I’m a corporate drop out. In 2006, after fourteen long years, I quit my six-figure Chicago marketing job — dispirited, sick with migraines, and out-of-shape. I’d been getting through my 11-hour days only with massive doses of caffeine — quadruple-shot Venti lattes — a standing joke with my staff. (One holiday gift responsible for much hilarity was a mug detailing the “Caffeine Curve,” peaking with “God sighted” after four cups, and ending with “triple shotgun murder” a few hours later.) I carried stress continually in every joint and pore, and spent nights and weekends trying to decompress enough to go back for more. Meanwhile, I watched my creative goals vanishing over the receding horizon of my 40th birthday.
“I became disillusioned with the corporate thing,” my birthmother Susi wrote in an email. “As I think you have.”
I had become disillusioned — but I vacillated over what. Half of me believed that the climate of too-deep staff cuts and work-till-you-drop machismo was to blame — but half of me believed that I couldn’t hack it. I was still embedded in values that had been drilled into me for years.
A few years earlier, I’d hired a junior analyst who embodied an utter lack of urgency that was then my constant complaint. Phil had GMAT scores in the brilliant range, an MBA from a top school, and the ability to talk himself into a higher position than he was able actually to perform. He walked around in a bubble of personal calm, a post-meditation-like daze, and frittered his time doing something unclear with the data. I initiated more frequent status meetings, interim deadlines, and time-management coaching; he tolerated me with an air of fake deference and thinly-disguised contempt. Then suddenly, on the day before a major project was due to executive management, Phil would transform into a diligent, dedicated worker. He’d stay late into the night, rushing to finish his project before Security threw him out. In the next day’s meeting with the execs, bleary-eyed, he’d seem genuinely embarrassed by the inevitable errors in his work. But by the following day, the unflappable, “what, me worry?” Phil would be back.
“Lacks a sense of urgency,” I said in his first-year performance review. He left a few months later.
Six months after I left my own job, I visited Susi in Ohio at Christmastime. Like me, Susi — who spent years getting her Bachelors and MBA part-time after my seven siblings finished college — had recently quit her 13-year management career in Ohio elder care. (She now works — happily — in her hometown library.) “On my last performance review, they said I didn’t have a ‘sense of urgency,’” she told me matter-of-factly. “I explained to my supervisor that I specifically try not to have a sense of urgency.”
The rocks in my head rattled around as I quickly agreed with her. But I was thrown. I’d never heard anyone question the value of having a sense of urgency. I’d never questioned it myself — even in my own flight from the inflated demands of the corporate world. A sense of urgency was one of those unqualified goods, like being kind to animals, or flossing. Certainly I’d never heard anyone admit they didn’t have one or want one.
But over time, I began to guess what Susi meant: that we can operate without the false sense that the world will fall apart without our immediate intervention. Most of the busy-ness around me had been unproductive; this was widely acknowledged in my company, including at the top levels. Yet it perpetuated, as some sort of proof that we were really trying to “meet our goals” — and, more important, that we were with the tribe. Once, when I’d returned to work after a seven-week medical leave for migraines, I vowed to take better care of my physical and mental health. I tried to distance myself from the craziness around me, to remain centered and calm. Instead, my boss ramped up the craziness, raising his voice, speeding up, dancing around my desk in agitation. Clearly he wanted me in the middle of it with him. Is this how I had appeared to Phil? At one time in my life, it had seemed like a special state of mind to be in, a club to belong to, even a natural high (assisted by the caffeine, of course). Now it seemed like a compulsion with too high a cost. After three months back, I knew I had to get out.
For me, it’s still a work in progress. I don’t know if there’s a way back into organizational life, without the insanity. Nowadays, teaching and writing, I’m responsible for much harder deadlines — but without that culture of urgency around me, the manicky angst is gone. Some days I’d like to create my own organization, if only to show how it should be done; most days, I don’t want that stress, either. I also wonder, now, if Phil’s problem was not mainly with his sense of urgency, but with his sense of what was important — that sadly, nothing in his job qualified? And whether his arms-length disdain for our corporate culture was right on the money — his implicit way, perhaps, of opting out? Not that he didn’t cause me a few extra headaches in the process.
But for now, I’m with Susi — I’m just happy to slow down.
“Slowing Down” received an Honorable Mention in the Memoirs/Personal Essay category in the 78th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, October 2009. writersdigest.com