Sometimes the most significant revelations in life are made at the urging of seemingly insignificant events. Such was the case last year when I resolved a deepening depression and self-loathing with the sudden realization that I desperately needed to quit my job.
An epiphany, an instance of sudden clarity, can happen to anyone, often at the least expected time.
Legend has it a falling apple led Sir Isaac Newton to ponder gravitation. He would go on to publish in his Principia the mathematical principles that still guide our understanding of time, force and motion.
C. S. Lewis accepted Christianity while riding to a zoo in his brother’s motorcycle side car, and went on to confirm his faith in the Anglican Church and become one of the greatest Christian writers and theologians of the 20th century.
James Joyce was an expert at using epiphany to weave together mundane events into momentous universal meaning. Joyce described the role of seemingly trivial events and objects in revealing profound truth this way: “the soul of the commonest object … seems to us radiant, and may be manifested through any chance, word or gesture.”
I don’t bring up these examples to compare myself to these men. My grasp of mathematics wouldn’t enable understanding, let alone writing, Newton’s Principia; the current sum of my theological ponderings could fit in the prologue to Mere Christianity; and my few attempts at fiction have not yielded anything as beautifully morose as Joyce’s words and characters.
But, the revelation I had while cleaning my car last fall was no less important to me personally than any of these historic epiphanies. The fact that I was cleaning my car was remarkable in and of itself — it’s a task I undertake about once per trip around the sun.
In that process I came across a neglected object wedged between the driver’s seat and console (it was not the only object de-wedged that day). This object was a neatly folded windshield shade, the kind that twists into a tidy package, and then pops back into form to protect the interior of your car on hot, sunny days.
This sun shade is convenient, functional, and well-designed — all attributes I obsessively look for in objects I’m going to bother keeping around. But, as I sat there looking at this handy sun shade it occurred to me I hadn’t availed myself of its shade in the previous two Oklahoma summers since I bought the car. And these had been brutally hot summers, with long stretches of days with highs well over 100.
I sat there for several minutes, remembering the hundreds of times I had gotten into my oven-like car after it sat for hours in the sun, wondering why I’d never bothered to put the shade in the windshield. It was a meaningless question, until I remembered the answer.
To understand that answer I need to back up a bit, and cover that job — the one I was about to discover I needed to quit.
About 18 months before this fall car cleaning incident I had lost another job. It was a job I didn’t particularly like. But, I was good at it, and it provided decent pay and benefits. And then, one day, things were reorganized and the job was no longer mine.
I made the predictable, frantic effort to rework and shotgun my resume to anyone who might possibly want to hire me. We were committed to staying in northwest Oklahoma, which meant options were limited, as was my severance package. Several weeks went by without a viable bite at my resume — just several “in case we have an opening” interviews.
I was beginning to feel the first twinges of panic when I received an unsolicited call from a recruiter for a financial services firm. The call was slick, well-rehearsed, and effective. The recruiter’s questions led me to ask questions, and more questions, and before long I was salivating over promises of six-figure earnings. All I had to do was follow their program, work hard, and I could join the ranks of their tailored suit-wearing, luxury car-driving sales team.
I’d never envisioned myself in that lifestyle, driving the car with the right emblem on the hood, wearing suits chosen for the label, living in a cookie cutter McMansion in a neatly manicured subdivision. I grew up in a family proud of its working class roots, and went on to serve in the military, journalism, and municipal government, so nothing in my background pointed to the lifestyle being described by the recruiter.
But, part of me wanted it. I’d lived my whole life saying I didn’t want, didn’t need that lifestyle. But there it was, dangled in my face. And at a time when I was panicking about providing the minimum for my kids, a recruiter called and promised much more. And I wanted it.
After several visits with the firm I accepted their offer, and got to work. They were mostly honest about the work, and the expectations. Roughly 80-85 percent of new financial advisers don’t make it through the first two years in the business. Earnings come solely from commissions, which means if you don’t sell, you don’t get paid. And in the first two years, while you’re scrapping to build a client base, things can get very lean, especially if you don’t have a buffer to fall back on (and we didn’t). Most bail somewhere in the first 24 months. The ones who survive clean up the scraps, and eventually build a portfolio that adds up to the promised slickster lifestyle.
I wasn’t afraid of the work. Hard work was one of my family’s defining values. And, as for the odds, I told myself I’d never failed to claw my way into the top 15 percent of anything to which I applied myself. So, I got to it.
I hated the work from the beginning. Building a clientele meant cold calling everyone I knew, and listening to hundreds of people I had known for years say ‘no,’ or just hang up on me. But, I told myself I didn’t have to like the work. I just needed to do it. I just needed to persevere. And I did. I made hundreds of calls a week, shamelessly working my way through everyone I knew, then working through the chamber of commerce, social and civic organizations, anyone I could think of a pretext to call or drop in on.
Each day I hated it. I hated the cold calling. I hated seeing people I had known for years pretend they didn’t see me in the grocery store because they didn’t want to hear my well-rehearsed elevator speech. Each day I told myself hating it didn’t matter. I pushed on.
And, it was every bit as much an uphill battle as I’d been told, and much more. We blew through my savings, then my wife Tammy’s savings, and on a couple of occasions I acquainted myself with pawn shop owners when my sales didn’t come through, and we didn’t have enough money for groceries. Our credit cards were maxed out. My credit score was shot. And each day I got up, ignored the irony of ruining our finances while trying to advise others on theirs, and made more cold calls, drove hundreds of miles to fruitless meetings, and mailed unsolicited approach letters.
Through a blind (stupid?) refusal to give in I made it through the first year, and started to gain traction. Clients started coming in. Then bigger clients. By the start of my second year I was surpassing company sales goals, making leadership lists, and was called up in front of the agency on several occasions for recognition. I attained certification levels normally attained in year three or four early in my second year, and soon after was named one of the top producing new agents in a company with worldwide reach.
My earnings matched that upward trajectory, and in my second year I was earning more than I had in the job I’d lost. I was being groomed for more responsibility and larger accounts, and the lifestyle and money that had been dangled before me by the recruiter seemed within reach. I was, by all measures, successful in an industry famous for chewing up and spitting out new agents.
But, one thing wasn’t following the upward trajectory of my new career — my personal satisfaction in my work. For 18 months I’d been telling myself I hated the work because it was hard, and that would pass. I hated the cold calling because everyone hates cold calling, but eventually I’d have a client base that would lead to referrals. I hated the work, but I always expected to like it more as the results improved.
It did not. Even as my earnings improved, and accolades and sales awards poured in, I hated it even more than when I started. Each day started with grim determination to overcome depression and force myself into work. I hated it, but pushed on. I persevered, and tried to project happiness at sales meetings and conference calls.
And then, I decided to clean out my car, and came face to face with my unused sun shade. I unfolded the shade as I pondered why I’d never used it, and there, emblazoned across its surface was my answer: the logo of the used car lot from which I’d bought my car. Looking at it, I vividly recalled opening the shade on a hot day early in my time with the financial services firm. And I recalled folding it back up, and shoving it between the seats, because I didn’t want anyone to see I was driving a used car.
So, there it was. I’d become so afraid of people knowing I didn’t fit into my career, I’d been climbing in and out of my sweat box of a car because I didn’t want people to know it was used.
This led to two realizations. First, it was stupid to not use the shade, or to simply buy one without the dealer’s logo on it. Second, the sun shade was only a symbol of a much greater issue: a shift in the way I’d come to view work, money, and most importantly, people.
I didn’t want people to know I drove a used car because I’d allowed myself to get sucked into a mindset in which my worth was defined by my bank account. I knew I was broke. I’d used that car to haul stuff from my house to a pawn shop so we could buy food. But, if other people knew, that would mean I was worth less. Worthless.
The sting of that realization sank to outright nausea as I realized I’d also applied this money-based sense of worth to other people. This was encouraged by the sales trainers, and the entire prospecting system. People who had more money were better prospects. They were more worth your time and attention. They were simply worth more as people.
I sat there in my used car with my unused sunshade, realizing I’d become something I didn’t like. I’d become someone who valued people based on how much money they had. I’d catered to people I didn’t respect because they had money. I’d ignored people who didn’t have enough money to be worthy. And, I’d succeeded. I’d succeeded in rising through the sales ranks. I’d succeeded in transforming myself into someone I hated.
That was the final realization. I didn’t hate the work. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t hate it like I did at the outset. What I had come to hate was me. I had become what I’d always loathed — someone who valued money more than people. And there was no amount of commissions and sales awards that would overcome that.
I have to point out here, I’m sure not everyone who sells financial services is afflicted with this jaded view of the source of human worth. There were many fine people I worked with in the agency, and they worked hard to provide for their families. But for me, the sales process, the merciless reliance on commissions, and the constant emphasis on prospecting high net-worth clients had eroded my sense of human worth. All human worth is derived from God, and God only. It cannot be increased or decreased on a bank ledger. And somewhere along the way I’d forgotten that.
I’d like to say I called and quit my sales job before I got out of the car that day. But, that’s not true. I knew at that point it was over, but the mechanics of unraveling my sales accounts — and working up the courage to quit a career I’d worked my tail off to build up over two years — that took some time.
I immediately stopped prospecting new clients, telling myself I needed to focus on my current clients. For several months I continued on like that, watching sales numbers drop off to zero as I stopped prospecting new clients. In reality, I starved myself out of the business because I couldn’t stand to pick up the phone and become again what I’d seen that day in the car.
Before long I was looking for another job, and it happened there was an opening at the newspaper where I’d worked before the job that was cut. The prospect of writing again was immediately appealing. Not having to rely on commissions was nice (especially since I’d stopped prospecting, and my commissions were drying up). And, I enjoyed writing. But, mostly, I craved to wake up in the morning and not hate myself. I wanted to put my efforts again into work that affirmed the worth of everyone I encountered. Writing would provide that (and if you’re looking for a place to detox from the love of money, print journalism in a small paper is a good place).
I accepted a job with the newspaper, and not long after tendered my resignation with the financial services company. The agency bid me farewell with all the affection of a rich man scraping shit off his shoe. I was grist for the mill, and my utility was at an end.
Since leaving my sales position there have been times we’ve looked back wistfully at some of my larger commission checks. But, I would never take those checks, or the promise of much larger ones, to go back to the way I felt that day, holding my unused sun shade.
That handy shade gets used all the time now. I go to work, I find as many stories as I can that I think will do some social good, and I write. I’ll probably never own a McMansion, or a handcrafted German sedan, and I have no use for a $1,200 suit. And that’s okay. Those were never what would define my worth, anyway. It just took a good sun shade to see that.