Saturday, April 12, 2014

Playing it Safe

Despite claiming to be an enlightened hedonist, I’m probably less of a risk taker than I’d like to be. I’ve recently been confronted with this fact as the safe corporate job I’ve had for nearly 29 years is about to come to an end. I find I am left with the same existential angst I experienced when I left college and had to get a job "in the real world.

At that time I had a friend who helped score me a temp job so I could start paying on my student loans – and unpaid tuition. To be frank, I never went to college expecting it to be part of a career path. I majored in Philosophy after all. My joke at the time was that upon graduation I would open a philosophy store. In reality my secret desire was to be a writer – and what better a basis for storytelling than that of exploring the very meaning of life? Such was my justification at the time anyway. 

I got lucky college-wise. A smart kid with immigrant parents, father disabled, living on social security and acceptance at a Liberal Art college which believed (and had an endowment to fund) that anyone accepted should have the necessary aid to attend. Riding the last crest of the baby boom, I was in the last class that was able to take advantage of that policy and the grant money and loans behind it. So why not be a philosopher? 

Unfortunately the economics were changing. I managed to graduate a semester early, which was good since I already couldn’t pay for the last semester. But also meant my transcripts and diploma were held till I could pay up – delaying and ultimately canceling my bids for grad school. I had thought I might become a Philosophy professor, and eyed the University of Chicago as my possible next step. Instead I went home to my parents, now living with my sister, her husband, and five kids in a 4-bedroom house. 

I needed a job. I needed money. The temp gig was perfect, paid well, and oh so much easier than reading Kant. So I played it safe, staying way too long in most positions, taking small promotions along the way with a few low risk opportunities along the way I ended up I a profession I never knew existed, with its own social networks and connections. Twenty-six years later and I’m running the program for the entrepreneurial subsidiary. Two years later they are bankrupt. After a year in bankruptcy their assets are sold, and I’m on a 3-month temporary assignment to help to clean up what’s left. 

I suppose no one ever escapes certain life-changing events. For me though, loosing a job is so new, and very frightening - despite the encouraging words of my friends, or my own reasoned knowledge of the industry. There are opportunities out there. I know it – but I still can’t shake my fears. 

I re-enter the workforce at age 52. Many of my colleagues deeper in the boomer years have opted for early retirement. Companies view me with an eye on how I might impact their insurance group plans and would rather me be a contractor than on the payroll with benefits. I also cannot miss the Gen X and Y colleagues talk about their older luddite peers, technology averse, and reluctant to embrace innovation. I know that doesn't describe me, but my age carries its own stereotypes to overcome. 

I catch myself looking in the mirror wondering if shaving off my grey beard might enable me to pass for post-boom. I’m looking for ways to play it safe, to court another big corporation to pay me a salary in the range I’ve become accustomed to Preferably one with those Cadillac health benefits I only recently came to value. 

I also worry about my digital footprints. Certainly everyone has similar sets of photos from college? CEO’s now go to burning man – so I can’t possible be afraid of some of the things I did, photographed or wrote about? But I fear it just the same. I recently cam across this quote from Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior), "careerism is the most powerful form of censorship in America...self-censorship rooted in fear of the future." It describes my feelings completely. I'm not purging my social media accounts, but I've become more aware of my privacy settings, trying to find the balance of maintaining my authenticity while curbing potential career-harming presumptions. 

Part of me looks back to the college graduate I once was, and says – why not open that Philosophy store? Why not pursue the dreams you once had 30 years ago – after all, you may not get another chance. So the hand wringing begins as I go through the hedonistic machinations trying to determine what will yield the more fulfilling life – find a job that can finance my other pursuits and desires, or just pursue my desires and be creative in how I make them happen? I will likely play it safe (old dogs/new tricks) but the current situation may force me to take a few risks and leaps of faith I might otherwise eschew. 

In the end I'll fall back on my hedonistic principles and craft, from whatever my existential circumstances I end up with, the most fulfilling life I can conceive. That is to keep my mind in the present, surround myself with the people I love and respect, and maybe share glass of cognac as we contemplate the universe together.