Yesterday, I quoted this passage from Isaiah and talked about the phrase That which is not bread. But for many years the most important part of this passage for me was the question Why do you spend your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
I spent nearly 17 years of my life working as a staff editor in textbook publishing. And for those of you who have worked in corporate America, you know that professional careers come with their own sets of pressures.
I was good at my job, and not just the writing and editing part. For much of my career, I worked in prototype development--helping to devise each new program for my department. What made me successful as a textbook editor was not only being able to do detailed work such as fact checking, but also seeing the big picture--coming up with program features that would meet the needs we heard teachers talking about and envisioning an entire book at a time so that I could see where all the individual components would go and how each might relate to the other.
It was very satisfying work. However, the time came when I realized I needed to make a choice. My managers promoted me several times, and the next rung of the ladder was for me to become a supervisor. Of course, it is never certain that a person will advance that next step, but I knew I was being considered for it.
In corporate life, constant advancement is the desired path. Make more money, gain more status and authority, show the world how indispensible you are.
I'm as ambitious and competitive as the next person, so it was tempting to go for the next big prize. Yet when I looked in my deepest heart, I knew I didn't want that. One of the managers at my company was a woman who had a very similar set of skills as mine, and she had never adjusted to the move from a creative position to a managerial one. For years, I watched her undermine and emasculate her department by shredding the creative ideas of her employees and swooping in to "save" projects with her own creative brilliance. She had never been able to give up the identity of being the cleverest little girl in class.
I didn't want that to happen to me. One year, I did have an assignment in which I was a temporary supervisor of an assessment writing team. Writing good multiple choice questions is much harder than most people realize. We were on tight deadlines, and I saw how much faster it was for me to just rewrite their bad questions than to let them do them again and again until they learned how to do it. In textbook publishing, there are always tight deadlines, so I knew that temptation would always be there.
Plus, the plain truth is that I liked being creative much more than I liked checking other people's work. So I did something that occurs rarely in corporate America. I told my managers not to consider promoting me anymore. I didn't want to go to the next level. Ever.
Not long afterward, I reduced my work schedule to four days a week as another way of driving home that message that I wasn't interested in the career fast track.
Our society is relentless in its messages about success. We are told we need to make more money, pursue promotions, buy bigger houses, drive more powerful cars. But to do that I would have needed to spend my labor on that which did not satisfy. It wasn't worth it. I knew what my gifts and my delights were, and they were being best served in the job I already held.
I think knowing yourself is the key. One of my best friends is on that track to a management position, and she couldn't be happier about it--not because of the status and the money, but because her gifts lie in process and in training people and in building consensus. The role of department manager is perfect for her.
It would have been misery for me.
I conclude with a very famous Robert Frost poem. I think it speaks for itself.
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.