"I often think of a man I met on the streets of Cleveland. He was an assembly-line worker in an automobile plant. He said his work was so hateful that he could barely stand to get up in the morning. I asked why he didn't quit. 'I've only got thirteen more years to retirement,' he answered. And he meant it. His life had so gotten away from him that he was willing to accept a thirteen-year death sentence for his spirit rather than give up the security he had earned. . . .
" 'I've only got thirteen more years to retirement,' was a prisoner's way of counting the days until the job would release him and pay him for his freedom.
"Most people's lives are a variation on that theme. So few take the time when they are young to explore the real meaning of the jobs they take or to consider the real implications of the occupations to which they commit their lives.
"Some have no choice. Without money, without training, with the pressures of life building around them, they choose the best alternative that offers itself. But many others just fail to see clearly. They chase false dreams, and fall into traps they could have avoided if they had listened more closely to their hearts when choosing their life's work.
"But even if you listen closely to your heart, making the right choice is difficult. You can't really know what you want to do by thinking about it. You have to do it and see how it fits. You have to let the work take you over until it becomes you and you become it; then you have to decide whether to embrace it or to abandon it. And few have the courage to abandon something that defines their security and prosperity.
"Yet there is no reason why a person cannot have two, three, or more careers in the course of a life. There is no reason why a person can't abandon a job that does not fit anymore and strike out into the unknown for something that lies closer to the heart. There is risk, there is loss, and there likely will be privation. If you have allowed your job to define your sense of self-worth, there may even be a crisis of identity. But no amount of security is worth the suffering of a life lived chained to a routine that has killed all your dreams.
"You must never forget that to those who hire you, your labor is a commodity. You are paid because you provide a useful service. If the service you provide is no longer needed, it doesn't matter how honorable, how diligent, how committed you have been in your work. If what you can contribute is no longer needed, you are no longer needed and you will be let go. Even if you've committed your life to the job, you are, at heart, a part of a commercial exchange, and you are valuable only so long as you are a significant contributor to that commercial exchange. It is nothing personal; it's just the nature of economic transaction.
"So it doesn't pay to tie yourself to a job that kills your love of life. The job will abandon you if it has to. You can abandon the job if you have to. The man I met in Cleveland may have been laid off the year before he was due to retire. He may have lost his pension because of a legal detail he never knew existed. He may have died on the assembly line while waiting to put a bolt in a fender.
"I once had a professor who dreamed of being a concert pianist. Fearing the possibility of failure, he went into academics, where the work was secure and the money was predictable. One day, when I was talking to him about my unhappiness in my graduate studies, he walked over and sat down at his piano. He played a beautiful glissando and then, abruptly, stopped. 'Do what is in your heart,' he said. 'I really only wanted to be a concert pianist. Now I spend every day wondering how good I might have been.'
"Don't let this be your epitaph at the end of your working life. Find what burns in your heart and do it. Choose a vocation, not a job, and you will be at peace. Take a job instead of finding a vocation, and eventually you will find yourself saying, 'I've only got thirteen more years to retirement,' or 'I spend every day wondering how good I might have been.'
"We all owe ourselves better than that."