“Giving Up Everything to Find What Matters”
I spent 15 years trying to quit my job. At least that’s what my husband tells me.
He says that in October 1985, on our first date, as we both tried to politely avoid eating more than our fair share of a bubbling square of flaming cheese at the local Greek restaurant, I told him I was thinking about leaving the agency where I’d worked for the past six years. According to him, I didn’t know where I’d go, only that I wouldn’t be working in the public relations business all that much longer.
Truthfully, I don’t remember that conversation. Guess I was too focused on getting my share of the cheese. Long before anyone pointed out the significance of moving someone’s cheese.
By an accident of circumstances, I’d fallen into a career perfectly suited for me. One where the clients and jobs changed so rapidly there was no time to get bored. One where every day the smart people I worked with challenged me to do my best and solve big problems. One where the work gave me a huge adrenaline rush.
When my husband and I had that first date, I was on the fast track and working hard to stay there. I’d just been promoted to account supervisor at one of the Midwest’s largest business-to-business advertising and public relations agencies. I’d recently returned from a six-week workshop at our headquarters in New York, where I’d hobnobbed with the up-and-coming leaders of a worldwide agency.
A decade later, I was president of the public relations division, a principal of the firm, with a solid reputation as a client counselor and staff mentor. My future was bright. I was the go-to person and I had the job I’d always dreamed about.
And, after years of having no time to think of anything but the task at hand, of living with a perpetual headache, I was completely burned out.
But how do you walk away from the top of the heap, when you’re only 51? How do you give up the title, the prestige, the paycheck? What person in their right mind would do that?
I probed my career concerns with colleagues, clients and friends, and the money issues with my husband.
Why keep doing these jobs if they’re unsatisfying? I asked a colleague one day. His answer – Because we’re good at it. I found his answer equally unsatisfying.
When I posed the same question to the head of the advertising division, his answer – Because our work gives a lot of others good lives – felt more worthy. But still not enough to keep me going.
Perhaps the largest question was at the core of my anxiety: What would people think? Not only was I in the business of managing perception for clients, I’d also spent my own life being what people expected, exceeding what people expected.
One day over lunch, I asked my client, the first female CEO of a major bank, what she’d say if she saw me working as a clerk in a garden supply store (because having some money is actually a necessary thing). She laughed and said, I’d ask if you could get me a job! Apparently I wasn’t the only one wondering if being on top was worth it!
Were the title, the prestige, the paycheck really me? Or was I something else? The more I agonized, the more dissatisfied I became. Finally, I realized I could pick apart the problem forever and get nowhere closer to certainty, not while the job required 120% every day.
I walked into my boss’s office and quit. He countered with a sabbatical. Unbelievably, I agreed.
During the next five months, I spent most of my time talking with my parents about their lives. The more I talked to them, the more I remembered my own childhood and rediscovered the values that shaped me. The stories I wrote during those months were the genesis of a memoir of my childhood published in 2008: Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl. The creativity was positively gushing out of me. I felt great!
At the end of the sabbatical, I walked back into my office and three things happened. 1) The gushing stream of ideas stopped as though someone had turned off a faucet. 2) I developed sciatica. 3) I came down with shingles.
But did I walk right back out? No. Even in the face of all that, I continued to work for another year. At last, on May 1, 1999, I left for good. No job. No title. No paycheck. My only certainty was that it was better to do nothing at all than to stay in a job that didn’t nurture my soul.
I’ve never regretted walking away.
A few observations to offer from my experience.
People often say, I wish I could do what you did. I respond, You can. It’s a matter of priorities. My priorities were my time and my health. No amount of money or prestige was an adequate tradeoff.
If you’re satisfied doing what you do, keep on. If you’re dissatisfied, change the job. Or change your attitude. Or leave. It’s more important to be satisfied than to be successful. Or maybe the fact is that if you are satisfied, you will be successful—on your own terms.
The answers to our individual needs are inside us if we listen. I’ve found that to be true with CEOs I’ve counseled. They almost always know what they should do; they just need someone help them reason it out. My answers were inside of me, too. When years of rational thought went unheeded, my body sent me a physical message. Finally I listened.
Though I sometimes groan remembering that I let my boss talk me into that sabbatical, I have to acknowledge what a gift those months ultimately were. During that leave, I had time to spend with family and friends. Time to turn on the faucet and begin to slake my thirst for writing. Time to discover what was really important to me.
Carol Bodensteiner – Bio
Carol Bodensteiner is a writer who finds inspiration in the places, people, culture and history of the Midwest. After a successful career in public relations consulting, she turned to creative writing. She published her memoir GROWING UP COUNTRY in 2008.
She’s working on her first novel, historical fiction set during World War I. Carol writes regularly for The Iowan magazine www.iowan.com and blogs about writing, her prairie, gardening, and whatever in life interests her at the moment at www.carolbodensteiner.com. Carol’s twitter handle is: @CABodensteiner. Join Carol on LinkedIn , and Facebook.
Sonia Marsh Says: I love this phrase, and shall keep it in mind when I speak about “Gutsy Living.”
“It’s more important to be satisfied than to be successful.”
I also agree with you that sometimes we need to “step away” to get things into perspective and back on track in our lives. You did this with your sabbatical, just as my family did by moving to Belize.
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NOW is the time to submit your “My Gutsy Story®.” Please see guidelines below and contact Sonia Marsh at: email@example.com for details.