Apr 01

I Had a High-Powered Career… But it Took a $0 Paycheck to Find My Value

Illustration by Sara Nicely

Since childhood, I’ve always been a goal-chaser. Whether it was school, sports, or in my social life, I craved the attention and approval that came with success. But because I wanted to not just be good, but be the best, these things also felt insanely stressful. I did my best to hide the stress by smiling through it all and pretending like nothing fazed me.

 

 

All about chasing the next goal

I graduated from high school and went off to my dream college, a place filled with fellow high-strung overachievers. The pressure to succeed grew and grew. I thought had to be the most successful.  I thought pushing myself would lead to happiness — and I was thrilled when I got what I thought was a dream job in publishing. Of course, that dream job came with long hours and a paltry paycheck. But it was all so fun and exciting, even as I could barely cover my bills and racked up credit card debt.

 

 

But what happens when you “have it all”?

Thanks to a mix of hard work, talent, and some luck, I rose through the ranks fairly quickly. By 26, I was the beauty director of a national magazine and making enough money to get my own apartment, sans roommates.

 

That beauty director title meant the world to me — the signifier of a childhood dream come true. And the perks of the job—from luxurious trips to fancy handbags and more skincare than a girl could ever need — didn’t hurt either. I thought I’d love my career forever and ever. But the industry (and I) changed and not every subsequent role gave me that same high. Even in another dream job, something was missing, and I wasn’t sure what it was.

 

I started leaning into volunteering in small ways, and it felt good. I made sandwiches for people displaced after Hurricane Sandy and spent time doing political canvassing. But the pace of life in New York City and the hours spent at work made it hard to volunteer on a regular basis.

 

 

New life, new priorities

Everything changed two years ago when I decided to drastically shift my lifestyle by moving back to my hometown of Indianapolis. I wanted to get back to writing without the hindrance of New York City rent, spend more time with my family, and, hopefully, have more time and money to do things like travel and volunteer. In the parlance of Marie Kondo, I promised myself that once I made the big move, that I’d truly focus on the things that sparked joy in my life. And, honestly, it’s been life-changing.

 

I now spend almost as much time on unpaid work as I do on the projects that pay my bills. The roles and time commitments to each volunteer commitment vary, which helps me flex my skills. For example, I helped build a Habitat for Humanity house, became a group facilitator for grieving children, and put my muscle into setting up a haunted house for kids.

 

 

The surprising lessons — and sacrifices — of volunteering

Of course, it feels good to help people. But it has also helped me. For example, volunteering with kids who have experienced loss has given me tools to help process my own grief over my mother’s death, as does working with an organization (a children’s museum) that was an important part of her life.

 

The drive and ambition I honed during my publishing career are still part of who I am, and still come in handy. I’ve begun to take on more leadership roles in some of the organizations I work with, and plan to build on those as the years go on.

 

Because I’m a freelancer now, if I’m not working, I’m not getting paid. To that end, volunteering can come with an actual financial sacrifice. But it’s all worth it to meet people from so many different walks of life and to see (sometimes in real time) the impact you have on your community. Having a ton of responsibilities outside of my paying job also makes sure I prioritize my time more efficiently, which is an added bonus. And, I’m exploring my other passions in ways I never could at my old job. For example, I’ve found that I’ve unconsciously gravitated toward a lot of organizations that work with children. Never having any of my own, working with little ones fills a piece of my heart that I once thought might stay empty.

 

 

Slowing down, giving more, feeling whole

By slowing down some parts of my life, I’ve been able to fill it up with some amazing stuff I never thought I had room for before. I actually feel really excited about going to a “job” that doesn’t pay!  My volunteer work may mean I miss a byline or two, and it can sting to miss a financial opportunity. But I can say with real clarity that I’m a more successful human being now. And that’s more than enough for me. If you don’t have the time or the energy to join a million organizations, trying starting with one that you’re passionate about, but has a lower-level time commitment. You may be surprised at just how much volunteering gives back to your life.

 

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