About 3 years ago I made a determination to stop doing work that was inconsistent with my values. I was 31 years-old, had recently finished my undergraduate degree and was squandering my vital juices on well-paid, but meaningless work. I wanted something more from my life. I figured the first step to doing meaningful work was to stop doing the meaningless stuff.
The quick backstory of my late graduation is that I dropped out of school when I was 23 to get sober. After floundering through much of my 20’s, I found myself 27 years old, bereft of direction, with access to an education trust set up by my grandparents. The choice to return to school seemed obvious.
While in school, I continued to work 20-30 hours a week as a cater-waiter captain—essentially the head waiter or maitre’d of an event. The job paid between $30-50 an hour. Because my tuition and living expenses were paid for by the trust, most of the money I made from that job was saved. I finished school flush with cash.
I got my degree in creative writing and literature. I wanted to write for a living, but ideas about how to do that were not forthcoming, so I continued to cater in the meantime.
But catering created a huge internal inconsistency. While it was fun and easy, I saw its net impact on the world was somewhere between zero and negative 1000. Most events created mountains of waste, which completely ran counter to what I knew about what was going on with the environment.
Destroying the environment would have been tolerable if the work seemed important. Instead, my principle duty was idealizing the artificial. Most events were product launches and other PR events or posh dinner and cocktail parties hosted by the ridiculously-rich and mostly gay. I directed staffs of male models and actors to create fantasy worlds—ones littered with chiseled features; ones that precluded ugliness, age, poverty or any other unseemly aspect of reality. I felt like I was responsible for arranging human parsley sprigs on cardboard steaks.
After doing this Landmark Forum seminar I’ve mentioned before, I was able to get some clarity about my situation. I saw I had no integrity. There was a huge rift between what I valued and what I was doing. I also saw I had an opportunity. Because of my financial situation, I had time and money to devote myself to creating a life with integrity. I stopped catering and entered a void of inactivity. That was 3, mostly-hypocrisy-free years ago.
I would love to report that I’ve cracked the code. I would love to say that I earn a livelihood in a way that is consistent with my values. This is true to some extent. I founded and currently co-produce a thriving event series that encourages people to engage their lives and world (with minimal carbon footprint). But proceeds from this cover a small percent of my expenses. My nest-egg is now crusted egg-white on the edge of a frying pan.
And yet as my financial resources vaporize, I’m finding a renewed intensity to make my initial determination stick.
When I set out 3 years ago, I wasn’t risking. I only left terra cognita because I thought all contingencies were covered. The money made me feel like I could handle whatever came along. Instead, by not forcing me into situations where I had to risk, situations where I could develop confidence and new capabilities, the money prohibited the creation of the life I sought. I wanted to cross the ocean, but only if I could keep the coast within eyeshot.
But now, with provisions running low, I do not feel so safe (mind you, I am not out of provisions just yet). Rather than being terrified, I am experiencing the integrity I sought 3 year ago. I see that I am willing to do whatever it takes to make my determination come true, whereas before I was willing to do whatever was within my comfort zone.
I was thinking about this as I washed my armpits this morning in a sink at the place I work. In order to keep expenses low, I live in an an apartment that is one Con-Ed visit away from being a squat (and Con-Ed has tried). For the whole winter I’ve been without heat (and it’s been a fucking cold winter), and for the last 3 weeks I’ve been without running water (busted pipe prevention). I’ve dealt with bathing by showering at my gym and doing spot-cleanses with rubbing alcohol (disinfects and evaporates). I have been out of alcohol for a few days so I cleaned up over the sink this morning.
I’m sure this sounds pathetic to many, but for me it’s been liberating. I am demonstrating that I am willing to risk and sacrifice for the sake of living an integrated life—to bring my career, relationships and all other actions inline with my values. Least I sound too vague, I want to write for a living. I want to share what bit of spiritual wisdom I have through my words. I want to make money doing it. And I’m far more willing to give up heat and running water than the opportunity to live out a dream (full disclosure: I have that gym membership and a girlfriend with a pimp apartment to retreat to on weekends).
If you feel trapped or afraid of risk, here are some questions to contemplate:
- Do you live with integrity? In other words, is what you do consistent with what you value? List the inconsistencies and don’t rationalize them away.
- What rationalizations are you holding onto that allow you to continue these inconsistencies? The number one rationalization is, “We all have to pay the bills.” While this is true to a certain extent, most of us take on bills we don’t need. No one needs a 4G iphone, digital cable, $200 jeans or $7 pints. These accessories to life keep many of us in financial and spiritual bondage. The runner-up rationalization is, “I don’t know what I’d do. I might as well keep ____ while I figure out what’s next.” Bullocks. We only realize possibility in the void (Sorry for the new age language. It’s not a habit). In other words, as long as we continue our old behavior, we won’t have space for the new.
- How would you imagine it would feel if you lived without these inconsistencies? Personally, I feel fucking great. I don’t feel like a fraud. You can’t hurt someone with nothing to hide.
- Bonus assignment: name some area from #1 and do something about it now. Whether it’s a relationship, work, health, spiritual development, etc., pick and perform an action that lines up what you do with who you are. There is no other time than now to live with integrity.