 90 minutes. The calls consisted of a reported explosion no one could locate, a medical call involving a just-arrested felon dumb enough to conduct a drug deal in the parking lot of a fire station, and two trips to the same house for an incontinent drunk. After returning past midnight to the fire station, we were then awakened at 2:30 a.m. for another incontinent drunk.”
John claims he was terrified to quit his previous job as it involved an $18,000 pay cut, not to mention, his previous boss was a “controlling, petty man who didn’t take bad news well.” But the major career move has been “terrific.”
“I’m a happier, healthier person. I get to spend my weekdays off with my youngest daughter, who is usually very fun. I’ll get to spend most of my summer with both of my girls doing fun, outside stuff. The only real negatives are that my wife has an increased workload on the days I’m at the fire station, and I have no ability to help her for 24 hours. That and the pay cut. But, thankfully, my wife is a saint and has taken both in stride.”
To anyone considering a move to a simpler job title, John’s advice is “if it’s something you’re passionate about, do it. It can be hard, but as one of my officers is fond of saying: ‘There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.’”
The “FEEDING PEOPLE” category
Steve is an organic hilltop farmer in the unforgiving, windswept landscape of the Catskill Mountains. Previously, he worked for a major design firm in Manhattan, where he provided “big, corporate clients with financial services, branding, and sales tools.” Now his days are spent raising plants and animals. It’s not an easy job by any means. But it’s certainly rewarding.
“Labor defines my day. I get up at the crack of dawn, feed the animals, do about an hour of work, have breakfast and coffee, and then go back to work. I raise pigs, chickens, turkeys, and ducks. I have an orchard, four greenhouses (three of which are passive solar), and I grow organic veggies and berries. This area of Upstate New York is a hard place to farm. The greenhouses help put me in a Zone 7. The animals are much more predictable, believe it or not, to raise and nurture than anything soil-based.”
Steve explains that for “Part I” and “Part II” of his life, he “did all the right things.”
“I got educated, I worked, I paid taxes, paid bills, I raised my family. This is Part III, the last act of my life. I wanted to give it to myself. I got into farming for the romance. For idealistic reasons. Like a relationship, you get into it for the romance, then you realize the work involved and you work through and stick around only if you really love it.”
For Steve, his biggest challenge as an organic farmer is not the weather or pests or constant manual work. It’s financial. “Making money is the most challenging part of farming. It’s very hard not to be the working poor in this game. There is about an 80% attrition rate here for organic farm workers; it’s just not as utopian as they envision it will be. It’s hard, long work. I’m in my fifth year of self-taught farming. It’s been a tough learning curve, but I’m starting to finally understand this peculiar habitat. If I gave a master class in farming, I’d say you absolutely have to get your marketing right before anything else.”
Steve grew up in Iowa, where he spent some time doing road construction. Still, farming is harder. “It’s the most challenging work I’ve ever done, intellectually and physically, but I wouldn’t go back to the predictability of my previous world. If we are brave enough to be honest with ourselves, we will end up doing what we’re passionate about.”
The HEALING/HELPING category
Jessica is in the final phase of her Physician’s Assistant training in Kentucky. She’s made the rounds through the emergency room, pediatrics, psychiatric ward, inpatient/outpatient, and family medicine. She previously worked in advertising sales and university grant research.
“My former jobs involved a lot of sedentary desk work,” she says. “I felt bored. I had so little interaction with people and never felt like I helped anyone on an individual basis. I always wanted to be in medicine. If I was going to be away from my kids every day, I wanted to feel like I made a difference on a personal level.”
Leaving work to go back to school wasn’t easy, especially with young children at home. “I knew I couldn’t let my family down once I went down this road, but it was also liberating because it was what I had always dreamed of doing. My husband and kids have been my greatest motivation to succeed. We take it one day at a time in our house. My work can be draining after a long day in clinic but so fulfilling in that I can help people on such an essential level. Connecting to people in a basic, intimate way has given me a renewed purpose.
Unlike most who drop out of the corporate world, Jessica will actually see a salary increase with her new position, but it’s the emotional gain that she is most grateful for. “I am constantly reminded of the blessings in my life when I see so many people suffering. I also feel a responsibility to be a good role model by staying healthy. The more I learn about the damage of an unhealthy lifestyle, the more I focus on staying healthy. If people have their health, they have everything.”
The “BEING CREATIVE” category
Amy is a photographer in Massachusetts. She specializes in portraits, stunning seascapes, interior art shoots, and, most importantly, doggies. Before, she was a Corporate IT Recruiter, which required her to travel to as many as five cities in a week, interviewing candidates for IT jobs. The days were long and the nights were late. Eventually, she left the job and stayed busy raising three sons. “But I didn’t want to be a stay-at-home mom. I needed more.” So last year, she went back to her college passion—photography—and founded her own company, ARFotography.
“Now, I wake up, have coffee, walk my dogs, answer emails, look online for inspiration, workout, shower, grab lunch with a client or potential client, and then work from about noon to 3:00 p.m., either shooting or editing. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if I had the financial burden of being the primary breadwinner, but my business is growing and has had a very successful launch. I can’t think of many negatives associated with my new career except that maybe the visibility of my new job. Because it’s photography, social media is my lifeline. I live and die by people’s perceptions of my work and it’s all out there.”
Shocker: being a self-employed freelance writer hasn’t been a big money-maker for me. In an effort to create a career writing meaningful words, I’ve had to supplement my work with lots of fairly empty side jobs (data entry, social media advising, brochure copywriting, filing, typing, tutoring). I’ve also had to rely on a partner who makes a decent living, doing a job that isn’t his ideal. (What is his? Well, he’d like to be a citrus grower.) So, leaving the corporate world isn’t all glamorous. There are prolapsed colons and droughts and scary test results to deliver and French bulldogs who won’t sit still. Work is still work, but at least, most of the time, for dropouts, it’s on our terms. And at least, most of the time, we’re doing things that matter more than writing “promotional garbage” and flushing live animals down the toilet. These are important lessons I’ve learned, and ones I plan on sharing them with my kids when we sit down to talk about work someday.
Which is a good thing. Because seeing that both of my sons want to be cats when they grow up, they’ll need all the help they can get.