Saturday, April 14, 2012

In defense of Peter Pan

I ran into an old acquaintance at a big fundraiser event a bit ago. He's a wise guru-type that I know from my days at a nonprofit leadership organization here in the Vail Valley. It's a boisterous room full of this community's movers and shakers with fat wallets and "mountain chic" attire (whatever that is). "Hey, Matt, what are you up to?" he says. I get a few words out about work. "No, Matt, not your job; how are you serving your purpose?" So much for small talk. I dodged that conversational quagmire by promising some coffee talk later on. But of course that got me thinking about being a grownup.

I used to subscribe to the How to Live a Conventional Life handbook. It's not actually a handbook. What I mean is I used to do what it was I thought I was supposed to do. I traveled Europe after college for only five weeks because I thought I was supposed to get back and get busy finding a job that would start me on a career so I could buy a house and fill it with stuff that would attract a wife and accommodate 2.6 children who would go to college and get careers of their own just before I retired with a pension and a new home on a golf course in a warm town with lots of buffets and senior discounts and bingo tournaments.

After some time in the corporate world — where every job interview starts with "Here in the Nimblybob Division we work hard…and we play hard" (which means you put in a lot of hours, act stressed out but produce very little, then get drunk and embarrass yourselfat quarterly meetings and most Friday afternoons) — I became disillusioned with what it was I thought I was supposed to do.

So I quit that and traveled in Australia & New Zealand for just a couple of months, because I felt the itch to return and do…something…but without a new handbook I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing. I just felt like I needed to be doing something. (It's unfortunate that I didn't realize then that travel was at least as good a way to search for oneself as a job hunt.) I bopped around several conventional jobs all in the telecom industry that I had originally stumbled into. If you've ever read the comic strip Dilbert, you may guess that I was really getting no farther away from a conventional (and absurd) career and life.

I was mercifully laid off my last conventional job when the dot-com bubble burst, and I ended up (eventually) at the nonprofit leadership organization. And it was there that I was finally able to give shape to my vague yearnings for a more meaningful life. And though it was not the first time I'd heard of many of these ideas and concepts, it was the first time I was ready to understand them and apply them. And chief among these was Purpose.

Ech, I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. Unfortunately, my old corporate conditioning still elicits a gag reflex when I use that word. But just because the concept was co-opted by corporate drone machines doesn't mean there isn't truth behind the preachy, trite, corporatey, approach. Participants in our leadership courses used to create Purpose Statements. I don't believe a statement is necessary to live life with purpose, but the exercise of naming my values, creating goals, and, ultimately, considering my special purpose, made me realize that being a grownup is purely an internal, personal measure, and not measured by wealth, status, stuff, or hours spent at work.

Sure, being a contributing member of society, providing and caring for your family, being dependable, etcetera, etcetera, are all important things. But those things happen best because you have "grown up" and been responsible first to yourself and your own development. They are not the measure of grownupedness.

So I've told you all that so I can tell you this.

After having returned from our yearlong non-working family sabbatical in Ecuador, Diana and I have taken jobs we used to do when we were 16 (or maybe 21). Di is at least learning about wine and cheese behind the counter at a gourmet food shop. I just have my head down at a restaurant, bussing tables (and weeping quietly over the great volume of uneaten food I throw in the trashcan). At a point earlier in my life I'd have been ashamed to be sweeping up after the circus parade, but both Di and I now really appreciate a day of physical work, clocking out and leaving work behind, and getting to see people we know every day (though many don't know what to make of us in these roles).

And we are also living in an apartment less than half the size of our home because it's cheaper to do that than kick the renters out of our house so we can go back there. (Diana loves that she can vacuum the whole place in fifteen minutes without ever having to move the plug.)

Admittedly it's easier doing these jobs and living in this space knowing that they are temporary, as we are just rebuilding our professional lives and incomes, not abandoning them altogether. But we find it interesting that in a position that twenty years ago I'd have thought of as failure, we now feel more grownup than ever.


  1. Thanks for keeping the posts coming Matt! We enjoy your insights as always. It is good to hear that your perspective on things has been changed by your time away.

  2. Thanks, guys. And we're having fun watching your progress, not vicariously, but kinda like pitcher who's just been called off the mound and can watch the relief pitcher. We'll want back out there eventually, but sometimes you need the bench.

    Throw 'em the heater!

  3. Good analogy Matt. Yes, you are like the wiser, more experienced player who tells it like it is. We're the young (and pretty naive) player who seems to prefer learning the hard way. But is there any better way to really learn than to get your hands dirty actually doing it? Cheers, Bo

  4. No no no, Bo. The starter is no wiser or better than the relief pitcher. They have different skills for different needs during the game. Neither can usually do the other's job. I just mean in the chronological sense of watching someone else play the game, and in a different way than you, yourself did. Did that clear it? Probably not. I should never have dropped out of that metaphor class Freshman year.