Taking the Dream Career Plunge II: Make Your Job And Love It!

Spirit of Change 20th anniversary issue reprint from Jul/Aug 1996

The old man is a regular at Nick’s restaurant in downtown Lowell, arriving for lunch like clockwork at 1:30 p.m. sharp. Digging into his mashed potatoes and gravy, he chats with the waitress about a mutual acquaintance.

“Yeah, she’s had a tough life. A very tough life,” the old man says. “But you know, she’s a hard worker.”

For most Americans, New Englanders especially, that’s quite a compliment. Being a “hard worker” is an ultimate virtue in these parts — a time-honored character trait in the Puritan ethic of self denial for the greater good. Long ago, it became an end unto itself: Whether you’re happy, whether you enjoy your job, whether you have time left over for hobbies, travel, or fulfilling relationships is irrelevant. The shared belief is that if you work hard, you have integrity and command respect.

The lines etched deeply into the old man’s face suggest that he, too, was a hard worker. Probably still is, despite his retirement. He apparently retains a workmanlike lifestyle, ordering from the same menu, at the same time every weekday afternoon for years on end.

Look around and you’ll see how most of us, like worker bees in a crowded hive, obediently perform the societal script issued at birth. It goes something like this: you grow up and earn your college degree (or learn a trade out of high school). You get a good-paying job you might not particularly like. You marry, buy a house, have children. Then you spend the next 40-odd years paying the mortgage, putting your kids though school, and accumulating loads of expensive, and perhaps unnecessary possessions before packing off to a retirement home in Florida.

Along this path the years fly by as each day becomes the next with stupifying similarity. If you’re lucky, you scavenge a couple of precious weeks each year for a respite at the Cape or a trip with the kids to Disney World. Sometimes you might even like what you’re doing. Yet more often than not you feel like a 9 to 5 automaton, performing your job by rote, slogging through the Monday-Friday grind in a foggy malaise.

Frustration occasionally surfaces and interrupts your waking slumber. You question whether this really is all that life has to offer. Then you shove that nagging doubt back into its little black box, reminding yourself that a regular paycheck, pension and health insurance are certainly worth all the sacrifices you make for them.

This is how it was for your parents and your parents’ parents. To consider stepping out from behind the employment shield and pursuing your own dream career is just too scary. After all, you’ve got “obligations” and “responsibilities.” if nothing else, you at least can take solace in the knowledge that in spite of everything, you’re a hard worker.

Having moved to Massachusetts from the Midwest nearly eight years ago, I noticed early on that there’s plenty of striving and not enough living in this part of the country. Most aspects personal life here are subordinate to almighty work, and New Englanders arguably are the hardest, longest-working Americans of all.

There is nothing wrong with hard work, per se. but working hard at something you don’t enjoy might be the ultimate in unconscious living. I, too, was a slave to the security trap and the hard-work ethic, survival instincts inherited from my Depression-era parents. Those aspects of my professional mindset grew after moving here, when I entered a work environment rife with negative reinforcement.

The prospective loss of security remains a prime workplace motivator, a fear that employers exploit with consummate skill. Since the Industrial Revolution, employers have assumed that workers are inherently lazy and unfocused and must be motivated by the fear of lost livelihood. Negative reinforcement is modus operandi in the modern workplace — and it’s not always the boss’s fault. Why? Because most people aren’t passionate about their work. They need (and expect) discipline from the corner office.

Only when we align ourselves with work that expresses the soul does the equation change. Threats and criticism give way to encouragement and praise, because the self-sabotage born of subconscious resistance to disagreeable work evaporates.

It seems that somewhere here along the line, we learned things “bass ackwards.” Jobs are widely regarded in American society as things to be endured for the sake of security and material gain. Young people learn early on that high earning potential, rather than a sense of fulfillment, is the ultimate career goal.

Once we enter the workplace, most of us find it impossible to switch gears. The attachments are just too strong. But when you see those attachments for what they are, and how they limit life’s full expression, personal liberation becomes a realistic option.

I can say I enjoyed my 17-year career as a newspaper reporter about half the time. I loved the creative rush of producing crisp, incisive copy under deadline, the thrill of being a first hand observer of momentous events, and the prestige that distinguishes a seasoned veteran of the Fourth Estate. I abhored the chaotic work schedule that plagued my nights and weekends, the unrelenting pressure to work harder, faster and smarter, and company control of my vacation time — how much I got, when I could take it. Most of all, I resented having my professional fortunes and my sense of self worth dictated by the subjective opinions of others. This involved an endless parade of short-lived supervisors with punitive attitudes and personal agendas.

My “awakening” occurred about a year ago, when I finally understood how corporate regimentation and a fear-based work environment had shackled my creative spirit. Having just turned 40, I decided to take stock of where I’d been and where I was going. The last seven years were a blur. The future? I feared at this rate, I’d wake up tomorrow at age 65, look back, and wonder where my life went. I certainly didn’t want to be the next old man inn the restaurant.

My passion for newspaper journalism was gone, replaced by a desire to publish my own magazine and do freelance writing, to be in a space where my creativity had room to grow and flourish. Personal consideration also entered the mix. More than money, more than anything, I wanted time to develop a more balanced lifestyle, one emphasizing relationships, spiritual growth, fun and travel. In other words, a life of equilibrium between the personal and the professional.

I left the newspapers in late August, 1995, a move perhaps foreshadowed by an article I wrote for Spirit of Change in March 1995 entitled “Taking the Dream Career Plunge.” On the practical side, my transition was eased by several factors: I was single and debt free with no dependents. I had a cushion of savings to help me through the early months. I also knew what I wanted to do, and had a strong desire to do it.

On the spiritual side, I was forced to rethink major attachments like health insurance, a weekly paycheck, and retirement pension. These previously indispensable attachments were strong, and not easily surrendered. But “surrender” is the operative word here.

Leaving an employer is like leaving your parents. There’s no one there to punish you when you’ve messed up or to praise your successes. No one to dole out your allowance. No higher authority to give your life structure, direction or discipline.

At first, it’s an alternately exhilarating and scary experience. Outside the confines of employment for the first time in my adult life, I felt like the MacAuley Caulkin character in Home Alone. My inner child ran amok. I stayed up late, slept in, wasted time, played a lot and reveled in my independence. That giddy sense of abandon soon became clouded, however, by fears I hadn’t felt since shortly after college. Poverty consciousness set in as I squinted bleakly into a future without guaranteed security.

My biggest mistake early on was giving energy to that fear by turning inward. I pinched pennies like mad, switching to a cut-rate supermarket, limiting my long-distance phone time, etc. I became obsessed with hoarding meager resources, rather than tapping the potential of my new-found freedom to create abundance.

In the ensuing months my inner pendulum swung between fearful contraction and relaxed optimism. For the first time since childhood I was time-rich and financially challenged. But the condition has moderated as I continue to forge the equilibrium I so desperately coveted in the gilded prison of the employed.

Self-discipline is a difficult art to master. The key is not waiting until you’re desperate to begin exerting it. I’ve learned to be gently strict with myself, and my days have assumed a pleasant flow that’s long on satisfaction and short on stress. My muse has returned. I can again lose myself in a transcendental state of creative inspiration, where hours seem like minutes. I’ve learned about the importance of living in the moment, and how the foundation of a solid future is laid brick by brick, one day at a time.

I work anywhere from 4 to 12 hours a day at my own pace, five to seven days a week, depending on how I feel and what needs to be done. I eat when I’m hungry. I take naps when I’m tired. I’ve gotten into my body, working out at the local health club two hours every morning. I’ve also exercised my heart and soul, doing weekly volunteer work at an adult education center and attending numerous personal growth lectures and workshops.

Health insurance? I have seen no need for it (although high-deductible catastrophic coverage probably would be a good idea). I haven’t had as much as a cold since leaving my job nine months ago. In fact, I’ve never been healthier. Vigorous exercise, proper nutrition, meditation and adequate sleep comprise my new health insurance policy.

My relationship to money is evolving as well. I’m beginning to find that money, like other things in life, assumes the reality we project onto it. How much is enough? How little is too little? There usually is enough around to provide what we need. What we want is another question. It can be difficult to distinguish between the two, but I’m learning. I’m also learning that it’s possible to live well on less income by using imagination and eliminating waste.

I’m not worried about retirement, although I’m mindful that it’s important to plan for old age. I trust that my current path will provide income far exceeding that of my last job. Then, retirement concerns will be moot.

It’s apparent to me that hard work and dedication to security can be effective avoidance mechanisms. In succumbing to workaholism, deeply felt desires, fears and worries are easily suppressed. Away from the workplace for an extended period, all that “stuff” representing the real you begins to surface, and you have no choice but to deal with it.

For me, these last 10 months have been a rollercoaster of emotional peaks and valleys. I’ve endured bouts of fear, self-doubt, frustration and loneliness. I’ve also enjoyed great serenity, new friendship, and the wonder of discovering aspects of myself I didn’t know existed. I’ve learned more about myself in the last year than I ever imagined possible, all from letting go of limiting beliefs and attachments.

This new life remains a work in progress and perhaps will remain so for some time before a solid status quo is established. I still have much to learn about running a sole proprietorship, about efficiently managing time and money, and about conquering self doubt. Each and every day presents a fresh challenge.

Often, people tell me that abandoning the safer path in favor of my dream career was a courageous move. I’m not so sure about that. The way I see it, I had no choice.

John Collinge is a staff writer for Spirit of Change. He is also the publisher of Progression, a quarterly journal of art-rock, progressive jazz and new age music.