When Downsizing Makes You Happy

By Julie Rains on 1 January 2009 11 comments
Photo: Lerble

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.
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Myscha Theriault's picture

Another thought provoking post. Thank you, Julie.

Guest's picture

I find it interesting how so-called Christian leaders encourage others to follow the example of men and women that live simple lives instead of that of Jesus Christ! Maybe they should go back to their Bibles and read Matthew 6:33. I don't mean to be preachy, but these are religious leaders we are talking about. Can they actually call themselves followers of Christ?

Guest's picture
Mary Michael Bogues

I believe if anyone in history embraced the simple life it was Jesus. If we wish to "do what Jesus would do" I think ridding ourselves of worldly burdens and directing our energies by simply the of ourselves to the needs of others. That's where TRUE HAPPINESS lies.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks Myscha and Guest, your comment reminded me of a reason I didn't necessarily appreciate the message. Figuring out what you are called to do, or meant to do, etc. is great but it is not the same for everyone.

As an added thought, it would be great if more employers realized that the talent that they are looking for may be people with experience who can add value, rather than assuming that something is terribly wrong if a candidate isn't just looking for the next big step in a career. I found this article on hiring the overqualified interesting, though I'll mention that taking what some may perceive of as a lesser position doesn't mean desperation but can signal a change in priorities at a certain time in life.

Guest's picture

An extremely thought provoking post, and I agree with the point that sometimes people are just happy where they are.

As a consultant, I am always asked if I want to do the next step to be a manager, or become a head of a division or a project manager. And I don't. I couldn't care less. I want to do MY job as a consultant and not manage anyone, ever.

*shrug* That's not what they want to hear, so I tell them I am interested in opportunities but I love my job the way it is.

Fabulously Broke in the City
Just a girl trying to find a balance between being a Shopaholic and a Saver...

Guest's picture

Are Frank Levering and Wanda Ubanska still together? I read an article in a magazine recently written by Wanda Urbanska about her new home. Only Urbanska and her son, Henry, were pictured and mentioned. I'm not sure if the magazine was "Mother Earth News" but it was something along that line.

Julie Rains's picture

From what I can tell, Wanda is more of the public face and Frank is more of the behind the scenes guy so I am not sure if the magazine article was telling us anything or just focusing on who most people are used to hearing from. I like the idea that the media can portray cultural and counter-cultural trends.

Guest's picture

I used to be ambitious. I used to work all hours. I used to be concerned about pay equity and job titles.

Now that I've been through a year of complete financial crisis, none of that matters to me anymore.

I love that I have a job I'm good at. I contribute what I can to the world. I can feed my kids and send them to the doctor when they need to go.

Do I need to run the place? Nope.

Things are different.

Guest's picture

I am one of those people who is happy in their job. I could go higher, there are plenty of opportunities in the company I work at, but those opportunities don't appeal to me.

Some of the reasons they don't appeal are, I don't want to be a manager, work longer hours, and have more stress.

My motto is 'Work to live, not live to work.'

Guest's picture
Mary Michael Bogues

Downsizing is a term I have struggled with for many years. Every part of my life has been hit with the downsizing phenonomen. I believe it is a constant, and ever changing animal. I will start in one place only to finding myself somewhere else. The last thing I downsized was my Christmas paraphenila. 14 boxes down to 6. I could probably go further but my 3 wreathes reside in 2 different wreath boxes. Does it make me happy? YES! Less to pack and unpack next season releases the tension from several neck and shoulder muscles. As my family grows with grandchildren I feverishly work to make my materialistic world smaller. Less stuff offers more time to spend with the ones I love. That's something I will never downsize.

Guest's picture

As the economic theory of "opportunity cost" goes, I feel that, when it comes to my job and career, a sense of contentment and a lesser degree of stress are essentially worth their weight in gold. Yes, I could make more money by constantly striving to advance to the next higher position, but I'm content where I'm at right now in my job. I like it and my working environment, it has variety, and pays enough for me to cover all of my regular expenses, with a good amount leftover to put into savings. Yeah, it may not allow me to afford the best cars, houses, clothes and such, by that's not what I'm all about. I am content with what I have, and that's more important to me.