A few months ago as I was running full speed toward my second mid-life crisis, I stumbled on a book that made me slow down. I was heading to Chicago for a Birthright Israel training conference at the strangely idyllic McDonald's Corporate campus in Oak Brook, Illinois. (The conference was strictly kosher and there was nary a cheeseburger in sight.) As I packed my luggage for the trip, I realized that I had nothing to read on the plane. My iPad is loaded with books but I still prefer to hold a physical book in my hand and turn the paper pages. So I grabbed the first unread book I saw on my nightstand and headed to the airport.
The book was a paperback that I bought used on Amazon for a penny: “How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else” by Michael Gates Gill.
I heard Gill interviewed on NPR back when the book had first come out. We were just plunging into the recession and the stock market was tanking. Bernie Madoff was all over the news. People were feeling unsettled and out of whack. On the radio, Gill described how he had been summarily fired a few years earlier by the new CEO of a Madison Avenue advertising agency. With his connections and severance, Gill started his own consulting firm with high hopes, but quickly ran into difficulty. Then he compounded his woes with an extra-marital affair, which led to the end of his marriage. The consulting firm’s struggle for financial success coupled with a costly divorce left him in dire financial straits.
One day he wandered into a Manhattan Starbucks to treat himself to a luxury: a fancy coffee drink in a paper cup. He took a seat next to the manager who was preparing for a hiring event that day. She looked at the well-dressed businessman with the expensive briefcase and asked him, perhaps in jest, if he was looking for a job. Gill thought for a moment and then turned to her. “Yes,” he said, “I am.” As Gill transitioned from high paid consultant to modestly paid barista, he began to think differently about the importance of material possessions, the meaning of work, and how his career had compromised his values and his relationships.
Gill’s dramatic career change intrigued me. About a month earlier, I had applied online for a job that I couldn’t imagine I’d be offered, much less accept. The job was at the Apple Store in a local shopping mall. My fan-status with Apple dates back to 1985 when I convinced my skeptical but trusting mom to buy a Macintosh. We’ve been an all Apple family ever since. When I was executive director of the Public Risk Management Association from 1991-1998, I purchased and ran only Apple computers at a time when virtually no businesses did. Among my colleagues and friends, I have been the go-to guy for support for Macs and iPhones. How fun it would be, I thought, to get paid to evangelize Apple products.
But how could I make that work? For one thing, it would be a huge cut in pay. Retail workers have crazy hours including Saturdays. I assumed that retail workers don’t enjoy benefits, such as health insurance. Losing health coverage would have a huge impact on my entire family.
Gill’s book inspired me to revisit my assumptions, as well as my fears. After all, financially my position was nowhere near as precarious as his. Why not take a little risk?
As I learned more about working at Apple, I liked what I heard. Health insurance, even for part-time employees, flexible hours, various career paths. Even a schedule that allowed me to continue to observe the Jewish Sabbath. Most importantly, the reduced hours and commute time would allow me to spend more time on my writing and other interests. Armed with new information about a retail position at the Apple Store, something that I had dismissed as impossible seemed quite possible.
My previous employer was helpful in making up my mind. With a combination of incentives and an environment that was increasingly untenable, I became convinced that the time was right. Other things that appealed to me were a commute that was 15 minutes each way rather than 60-90 minutes, and a diverse crew of co-workers, from every age, religion, and ethnic background. Plus discounts on the stuff I love! I was offered the job at Apple and accepted it in late August. After a period of working two jobs, I left my old job on October 8th.
Today, I am more than a month into my new life. So how is it going?
I am working about 30 hours a week (down from 45) and my commute time is about 2.5 hours per week (down from 7.5). With the extra hours, I am doing more writing, cooking, and exercise. There is a spaciousness that has opened up and a sense of freedom with not being tied to a 9-5 (really 8-7) schedule every day.
I have given up having Sundays free for the most part (one of the busiest days at the store) but I have a day or two off on a weekday. Turns out it’s great to be off when the rest of the world is working.
The job itself is great fun. I love helping people learn about and get the most out of their cool Apple devices and my co-workers are fun, funny, and interesting. Instead of sitting at a desk all day, I am moving around and, according to my fitness tracker, racking up several thousands of steps per shift, without even trying.
To be honest, I do worry a little about money. One doesn’t take any cut in pay without thinking about whether one will be able to make ends meet. But we have always lived below our means and eschewed debt. Our frugal habits are paying dividends now. And living on a reduced income does have advantages, believe it or not. I’ve found that it forces me to give more thought to every day purchases. I appreciate the things I choose to buy.
More than anything, my new life is a reminder that we should never confuse who we are with what we are. Those of us who have spent decades doing ‘mission driven’ work can easily get sucked into a vortex, in which our work is all-consuming and we view it as the most important thing in our lives. We allow our jobs to become our identity and to define the whole story we tell ourselves about who we are. The price we pay for narrowing our story to a professional role is weaker friendships and family relationships, less room to explore our interests and passions, and a tendency to outsource the essential tasks of making a life.
Work offers us dignity, Gill says and this seems exactly right. Whether we are part of a mission, just providing for or taking care of our families, or volunteering for a cause we believe in, to work is to make a contribution to the human enterprise. To have purpose and be recognized by others as adding value is a basic need like food, clothing, and shelter,. At the same time, it is vital to recognize when one’s work becomes so consuming that there is no room for anything else. That may be a sign it's time to swap your daily grind for fresh blend.