Walking Away from My Dream Career Path Saved My Life
I traded career ambition in exchange for mental, emotional, and interpersonal health
“Anything that costs you your peace is too expensive.”
— Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
I was dying to work for a Fortune 500 company.
The first decade of my career had been spent clawing my way through nonprofits and university hospitals and I was determined to make the leap. It was the reason I went to business school for an MBA. It was the reason I was certified as a Six Sigma Green Belt. All of my professional moves and decisions were aimed at that goal.
Then, one day it happened.
An internal recruiter, working for a multinational conglomerate that is in the top twenty of Fortune’s list every single year, had seen my profile on LinkedIn and thought I may be a good fit.
I was excited, but also cautious.
After all, I had been down this road before. Following countless resume submissions, I’d finally be contacted by an individual working for a company that I admired and for which I dreamed of working. The conversation was almost always positive and I’d be left with a promise that they would “be in touch.”
Most of the time, I never heard from them again. From time to time, I would be asked to participate in a phone screen and there were those rare occasions in which I would be brought into the office for an in-person discussion.
Sooner or later, I always failed. It was not a question of if but rather when.
From the start, however, this call felt different.
The recruiter was very interested and, by the end, he was asking me to check my calendar for when I could come in for an interview.
In the spring of 2013, I got my wish.
I was hired in a corporate finance role with one of the world’s most profitable companies. The commute was killer — an 80-mile drive each way meaning that a regular day wasn’t eight or nine hours, but twelve or fourteen— but we were planning on moving soon anyway. Moreover, the opportunity was too good to pass up.
After all, this was my springboard moment and I wasn’t going to let it go.
Eager to please and acutely aware that my background was not only unique, but also put me at a disadvantage, I vowed to do everything necessary to be a success.
Like so many in finance, month-end meant I was living in the office and closing the quarter was even worse, including marathon sessions that lasted until midnight and spilled over into the weekend with more work to do at home. There were other times when there was no need to stay, but the executive director asked us to stick around “just in case” only to release us after three hours of sitting around. During this time, I wouldn’t see my daughter awake for an entire week or more — we were roommates that occupied the same space but never at the same time.
Even after we moved closer, I wasn’t home nearly enough.
I felt like a neglectful parent and spouse, the majority of my interactions with them taking place on weekends. That’s not a life. I know my experiences are far from rare and even my worst stories are not nearly as bad as others. I understand that.
Still, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was cut from a different cloth. The people who succeeded didn’t care about life outside the office. There was no life outside the office. The job was life. They lived and breathed it and deserved everything they received, but I knew it wasn’t for me.
I had gotten exactly what I wanted and, like so often happens in life, it was not at all what I had expected.
Three years after I had snagged the job, there were loud whispers that major changes were coming and none of our jobs were safe. I wasn’t naive — my reward for working those hours was monetary, not loyalty. I know that in today’s information economy employment is a transaction and when one side becomes unhappy with the arrangement, it’s time to end that transaction.
After interviewing with several other companies, including an extremely profitable one in which I was told that the culture was “cutthroat” and “exhausting” by the human resources representative, I landed a similar role with a local division of another multinational that wasn’t as large but still highly profitable. It was a manufacturing division and the office looked like an abandoned elementary school, quite the step down from the global headquarters to which I had become accustomed.
I wasn’t overly excited at first, but it was a Godfather offer — one I couldn’t refuse.
It was a global role, one that supported locations in Europe, Asia, and north Africa, as well as the United States.
That sounded ominous from a work-life balance standpoint — it is always business hours somewhere — but how bad could it be?
Surely, it wouldn’t be an around-the-clock gig…right?
The iPhone they gave me was beautiful. It became a handcuff.
I wasn’t a vice president or a director. I wasn’t even a manager. I was simply an analyst, but I’d wake up on a Sunday morning to a phone full of emails from around the world full of actionable items and questions that I was expected to address immediately.
Conference calls were at the crack of dawn or near the stroke of midnight
Somehow, month- and quarter-end became even worse. We would be in the office until 11 p.m. only to turn around and be back there at 7 a.m. Day after day, month after month.
A 50-page presentation would have to be edited virtually on the fly. And if the formatting was even a bit off? You could kiss your performance review goodbye. I know from experience. The harder I worked, the worse it became. The closest places to eat were a burrito joint and a burger place and, when combined with my affinity to come home and have a beer or two to relax a couple of nights a week, it’s no surprise I became bloated and sluggish. I was fat and miserable, stressed and frazzled.
One time, after I had stayed up nearly all night, my director sent me home after the presentation to get some rest. As I was pulling into my driveway, the VP of Finance, his boss, emailed me to tell me that he expected me in the office early the following morning to make up for all the time I would lose that afternoon by going home early.
Another time, the head of HR pulled me aside once to tell me that, far too often, I was leaving the office before 6 p.m.
“You know that one of our core values is intensity, right?” she asked.
“Yeah, I know. I just like to have dinner with my family,” I responded. As if that were a ridiculous notion.
“That’s great. You just have to decide what’s more important to you.”
As if that’s even a decision. Never mind the fact that after dinner and putting my child to bed, I’d climb the stairs to my home office and plug back in for a few more hours until I could barely see straight. That’s not intense?
Despite all of that, I was still determined to make it work. I wanted to grow within the organization. I saw a future for myself in some capacity. Our division was floundering but the overall company was thriving and while I thought the culture was toxic and leadership was the perfect combination of arrogant and incompetent, I worked with some really smart people that were committed as well. I thought we could build something.
Then came Easter Sunday, 2017. Everything changed for me that day — just like Jesus.
We were hosting our annual get-together when my phone vibrated to inform me of an urgent email from the VP demanding an immediate conference call. I offered apologies and trudged upstairs hoping it would be brief.
It was not.
He was in the office, just like every other Sunday, and he was insistent that we needed to put together a fairly robust report for him. Now. He was adamant that it could not wait until the next day. He kept us on the phone for nearly two hours, rehashing the same things over and over again while downstairs two sets of families enjoyed the holiday in my home without me. I honestly believe he simply wanted to ruin our day just because he could.
From that moment on, I was actively planning my escape.
I exited eleven months after I entered. I walked away; ran, actually. Last I heard, they had their worst year in history, making performance bonuses practically moot and proving yet again that workaholism doesn’t guarantee success.
My new organization doesn’t have offices around the globe. It doesn’t count its earnings with nine zeroes. It isn’t in the Fortune 500. It isn’t the most profitable; in fact, it’s a non-profit. I’m back in the world of healthcare and while I’m still very busy and occasionally overwhelmed, it’s not the same.
I don’t have a job-issued cell phone. They didn’t even give me a laptop.
When I leave the office, I’m gone. I can check email on my home laptop and sometimes I do, but it’s not required or even expected. Best of all, most of my colleagues don’t email over the weekends anyway. They have lives too and they realize it can almost always wait until Monday.
The differences in my mental and physical health, my emotional well-being, and even my relationships are profound. I don’t dread going to work every morning like I used. I’m not petrified of being berated for a mistake or mocked for wanting to spend time with my family. I see my kids every night. My relationship with my wife is as great as its ever been. I also eat much better and hit the gym nearly ever day, and while I enjoy my wine on weekends, I no longer treat a glass of alcohol as a magical elixir.
In short, I’m happy and healthy.
I was dying to work for a Fortune 500 — and if I had kept doing it, it would’ve killed me.
While I was in the midst of writing this piece, I was invited to a meeting with the CEO and other members of the executive team. I was informed that I was being promoted to lead a brand new group within the organization.
Later that day, my new boss and I were talking on the phone when I informed her that I did not have a work-provided laptop.
She paused for a moment and said, “We’ll have to get you one right away. And a phone too.”
I didn’t say anything.
She quickly added, “I don’t expect you to receive any off-hours calls.”
Let’s hope not.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of nine books. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.
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