Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Carrot

Quite often in life, things don't turn the way we hoped. As John Lennon famously said, "Life is what happens when we're busy making other plans." That's not just a cute euphemism shellacked onto a piece of wood with smiley faces and peace signs all around. We're a goal-oriented society. That's a good thing, unless we're too rigid in our goals to perceive that whatever the outcome, that's the goal.
   It takes a shift in perception to truly embrace Lennon's philosophy. That's where Buddhist practice comes in. What we think is the ultimate goal—the denouement of all our longings—is often just a means to some other, more distant ends. Often the "carrot" dangles before us, not so we can enjoy the crunchy goodness of that Vitamin A-laden veggie, but to entice us though a tough spot.
   Case in point. Last fall, I heard about a job opening at WBHM, the NPR affiliate in Birmingham, and I was down one full-time job at the time. I had freelanced for the station before I became an editor for Time. In fact, the stories I produced about healthcare helped land my editorial gig. Now I found myself spit out of corporate life, but with one foot still in that world. When my job was eliminated, I had been able to retain some editorial work on a contract basis. I knew that was not my bliss, but until I found another job, it seemed prudent to retain the income.
   Soon after I heard about the job, I was talking to my friend Emily in New York. She had just undergone a career change as well, and shared some advice she received from a life coach/career guru. "You have to think about what you want to do in five or ten years," Emily said. "But not like when you were twenty-five. Ask yourself, 'What do I see myself doing down the road?' and then aim for that." "Well, that's easy," I said. "I want to be a reporter for NPR." After I said it, I let those words sink in. I don't think I'd ever been so sure of anything in my life.
   That night, I woke up at 2 AM with a clear and definitive thought: If I want to reach my goal, I must resign the Time business altogether and put my full effort into becoming a journalist. As an editor, I was so involved in the day-to-day business of publishing a magazine, I couldn't focus on my own writing. It paid well, but the job required the full-time occupation of my mind. And, of course, I had other aspects of my life to contend with as well: Taking care of Jack, muddling through a divorce, trying to piece my personal life back together, all took up brainspace. If I was going to give myself the chance to truly become a writer, let alone write and produce stories for NPR, I had to clear my path. And that's just what I did. The next morning I sent an email to the Account Director at Time and let him know that we needed to talk about transitioning my work to another editor. I had to shift all my energy into preparing for that job.
  Stepping out on that limb wasn't easy, but then again, I knew it was the only way I could begin to focus on what was most important to me. Yes, I was scared, but I had my carrot—the job opening at WBHM—dangling before me. It seemed like fate. The job was posted on January 1 and I submitted my resume right away. The position would only pay about half of what I made as a freelance editor—this was public radio, after all—but for the first time in my career, the paycheck didn't matter. What mattered was I would be writing and reporting, and bringing to life stories that might not otherwise be told. I wanted to champion the underdog, the people who would not otherwise have a voice.
  Weeks went by and I felt like a nervous teenager waiting for the phone to ring before the big, spring prom. Finally, I did get a call and my interview time was slated for Valentine's Day. I was on a freelance assignment that day in Gulf Shores, reporting a story about the aftermath of the BP oil spill for WBHM. I took my interview call as I ate lunch in between my interviews with charter fishing boat captains and tourism specialists. The interview went well, but I realized that the successful candidate would most likely be chosen for his or her direct experience in the issues of education in Alabama, the beat this job specifically covered—and that was not my forte.
   After my interview, I drove down to Orange Beach for a ride-along with the city employee who's in charge of tar ball clean-up. As we bumped along the white sands, I realized how much I loved being out in the field, meeting new people and gathering up their stories to share. It wasn't lost on me that I was alone on Valentines Day, but it was perhaps the best day of hearts and roses I'd ever spent. I was in one of the places I loved most in the world, doing the work I definitely loved beyond all other work—and possibly, very soon, I'd be gainfully employed as a reporter. I'd take a day in the field over a box of Godiva's any day.
   The next week I found out that I didn't get the job. I let the news sink in. For months I had prayed and hoped and worked toward this goal, and it didn't pan out. For a few moments I felt stunned, but soon—more quickly than I would have ever suspected—I let the disappointment wash over me and then, it was gone.
   Yes, I hoped to get that job and further my career as a radio journalist (not to mention have a nice benefits package with insurance,) but in the process of shedding my former editorial skin to focus on writing and reporting, I was now actually doing the work. I had two Gulf Coast radio stories to produce, and other writing assignments, too. I didn't have a time to feel sorry for myself or wonder how I would make ends meet now that I no longer had the contract with Time. In the process of chasing that carrot, I started a new career and, after all, that's what the hoped-for job was all about.
  Often in life, the pursuit of a relationship, career, or other goal pulls us through to whatever comes next, which ultimately may be better for us than the original object of our desire. The lure of the WBHM job turned out to be a catalyst. Would I have walked away from that lucrative contract without that carrot dangling brightly before me? Probably not. And that's the beauty of the carrot, it looks so good that we pursue it, but then, we don't even have to take a bite to receive all its benefit—if we chose to perceive the value of the chase.

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