The Work Revelation (Lessons from the Trail, Part I)
The Work Revelation came to me because I was in the midst of a career transition when we decided to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Before the hike I worked at a dental insurance company. The commute and hours were long. The pay was decent, the benefits were excellent; but the work was deeply unfulfilling. In short, I just wasn’t happy.
It was time to make a list. I jotted down all the professions I could think of that I believed would be more fulfilling. The list included writing professions (such as journalism and freelance writing); and helping professions (such as animal and elder care). I knew I wasn’t ready to jump right into a new career. I lacked the training for most of the jobs on my list. I decided to do some volunteer work to bulk up my network and experience. I submitted my resume to the local newspaper, picked up a few freelance writing assignments and volunteered at an assisted living facility near my house.
Two things happened around the same time:
First, I realized that working with older people was a good fit for me. I had the patience, compassion and, most importantly, the interest to spend time in the company of very old people. I loved listening to stories of days gone by. I was inspired by the wisdom older people impart without even realizing they are being wise. I got a rush out of helping individuals overcome difficult physical and cognitive challenges when many of the eldercare workers around me threw up their hands in defeat. I had found my new career, and then…
The second thing happened. My husband and I decided to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. Any plans for a job change were going to have to wait while we saved money to complete a six month trek.
Hikers often set off on a long distance journey believing they are going to figure out something big. Very few do, probably because they’re too busy or too tired. But it is possible to learn a lot of little lessons on a long hike – to figure out a lot of little things.
On the Pacific Crest Trail my thoughts wandered back to work again and again. I thought about the difference between having a good job and doing good work. I thought about how my quality of life would improve if I was doing work I actually enjoyed instead of slogging through a monotonous and unrewarding work week. I was concerned about taking a hefty salary cut. I was also worried about sacrificing weekends and holidays – two untouchable benefits of the average office job. But, I reasoned, if I really loved the work would it matter as much as I feared it would?
One evening after a long day of hiking I wrote the following:
Regarding work, I have been impressed on this trip by businesses assisting hikers. A good example is SeaWest - a company in the desert that invites hikers in for water, shade, showers, even to sleep if needed. This company is completely unaffiliated with the trail but helps just for the sake of helping. Another example of this is the fire station in Big Bear City. My work revelation is; I want to work at a place that would do the same if a long distance trail should pass close by. I want to spend my hours at a compassionate place - where people can take time out of the rush to lend a hand to those in need. I think this is the kind of question potential employees should ask at job interviews. They should ask, hypothetically of course, if a long distance trail passed by here, what would this company do to help its hikers? This is the kind of question that gets to the heart of things. If you don't ask these questions, or if you don't hold a place of possible employment accountable for playing a compassionate role in the community, you might end up doing little more than pushing paper.
When I came home from the Pacific Crest Trail I put this revelation to the test. I didn’t ask specifically about long distance trails at job interviews, but I did ask questions about compassion. I asked questions that delved into the human element of the workplace. Whether I was in a helping field or not I wanted my company to do helping work. This was important to me. From power workers at SeaWest to firemen in Big Bear City, the trail angels of the Pacific Crest had taught me that.
I ended up at an assisted living facility where the staff was totally devoted to the health and happiness of the residents. In turn, the administration was devoted to the health and happiness of the staff. Incentives were provided for employees who did volunteer work, walked, ate well and quit smoking. I was encouraged to initiate my own helping project and, together with a co-worker, rounded up the local population of feral cats to be spayed and neutered. Other co-workers pulled together a substantial donation for the SPCA who, doing their part to make the community better, performed free of charge the surgeries on my feral cats. I did take a pay cut. I also worked a lot of weekends, holidays and evenings. But I had never, ever been happier.
That’s the work revelation.
What is important to you in a workplace? What standard do you hold your employer to and in doing so improve the quality of your work, your community and your life? I’d love to hear your own revelations on this matter.