Ten years ago, I was a walking paradox in a way with which I, then a high-school senior, was uniquely uncomfortable. On one hand, I was an all-star cheerleader who dreamed of becoming a songwriter. On the other, my skills leading the political debate club screamed “law school.” Despite being a giant ball of uncertainty, I ended up at Ithaca College, where I majored in marketing and received A after A in my courses. Over time, I crafted a vision for myself of working my way up to chief marketing officer of a New York City record label. (I couldn’t totally give up the music thing, after all.)
Thanks to a résumé full of internships, I started as a marketing manager for an e-commerce company in my hometown of Buffalo, NY, the week after graduation. Sure, it wasn’t a record label and it wasn’t New York City, but I told myself that I’d work there for a year, then make a decision about moving away. However, the more time that passed, the more clearly I saw that I just wasn't meant to be in the Big Apple. There was no way I could get behind paying US$2,000 per month to live in a shoebox.
Fast forward to 2016, when I found myself working as a marketing manager at Niagara University. My salary was good — particularly for a 23-year-old. I drove a nice car, had a wardrobe I liked, and could afford many of the things my friends struggling to make rent in big cities could not. Nevertheless, I felt empty. I was eager for the things that a US$45,000 salary can’t buy: new experiences, genuine camaraderie, fun challenges, and a general sense of purpose.
I was eager for the things that a US$45,000 salary can’t buy: new experiences, genuine camaraderie, fun challenges, and a general sense of purpose.
At first, I blamed this longing on a delayed mourning of my youth. After all, I was now a quote-unquote adult who paid bills and schlepped to my 9-to-5 every day. But after a family trip during which I had a lot of time to think, I realized that maybe my problem was that I was working to achieve the wrong things. After all, what good was a closet full of designer dresses and bags when I, the person wearing them, felt hollow? So on a whim, after eight months at my job, I quit. And I did it without a real plan for what came next.
The one thing I knew was that I wanted to help others. For decades, I’d seen my mom, a special education kindergarten teacher, go to work determined to transform the lives of her students. It’s not unusual for me to run into former students of hers who struggled through much of elementary school, repeated grades due to failing classes and misbehaving, and yet are headed off to college. They tell me that my mom’s love of learning and unwillingness to give up on her students changed their lives. I craved making that sort of impact.
So I started coming to her classroom a couple of times a week and working one-on-one with students. Without an education degree, I wasn’t qualified for a full-time teaching job, but it didn’t matter. I finally had a mission.
After several months of volunteering, I was offered a job substitute teaching at the school. (Thanks to a teacher shortage, I was allowed to do this without any special certification.) The work is sporadic and, clearly, I’m not on track to be a millionaire, but I couldn't care less.
How do I make it work? I still live at home with my parents in an area that has a low cost of living to begin with. I supplement my income with freelance writing, though the take-home pay from it fluctuates significantly. I am incredibly lucky to be without student-loan or credit-card debt, but still there are times when I look at my bank account and cringe. I try to put away some money for the future — robo-investing is a huge help — but it’s not happening nearly as quickly as it once did. Nonetheless, I know firsthand that being a slave to the dollar sign will put you in a never-ending cycle of basing your happiness, future endeavors, and daily well-being on a sometimes-superficial indicator of success.
Being a slave to the dollar sign will put you in a never-ending cycle of basing your happiness, future endeavors, and daily well-being on a sometimes-superficial indicator of success.
I have friends across the globe with glamorous jobs — as entertainment reporters, business owners, and even a soon-to-be CMO. As for me, I still live in Buffalo, and the people I work with live without many of the comforts I once took for granted. I still have hard days, but I also finally feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.
If you look at typical markers of success, I’ve made some steps in the so-called wrong direction throughout this journey. And if you asked 20-year-old me how she felt about the life I now live, I probably would have scowled, made a judgmental remark, and accused myself of throwing in the towel at the tender age of 24. But present-day me is really proud of herself. The fact that I left the corporate world and ended up at peace is just right for me.
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