In the summer of 2001, I was living the high life.
As a corporate manager in the IT department of a large consumer electronics retailer, I was basking in the glow of my own shining success. It had been a long journey. I started out after college working for a small company that made a sign-making machine. It was my first real job, and one that involved a lot of detailed technical writing.
I ended up having several "careers" at the same company: first as a technical writer, then as a graphics manager, then as a quality assurance manager. One of the best moments in my career was when my boss pulled me aside and said I knew more about technology and the product we made than anyone else at the company. I felt the heady wisp of accomplishment. Eventually, I found out about another position across town writing technical manuals for a large IT department. I thought it was worth a shot.
When I started in the mid-90s, there were only four of us. Taking a few lessons from my own father in salesmanship, I started championing our cause for communicating with users and making software more usable. I met with every IT manager and just about every department head, ran "sales" presentations to describe our services, and landed a bunch of projects. Eventually, I became the leader of our small team, then the manager of a larger team, them a director of three large teams doing writing, design, and usability testing. We built a usability lab and hired a bunch of contractors.
Through some shifts in management, I started sliding a bit and felt my momentum stall. I could see a dark shadow looming. I was good at building up a team from almost nothing, but maybe not that good at keeping an entire department running. Conflicts arose, salaries changed. Then, a week after September 11, on September 18, I was asked to step into a dark conference room. I noticed a lawyer and someone from HR. My boss showed me to a chair. I'll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say, the meeting did not go well and I was forced to decide if I wanted to keep my current position.
When I got home that night, I told my wife what had happened. Something in me was raging. I was angry because I knew the truth: I just wasn't needed anymore. The company was upset about my performance. But the real reason for my downward spiral had more to do with me. It was self-inflicted. Somewhere along the line, I lost my passion for the job. I was not building anything anymore, I was coasting on past accomplishments.
That night, stewing at home, I finally realized my problem. Success had seared a hole in me and left a gaping void. I was no longer doing something I loved, I was just trying to get ahead. My goal was not for fulfillment of any kind, or to pursue my passions in the workplace, it was to get a better paycheck and to be noticed for my success.
I talked to my wife about it.
"Just don't go in. Just stay home tomorrow," she said.
"That seems like such a cop out," I argued.
"You know, you have always wanted to be a writer. Maybe you should give that a shot? You have spent the last ten years doing things you don't really like," she said. Hmm.
That morning, I called HR and left a message. I would not be coming into work that day or any other day. I had decided that working at this company was not what I wanted to do anymore. I gave my immediate notice.
Now, the funny thing about abandoning your career is that it leaves you feeling a bit shell-shocked. I didn't start writing immediately. It took about six months before I landed my first assignment. Giving up a steady career was the hardest thing I have ever done. Money was tight that first year--my brother-in-law used to drop off groceries for us on our doorstep. I riddled editors with pitches in those early days. I worked non-stop.
My biggest lesson? I had to be honest with myself: I was not cut out for corporate management. I was good at building things, but not good at keeping them running. I also realized how important it is to do a job that matches up well with my own interests and desires. I was trying to support a family and make more money, but in the end that pursuit is what led to my own downfall. It was a ghost image, something I was chasing that I didn't want and was probably not that good for me anyway.
There's a silver lining to this story. I've now been a contributing editor at Inc. Magazine for the past few years. Since 2001, I've worked steadily and even taken a few vacations. I've interviewed everyone from Buzz Aldrin to 50 Cent. I've visited the Google campus at least a dozen times, and even interviewed someone on their roof.
My job can be extremely stressful. Yet, what really drives me is not the glimmer of riches and fame beckoning off in the distance. Instead, it is the daily reward of doing something I'm passionate about. That is the true meaning of success.