When Downsizing Makes You Happy
I have often thought of a professional career as something built brick by brick, climbed ladder rung by ladder rung until one reached the pinnacle, enjoyed the view, and, then, retired. But I have known at least a few people who may have stopped short of the peak, either intentionally or as the result of outside circumstances, stepped down, and pursued a different kind of working life.
Friends, neighbors, coworkers, bosses, and clients bring to mind examples: a long-time manager of a beverage distributorship who then worked as a retail sales associate at a department store; a corporate vice president supporting exponential sales growth nationwide then overseeing a one-town operation; a district attorney with 20 years of experience in public service now running a one-person practice in a small town; a logistics director of a billion-dollar retailer later managing a million-dollar operation. And, there are those who may have opted out before experiencing significant success.
Though I work with clients who have been downsized and displaced, I am typically focused on helping them reach their goals, not necessarily evaluating what could have been. But a recent encounter changed that for me.
A few months ago, I was reading the paper and happened upon a name that I recognized from my past: the pastor of a church I attended more than 20 years ago. He delivered inspirational messages and seemed to handle conflict extremely well, an asset for such a leader. Years before, I considered him to be a rising star and, so, was surprised to see that he was now the pastor of a very small church less than a mile from my home. I wondered if his career, perhaps, had gotten off track. After all, he certainly could have landed a position with a much larger church or one that seemed to be making a bigger impact in the community.
Before I could arrange a visit, I heard his voice, easily recognizable after 20 years, at a community event (a walk to raise money for hunger-fighting agencies). I didn’t approach him immediately but watched, not just as I waited for the event to begin but as I walked. The members of his church, walking with him, listening to him, talking with him, clearly, were energized. He was truly savoring his work, despite an energy level, intellect, and presence that could have thrived in a much more demanding environment. He definitely seemed to be enjoying his life.
Dreams don’t have to be focused on position, prestige, numbers, and dollars. I knew that, didn’t I?
I wish I could stop there but I can’t.
Downsizing doesn’t make everyone happy.
Ironically, I had visited the church my former pastor now leads and remember hearing a message of simple living that I found bothersome. The preacher seemed to be proposing that we all pursue a model of simplicity offered by Wanda Urbanska and Frank Levering, who had recently written Simple Living: One Couple’s Search for a Better Life and were beginning the talk-show circuit. The couple had ditched its fast-lane life as screenwriters in Los Angeles for a slower one in and around Mount Airy, North Carolina aka Andy Griffith’s Mayberry.
What bothered me is that simple living didn’t involve stretching minimum wages to cover food, housing, and clothing but taking over a family-owned farm. Not everyone has a fruit orchard near the Blue Ridge Parkway in which to relocate, cultivate, and grow. Similarly, not everyone is a Microsoft Millionaire, who can move from corporate cubicle to world changing in one step.
In the years between visiting the church and seeing my pastor friend (I spoke to him after the walk), I have visited Frank and Wanda’s pick-your-own-fruit orchard to gather sweet cherries many times. Though he doesn’t announce himself as the owner, Frank walks the orchard, guiding newcomers to the day’s best spots for picking cherries, offering assistance to visitors, checking ladders (required to pick sweet cherries high in the trees) to make sure they are secure. Seeing a farmer making a decent living is gratifying (though the family business includes Simple Living on PBS and other projects). Reading a bit of the Simple Living book made me see that this couple had not given up success but gave up at getting a certain kind of success.
Now that I have had time to learn and reflect, I see that you can bring creative, rigorous thought and action to ventures that break new ground and generate profits. A discussion thread in the forum ("Is 'Simple Living' Just Another Term for 'Giving Up'?") has made me affirm that simple living is not the same as giving up but rather directing energy in a different way. And, sometimes, self-induced or corporate-fueled downsizing can make you happy.
I was displaced from my first job after a corporate acquisition, left a second job when I heard rumors about a buyout (which never happened though the company later went bankrupt), and decided to pursue a career outside of the corporate realm after my third employer was acquired during the heyday of leveraged buyouts in the 1980s. At the time, the use of outplacement agencies had not yet become common and severance packages were largely reserved for executives (golden parachutes). Downsizing can be devastating but considering new possibilities, either in the same field or a completely different one, is useful in moving forward.