Originally published August 23, 2013
We call the phenomenon of treating others as we wish to be treated the golden rule. We call any young wiz kid who can seem to do no wrong in his or her field a golden child. All this gold around me all my life, and it took me until very recently to get the quip about not everything that glisters being gold. Well, this is my golden confession, whether or not it also glisters. Brace yourself and bear with me.
My first work experience came to me in my teens. I worked at my school over the summer, helping paint, move furniture, set up classrooms, and whatever other tasks teens could perform without raising child labor eyebrows. That was very closed and narrow experience, though. My first worldly work adventure was as a volunteer in Philly’s public school system. I just walked up to a local middle school, introduced myself, and was asked to volunteer for the summer. (Later, I was invited to volunteer after school during my senior year and then for another summer after that.) At the end of my second summer there, the school principal asked me about my plans after the summer. I hadn’t really considered it. She offered me a job in the school as a part-time assistant in Information Technology.
Three years on the job, a departing colleague made an almost irresistible offer to run IT services at a startup charter school where she was to be school director. The principal who hired me at the middle school requested my résumé and a highlighter, the only two tools she used to create a new full-time job position and description in the Philadelphia School District. The act kept me at the school for another three years, and I continued to learn and grow from some of the most fascinating educators I had ever met.
Then another colleague from a local education nonprofit recommended me to his boss for an IT Coordinator job that was opening up there. I took the job. My former supervisor warned me that there didn’t seem to be many “knives sharpening knives” there after he visited me in my new trappings as an IT Coordinator. He was mostly right, and I’m not sure I know by what miracle I held on for seven years. Well, maybe I do know. Under his management and guidance, I had learned from him the importance of humility, of ever learning, and of enduring patience and forbearance. I learned the latter more from his dealing with me than from my watching him deal with others.
It also helped that my career took a sudden turn midway through those seven years. After three years of trying to figure out how I could be useful to one colleague in particular – and getting shut out time and again – he invited me to work in his department after learning that I had other expertise I hadn’t been advertising. I did a hybrid job between IT and nonprofit accounting – stress levels at an all-time high – until an IT Director was hired to replace me at the end of our fiscal year. Four years later, after a series of innovations and departmentalization, I left that job with nowhere to go.
First, I took a year off of work to clear my head and gain new perspective. Then, I began one of the most feverish job searches I had ever had to endure. (Because I had never had to look for a job before and because I had never had to interview to compete for a job before.) I learned more about myself, my abilities, my attitudes – toward work, toward employers, and toward me – than any other prior experience had taught me. Finally, after a year and a half out of full-time work, I landed my current job. I started with a salary two-thirds my previous full time pay, only later earning up to 80% of that more desirable salary I had left behind in 2011.
This isn’t my ideal. Granted, I love what I do, and I enjoy learning more about it every day. I had turned down offers for jobs that afforded me plateau-like opportunities, jobs in which I could show off my talents and skills and that provided no real challenges or chances to learn and grow. All in all, though, I’d rather be where I am – on the brink of some impending breakthrough in my career and in my life – than where I might have been had I stayed with my previous employer. (In fact, when the execs who interviewed me for my current job reviewed my résumé and asked why I was willing to take a job that seemed like a downgrade, I told them very flatly that no job is beneath me and that the job looked more challenging than any other I previously held. I craved that challenge as an opportunity to enhance my experience, and I haven’t been disappointed to date.)
Enough life story. Here’s my confession: I really do miss the money. I miss setting a goal, reaching into a deep pocket, and moving very quickly toward that goal or achieving it with a single transaction. I miss being able to pay for school out of pocket. I miss – only a little, I promise – the feeling of validation that comes from being paid closer to what I feel my work and services and stresses are worth. I miss being able to bless others financially, even though when I had the money, I knew that earnest gifts of my time and attention meant more to many people than cash. I miss granting myself occasional wishes when the fancy strikes me.
This is not a gripe, murmur, or complaint. I’m blessed, and I’m eternally grateful for continued blessings in my life – like being able to live in a more pleasant neighborhood and right next door to my family. And I’m grateful because not having cash to burn has awakened almost-forgotten creative energies, and I look forward to spreading some of that passion around. And I’ve set new goals I hadn’t before dreamed possible for me. Confession: I wasn’t in love with life two years ago as much as I am now. That’s worth more than all the glistering gold in the world.