Completing a Career

This essay is the first in a series of personal explorations into the completion of careers.   Ending a career marks a monumental shift in a life, especially for those who have very much defined themselves through their work.  The essays will address questions like: what does it mean to be done?; how can we say that we have done enough to satisfy the desires and demons from within; how can we feel proud and at peace with ourselves so that we can meet the challenges in the next stage of our lives.

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The year was 2005.  I was sixty-three years old.  I had already had a substantial career.  In the way that novelists have with book jacket bios—truck driver, cowhand, waiter, and drifter—my own winding career had its own cache: historian, therapist, consultant, writer, entrepreneur. I had adjusted well to my failure to become a professional basketball player, a Pulitzer prize winning novelist, and the leader of a social-democratic revolution. But I didn’t feel complete.  I wasn’t sure why.  And the years were whizzing by.

Part of the urgency came from my sense of living on borrowed time.  My father had died from pancreatic cancer at fifty.  I was twenty-six.  I was filled with a childlike sense of magical thinking and believed that I would also died by the age of fifty.  This wasn’t a vague notion.  I believed it with the same certainty that the sun would rise in the morning.  My friends and family still tease me about how well I prepared them for my impending death.  I seem to have survived my fiftieth birthday but at fifty-eight I got cancer, myself.  When the initial surgery failed to capture all those cruel little cancer cells, my conviction about a short life simply reignited.

The next few years again defied my expectations.  I was alive and energetic, and I was faced with the question of what to do with my life.  I had given up psychotherapy.  After almost thirty years, I was too restless to sit still listening to an endless stream of distress and rage.  I had returned to my consulting business, often working with big organizations like State Street Bank and  Honeywell Corporation.  While lucrative, the work felt barren to me.  I really didn’t care about helping rich people get richer.  I did care about supporting the work of the nonprofits to which I also consulted.  Their mission to empower the disempowered, to house, feed, and educate people living in poverty, appealed greatly to me.

If I was going to live, I wanted that ever-present “one more shot” that you hear from people who are not yet ready to cash in their chips.  And I wanted to focus on communities most in need.  I wanted a shot at doing something worthwhile.  Yes, helping couples and families resolve their difficulties had been a good thing to do.  I loved many of the people I worked with and felt gratified when their lives improved—and heartbreaking when they didn’t.  When I complained to my wife that it wasn’t enough, she would remind me of the hundreds of people I had helped and about the thousands of people that my students had helped.  But it still didn’t feel sufficient.

Sufficient for what, though?  I don’t know how to put this in psychological or professional language but I wanted something that touched my soul.  I wanted work that drew from the well of my deepest values.  Only that would permit me to complete my career and to feel that I had done enough.  At the time, I couldn’t articulate this desire very clearly.  It was more like an ache in my heart in need of fulfillment.

In 2005, I saw an opportunity.  I had been engaged with the Boston nonprofit community for some time, consulting to organizations and coaching its executives.  These are dedicated, often gifted people who work long hours for modest pay.  But they have learned their craft in a hit and miss manner, mostly by trial and error.  Maybe they found a mentor along the way, but they rarely find the time or resources for formal education.  I had some experience building training programs, in 1974 founding, with David Kantor and Carter Umbarger, the Family Institute of Cambridge to teach practicing therapists how to work with couples and families.  I believed that I could do the same for nonprofit leaders.

What made the opportunity most compelling was the potential to build a more diverse leadership cadre.  Nonprofits serve people and communities of color in disproportionately high numbers, but only 12-14% of the organizations are led by people of color.  This needs to change.  It is both unjust and ineffective.  The ability to mobilize the resources of organizations and communities depends in part on the credibility of leadership and the rapport among them.  What’s more, the time seemed ripe to make a great impact on nonprofit leadership.  Research now tells us what I knew intuitively in 2005.  The imminent retirement of the baby boomers meant that 70% of nonprofit leaders would leave their jobs within the next five years.  If we could educate and help place young leaders of color in urban centers—now minority-majority cities—powerful social progress could be achieved.

During that first year, Hubie Jones, the dean of Boston’s nonprofit community and a member of my Advisory Board, asked me a simple question: “What’s in this for you, Barry?”  With a little bit of tongue in cheek, I said “It would make my parents proud.”  Once out of my mouth, I realized that I meant it.  My parents had long championed social justice.  That was the religion into which I was born and raised; and the development of the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership (INML) felt to me like a homecoming, a return to direct contact with the values that animated my childhood.  The possibility of feeling whole, bringing together my values and my actions, seemed tantalizingly near.

 

So I began.  I called lots of friends and colleagues, described the new curriculum and asked them to send students.  They did: fourteen that first year, more than half young leaders of color. I loved the teaching.  I loved just getting to know all of the young people who attended classes.  Even without knowing or, in the beginning, thinking, I could build the INML into a substantial force in Massachusetts, the work was satisfying, in itself.  I didn’t have a blazing dream nor great ambitions nor even clear goals.  I just thought that I’d start something that I liked to do and that I believed in.  Now there are over 700 graduates of year-long programs situated in four cities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island with more to come.

Building the INML meant talking and writing about it all of the time.  I had to recruit new students.  In the beginning I met with each prospective student to discover his or her goals and to explain what our program was all about.  Our connection felt—and was— personal.  I had to recruit teachers, board members, philanthropists.  There would be weekly meetings with foundations in which I had to try persuading program officers that the INML was a wonderful investment.  All of this meant that all day, every day, I was talking the language of social justice and diversity, skill and network building and gathering a cadre of strong, well-educated, well-positioned leaders of color.  I bathed myself in a world of language that spoke directly to my values and informed my actions.  I was incredibly active but often it felt like the experience was happening by itself and I was carried along in its surge.

I can’t say that I grasped the full meaning that the INML would have for me right away.  Rather the meaning spread through the days until I had to acknowledge it.  There are about 36,000 nonprofits in Massachusetts serving more than a millions people.  If we could make the leadership even a little better, they would make their services better, which would mean a great deal to those millions.  We could make a difference and I, personally, could live in the world of difference-making.

This, more than anything—joining the fight for social justice and doing so in a way that I had something to offer—was not only satisfying, it also permitted me to complete my career.  I had immersed myself for a decade in the convergence of my values and my activities.  The immersion was sustained.  It was like completing a circle, from childhood to old age:  living my values more deeply, more immediately, and to some effect.  My parents might be proud but, at last, I felt proud.  I felt at one with myself, peaceful and fierce in my work.  And ready to let it go, ready to enter the post-retirement stage of life.

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2 thoughts on “Completing a Career”

  1. Since I am writing in a memoir class writing about “clean breaks” this topic intrigues me. As a woman, I always felt somewhat tenuous about career prospects; I knew I loved literature, had majored in Romance Languages and Literature, so teaching literature seemed like a natural career (and one that was open to women, unlike many others!). Nevertheless, my parents’ lives and the pre-women’s movement world around me led me to believe that no career would be primary or complete without marriage and children. I glided from teaching French at NY State U. Stony Brook while I got my M.A at Columbia., then to a teaching fellowship at Harvard, and finally got a plum job as an Instructor of Literature at M.I.T. All this time, however, I was deeply involved in and impacted by the social movements of the 60’s and 70’s. In the early 70’s, I made a clean break: left my first marriage and quit my M.I.T. job to do factory organizing for the next 9 years “to make the revolution in the working class.” Needless to say, although I learned a great deal about the white working class (another of your topics!) as well as Black and immigrant workers, and came to appreciate them and their grit, we did not “make the revolution.” Profoundly disoriented, disillusioned and yes- depressed- I sought teaching jobs at community colleges. Some dismissed me as “overqualified,” but I was lucky enough to find a home at North Shore Community College in Lynn, first as an adjunct, then a full time English teacher, finally as Chair of the English Department. I spent 30 fulfilled years there, teaching the literature and writing I loved, to students I also (mainly loved) who were very like the workers in the factories I’d been in. I understood what it was like to turn up to class from a third shift job, to try to juggle a family, a 30-40 hour a week job, school and children. Pundits on education who complain that community college students take more than 2-3 years to graduate, simply do not understand their lives. I retired a few years ago, but am happy to have found a job where I belonged, at the community college, what I call “the last chance cafe” for so many, including myself.

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    1. Dear Susan,

      I love your story about your “last chance cafe.” It is always moving to me to find people like me who have unexpected careers, who don’t end up feeling like a failure because some choices went imperfectly, and find a way to affirm a curvy career. I feel a great affinity with your success in finding work that fit so well with your values. I am coming to think that it is the immersion in that space that matters most.

      Barry

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