In losing my job I found my passion
By Michal Lemberger
I got fired. My boss called me into his office on a Monday morning and fired me. Then he gave me half an hour to leave the building.
Six months earlier, I’d taken a job in a nonprofit that helps people find jobs. It was my first foray into the nonprofit world, and I had deliberately sought out the work. I wanted to help people. Also, the economy had gone south, I have a family, and it seemed the responsible thing to do.
I hated my job. The first day was exciting, in a back-to-school way, but by the second, things had already turned and I spent a sleepless night obsessing “I have made a terrible mistake” in an endless loop. From then on I had to give myself a pep talk just to get in the car every morning. I counted down the days of the week, every week, just to boost my morale.
My colleagues seemed happy knowing they were making the world a better place, but I could never feel that myself. Even though I could see that I was improving people’s lives, the work I was doing—managing databases—and office politics were killing my spirit.
But I couldn’t quit. My family still needed the money, and besides, I’d made a commitment. So I bargained with myself: stick it out for six months and then start looking for something else. But by then I had become careless in my work, making mistakes that were sure to rile my already hysterical boss. I didn’t do any of it on purpose, yet every time he called me into his office I would secretly hope, “Maybe this time he’ll fire me.” I was spectacularly unsuited for that job.
A circuitous path had gotten me into it. I’d started using words to my advantage in fifth grade, when I realized I could write better than most of my classmates. Nothing changed in high school or college, and I was sure I was bound for the writer’s life, drafty garret and all. Then, on the eve of graduating into “the real world,” I’d surveyed my professors, taken their advice and headed into a doctoral program. “At least there’ll be a career at the other end,” they’d assured me.
I stayed in grad school even after I knew I would never become a full-time professor. I stayed because it was safe. I could hide in my studies, be mediocre and blame academia. In the process, I lost whatever nerve I’d once had, along with the passion for writing that had gnawed at me for so long. And instead of moving into a garret and writing the great American novel when I finished my studies, I got married, acquired a mountain of debt (and the house that came with it) and had two kids.
Ten years went by and I looked up to see that I was a wife and mother, supporting my husband’s ambition while wrapped up in the dailiness of my family’s life. Meanwhile, I watched my friends accomplish their goals. At every celebratory message of an article accepted, book published, my breath caught in unspoken jealousy and regret. I berated myself daily: I had squandered the gift I’d been given. I had wasted decades because I was too scared to act.
Working at the nonprofit, I finally came to realize, was just my latest attempt to avoid an essential truth. Getting fired finally forced me to make a choice. For too long, I had allowed myself to follow a path that wasn’t right for me. Not everyone is cut out to be a college professor, and not everyone is meant to save the world, even if it is one job at a time. But we all have something to contribute, and our most important job is to figure out what that is and do it.
In the weeks after I got fired, jobless and unsure what to do next, I finally committed to the life I had dreamed for myself all those years ago. I came to realize that my education had given me a valuable gift. Reading, pondering and teaching about novels, poems, and plays had given me the foundation to be a better writer than I could have imagined.
Now, I wake up every morning to a blank page, and I get to fill it. I relish the classes I teach. And I apply the lessons I learned by helping graduate students write their dissertations.
The Matterhorn of debt hasn’t melted away, but I don’t have to give myself pep talks to make it through the day. By going back to what I loved and using the education in which I invested so much, I’ve found a sense of purpose and happiness that had long eluded me. In the end, the job—and soul—I saved was my own.
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