Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Part 3: Starting to Wake Up

After marrying Mike, my performance at work began to improve. Part of it was that after five years at the company, I had a better idea of what was expected of me and how to meet expectations. A larger part, I think, was that I now had a good life outside of work. Besides being happy within our marriage and home life, I was also learning to play the mountain dulcimer. I’d wanted to learn to play the instrument since shortly after moving to the St. Louis region, when I first heard it at a re-enactment of pioneer days at a nearby Illinois state park and loved the way it sounded. Taking up the mountain dulcimer was the first thing I’d done that had no connection whatever with trying to get ahead within an empire since college. I’d played the clarinet from fifth through eighth grade and enjoyed making music within a school band, but I had stopped playing after leaving eighth grade and had not taken up any other instrument until I chose to play the dulcimer. I knew how to read music, but making music on a woodwind instrument is sufficiently different from making music on a stringed instrument such as the dulcimer that it was almost like starting to play music from scratch. Nevertheless, I persisted with it and though I did not practice often enough to make rapid progress, I did make slow progress and more importantly, mostly enjoyed the effort, even the recitals (after they were over and my shaking stopped). All these things helped me devote some energies that used to be wasted on feelings of unworthiness and unhappiness back toward my job, and not surprisingly, improved both my performance and, according to management, my attitude as well.

I was also learning a number of useful skills in my volunteer projects. For three years I was a demonstrator in the small auditorium at the St. Louis Science Center, putting on gee-whiz science shows for audiences of all ages. As a demonstrator I received free training on how to do the best job at it and plenty of exposure before audiences, some of whose members then asked me to prepare and offer talks to other audiences. The result was that during a five year period I prepared and presented talks on laser science and on opportunities for women in chemistry to audiences ranging from 1st graders to adults aged 50 and up, learning by doing how to tailor presentations to the needs of the audience. During the seven years I volunteered with the local section of a society for professionals in chemistry and chemical engineering, I worked as newsletter editor, chair of one of the committees, secretary, and a member of the board of directors, honing my administrative skills in this friendlier environment and gaining experience with writing and editing, skills that helped a lot with the written communications I had to make for my job.

Though I’d been trained as a physical chemist, within the company I was more useful as an analytical chemist, in particular a thin film analytical chemist. This was a field I could understand and I formed good working relationships with scientists elsewhere in the company who operated the instruments that provided results that I could not obtain on the lower-tech instrumentation I had available in my lab. My stock at work rose along with my effectiveness level and end of the year results review, though I still spent Sunday afternoons and evenings dreading the Monday morning return to the lab.

Up to this point, however, I’d held myself aloof from the economic aspects of working, and indeed from economics in general. I’d developed a dislike for economics during the introduction to accounting course that I took my senior year of college. It wasn’t the accounting for actual monies earned and spent that bothered me; I could readily understand the value in that. It was all the approximating that went into, for instance, assigning values for depreciation. It didn’t make sense that a piece of equipment could be assigned a useful life of, say, five years and zeroed out on the books at the end of year five when, one day later, it still worked perfectly, in fact might still be in use. It seemed to me that by the time the various sorts of approximations required to develop a balance sheet or profit-and-loss statement had been made, the numbers on them had only the most tenuous connection with reality. As a experimental scientist, I dealt with numbers all the time, with plenty of institutional checks to ensure that the numbers I measured and reported were both precise and accurate. I didn’t see any such commitment to physical reality in what accounting did. And they called it a science? As usual in the courses I disliked, I made sure I learned it well enough to get an A and as a result I could read and understand balance sheets and had a nodding acquaintance with economic terms, but I avoided any further engagement with a subject that seemed to me so riddled with subjectivity as to be nearly worthless. At work, this meant I tuned out during meetings as soon as economic concepts were discussed. I knew we were supposed to be helping the company make a profit, but that was all I felt I needed to know. Let the folks above me determine how to make that profit; it was their job, not mine.

It was the summer of 1990 during an offsite departmental meeting at a conference center in a rural area when I first realized what growth in profits actually meant. At the time, team-building exercises were popular management tools, the theory being that if a group of people could solve a made-up problem that had nothing to do with their work, at someplace that was nothing like their workplace, they could somehow translate that into effectively working together on real problems in real workplaces. (During one such activity we were to allow ourselves to fall over backward from an elevated platform into the supposedly waiting arms of our colleagues. I was the only person who refused to participate in this activity; it struck me as not just pointless and an opportunity for my male colleagues to touch me in inappropriate places, but possibly dangerous as well. In fact, they didn’t fully catch one of my colleagues and she tumbled to the ground, but luckily she wasn’t visibly hurt by the experience.) It was at the concluding meeting of this exercise in money-wasting that either the second or third boss up from me was giving us the standard pep talk including the usual 15% return on investment company goal. (If that sounds absurdly high, remember that this was 1990 and it was a common expectation in the industry at a time when oil was far cheaper than it is now.) Perhaps because I was so miffed at my colleagues and the entire corporation, I didn’t tune out of the discussion. For the first time in the six years I’d been working, I suddenly grasped that this was exponential growth we were expecting, for as far into the future as anyone expected the company to be around.

My first reaction, I admit, was grim amusement. This was because Mike worked for a bigger and meaner multinational corporation than I worked for. In my mind’s eye I saw my company grow, and his, and eventually both grow to the point that they were the only two corporations left on Earth ... and then his company swallowed mine up with a smack of its lips and a burp. I liked watching my company get what I thought was its just desserts. But now his company can only grow a certain amount more, I saw, because after all, Earth is finite; obviously the company can’t grow larger than the Earth itself. As soon as I grasped that I realized that what my hypothetical exercise meant was that profit growth has a finite lifespan, at my company or any other. I didn’t know how long that lifespan was or what might replace profit growth as an economic driver, but as soon as I grasped that profit couldn’t grow forever, I couldn’t help wondering why seemingly no one else, in a roomful of people practically every one of whom knew exponential functions inside and out, had picked up on this basic absurdity. In brief, I began to wake up. And once I woke up that much, I knew that I couldn’t stay at the corporation for all that much longer, that in the long run whatever I did for money had to made sense on a finite Earth as well as be something I actually enjoyed doing.

After the meeting, Mike and I discussed what might happen at whatever time I chose to leave the company. We decided to dedicate as much of my income as needed to remodeling work on our house and to save some of it toward whatever period of time I would be out of work while deciding on my next career. Although Mike earned less than I did, he felt he could support both of us for awhile while I looked for different work. I got busy on interviewing and hiring companies to do landscaping work and to remodel the kitchen, bathroom, and back porch. Knowing that my time at the company was finite, that I wouldn’t be there for the more than twenty years I needed to reach early retirement age, freed up more energy that I could put into doing my job well during the time I had left. I finally figured out that I not only had a budget at work that I was supposed to stay within, but that the goal was to get the maximum amount of analytical work done while staying within that budget, and I dedicated myself to that effort. My supervisor was delighted with my newfound enthusiasm for staying within budget, and I turned out a competent body of analytical research over the next two years. During this time the period of employment to be vested in the company’s pension plan changed from ten to five years. Now that I was vested in both the pension plan (a plan in which I could receive a pension as early as 55 years of age) and in the 401(k) investment plan I was also taking advantage of, all the financial barriers to resigning ended. It was just a matter of knowing when the right time to leave would be. I trusted I would know when that was and continued to work while I waited for whatever sign would let me know the time was right.

By spring of 1992, I’d had enough success at work that I’d been invited to one of the monthly luncheons the CEO held to meet a cross section of people from throughout the company and a similar luncheon that the president of our division, four levels above me, held to meet people in our division. The luncheons, I knew, were supposed to reward me for good work and encourage me to devote even more effort to the company. However, other events suggested the time to resign was approaching.

A few months previous during a department-wide meeting, the manager three levels up from me had told the department that we had about a year in which to develop at least one product which was deemed sufficiently good to begin the steps toward commercialization. No such product had yet come out of our department, and upper management was clearly becoming impatient with us. Awhile later came rumors of a departmental reorganization. I’d been through enough reorganizations by that time to suspect that this was the prelude to a big shakeout, though I wasn’t sure how the process might play out.

Part of our yearly results review involved identifying a long-term career path for each of us. I had not responded with any real enthusiasm to the long-term career path that had been proposed for me. On the surface the path made sense to the various managers who had signed off on it. It acknowledged my lack of interest in what they called exploratory science, meaning that I wasn’t any good at inventing the new products that the company needed to keep its profit increasing. In contrast, I was pretty good at what they called explanatory science (I could clarify questions about and identify problems with something someone else had invented), plus I had good communication skills. Combined with my history of work on one of the products made by the division’s plant in Massachusetts, a plant I’d visited numerous times over the past several years, that suggested a transfer to the analytical department at that plant with a potential of rising to supervisor of the analytical department. But I didn’t want anything of the sort. I hated that plant. During one visit I’d gotten sick on the odor it generated. (I got no sympathy from my colleagues at the plant, one of whom commented that it smelled like money to him.) I’d lived on the east coast during high school and college but didn’t like it much; nothing about the town the plant was located in suggested I’d find anything about it to like. Mike is a lifelong resident of the St. Louis area and most of his family is here; I had made a home here as well and intended to stay here the rest of my life. On top of that, I’d had plenty of time to observe colleagues at levels ranging from technicians to the CEO of the company, and my observations had taught me that any supervisory post meant changing one’s values to those of the corporation. At my level I could still resist most of the pressure to conform at the cost of hiding aspects of myself, but I saw that those just one level up faced far more pressure to conform than I did, and the process of value change was complete one level above that. Even at my level I was having some health issues related to the mismatch between my values and the ultimate corporate goal, and I knew they would only get worse the longer I spent with the company. At home, the landscaping and remodeling work had been completed and we’d put some money aside toward the several months to a year I thought it would take for me to determine another way to earn some money. I was finally ready to take the first big action of my life that would not mesh well with the goals of empire.

Toward the end of May, I resigned effective the last business day in June, a couple of weeks past my eighth anniversary with the company. I handed in my resignation just a day or two after the reorganization plan was announced that made it clear I’d picked exactly the right time to resign. When my shocked boss asked me why I was resigning, all I could say was that I was tired. If I’d been able to tell him why I was tired, I would have said that I was tired of the endless pressure to conform to the corporate imperative to grow that was at odds with the Earth’s very real limits; I was tired of pretending I liked the work; I was tired of having so much of my energy sucked up by work and work-related volunteer activities; above all, I was tired of the feeling of dread that crept up every Sunday afternoon. With my resignation handed in, I put one last burst of effort into writing reports and cleaning up my laboratory and walked out on my last day with a huge burst of relief and gratitude. During those last few weeks I noticed the difference in how I was treated once it became widely known that I had resigned with no other job in line. If I’d resigned to take a better offer someplace else, or because my spouse was relocating and thus I was as well, I would have been congratulated in the first circumstance, wished well in the second. Resigning without a job in hand, though, intrigued and challenged my colleagues. A few of them told me confidentially that they wished they could do the same but that they had families to support, that I was fortunate to have a husband to support me. I agreed with them, of course, but they did not know that our household income would drop by close to two-thirds when I quit. But I felt I’d challenged them enough as it was so I kept that last bit, as I had kept so much else over the years, to myself.

Once I walked out of the building that last time, I faced deciding what to do next, a process I hadn’t had the energy to deal with while I was working for the company. The story will continue from there, though I may make an unrelated post first to sum up 2012 here at Living Low Acre. May you all have a happy New Year, and see you here again about then!

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