Shooting for the Top by Aiming for the Bottom

As a follow-up to my previous post,"My
Tipping Point Towards Happiness
" It's been suggested that I describe the transition
to my mid-career second act. So, from where I left off...

There's a memorable scene in the movie American Beauty where Kevin Spacey's character, after having not-so-gracefully checked out from his family and a dead-end job, applies for work at a fast food restaurant. The unenthusiastic counter worker assumes that "Lester" is inquiring about a management position, only to be met with his classic deadpan reply that "I'm looking for the least possible amount of responsibility."

American Beauty came out in 1999, at almost the exact time that I was also not-so-gracefully exiting a life and job that looked great on paper, but that reality would have strongly argued otherwise. I was burned out, un-enchanted with my career path and becoming increasingly unhealthy, both mentally and physically. Punching new holes in my belt to keep my pants anchored to my skinny, stress-fueled frame was not what I had in mind when I graduated from college. I felt that I had nowhere to turn other than walking the plank into the vast sea of the unknown, which I did.

I had only a faint trust and hope that the currents of life would whisk me to something... anything better. A "Second Act" in life.

As I have spent the bulk of my approach into middle age successfully effervescing my way through the aftermath of the dot-com bubble, it is with gratitude and amazement, all things considered, that I have landed on my feet in a new career, a vastly different existence and a work-life balance that I never thought possible -- a second act. I have reached 'the top' in terms of what my wildest expectations would have been at the time in my life when it seemed like I might be irreparably veering off the road professionally, and in many ways personally.

Act II began when I found myself in a similar situation to Kevin Spacey's character, picking up the pieces of my fractured psyche just enough to put on a tie and a labored smile to apply for a job. My loving and supportive sister (whom I consider to be one of those steady 'currents' in my life), encouraged me to meet with a friend of hers -- one of the upper-ups of a brand-new dot-com that was taking the world of outdoor sporting goods by storm.

Sitting there with him, still reeling and feeling deflated from the bursting of my previous professional life, I was essentially looking for, and subsequently offered, a job with the least possible amount of responsibility.

My job was to simply answer emails that came into the company -- an offer that came with one tongue-in-cheek condition: never wear a tie, ever. This place had a high dogs-under-desk, flip-flops-to-foot ratio. It was that kind of company, and I was more than happy to take the new dress code seriously.

I was the 'email' guy.

It turned out to be a great job, and a perfect fit for me in many ways. Although I could count on two hands the hourly dollar figure I was bringing in at first, it was a typical dot-com at that time, with a bountiful stream of venture capital, expressed through gourmet coffee and weekly massage therapy sessions for its legion of loyal, stock-owning employees. There was a climbing wall looming over the customer service area and "mandatory" paid breaks to go hiking in the nearby mountains. Moreover, it was a growing company with sufficient room to ascend towards a yet-to-be defined ceiling.

Unlike "Lester" from American Beauty, whose only aspirations were to be a shirtless, wife-tormenting stoner living out of his garage, I began to have newfound hopes for my future. A dim plan or strategy was slowly emerging that I could engineer this bottom to be the launching pad and the start to a new career.

I was secretly shooting for the top... my top, by (temporarily, I hoped) aiming in the opposite direction.

After all, there was no way I was going to try for a lateral move or another position managing anyone or anything. That would have been a complete disaster. I needed to buy time to think, reflect, and recompose, plus learn a new craft.

If you've ever watched the bubbles in a glass of beer, many of the smaller ones start at the base, and as they work their way up, they often times gather more bubbles to become bigger, gaining more speed... unstoppable until they reach the frothy, delicious head, where they enjoy space with all of the other proud bubbles that have made the journey to the top.

In much the same way, I looked at the bottom as a way to learn a new company and industry starting from the lowest possible organizational elevation. I had plenty of opportunity to collect bubbles of knowledge and new skills and to gain momentum as I worked my way up.

I made sure I was the best darn e-mailer I could possibly be, and from there, the current whisked me to more responsibility, things to learn and contacts to be made. I saw this as a free, or actually paid education in "dot-com 101." As my confidence and energy slowly started to re-emerge, I took on more, and saw my life, salary and happiness gurgling back to the surface.

The "top" as I envisioned it had been pretty modest in a relative sense, but I have reached it, for now. Here I am, content and healthy, with a sense of personal and professional fulfillment. Most of all, I feel gratitude that after surrendering my ego, expectations, and my quest for responsibility and status years ago, that life did indeed deliver a second act to me.

It's also nice to know that I can always go for a third act, a new top, or perhaps just a bigger glass... whenever I am ready.

Wearing a tie won't be an option.