I graduated from Michigan State in 2010 with strong passions
for local organic food, community development, and a healthy (or maybe
unhealthy) fear of not making enough money in the career path that I would
eventually be forced to choose. The looming
decision often weighed on me heavily as my inner self struggled to put a value
on working with my passions vs. working for a salary.
Towards the end of my college career, I spent weeks toiling
over the situation. After contracting
shingles and likely straining many of my interpersonal relationships, I still
felt as if I had not made any progress in terms of knowing what was right. I eventually decided that I would “sacrifice”
a year in order to pursue work that I really loved before zeroing in on a more
lucrative desk job.
I was lucky enough to find a dream job in my hometown of Ann
Arbor working for Avalon Housing in coordination with Growing Hope on gardening
and nutrition education for low-income Ann Arbor residents. I loved my work, but at the end of my first
year I decided to pursue a career in Investing.
I studied hard for a certification test that helped me to
gain credibility in the industry, and eventually landed a job working for a
small, family owned wealth management firm in Bloomfield Hills. After buying fancy clothes and trying out a
new hairdo that I copied from my dad, I began commuting again, this time an
hour by car instead of bike. In many
ways I felt like I had taken a 180 degree turn, from socialist to
capitalist. I still managed, however, to
hold on to some parts of my past life that I held dear. Every week I would bring in my CSA share or maybe
some wild black raspberries to pass around the office, though many of my
colleagues were afraid that I was poisoning them. I would talk about how you could eat weeds,
and how much I enjoyed the trees in the office yard.
It was about five months into the job when everything took a
turn for me. My boss offered me and my
coworker tickets to the suite at the Tigers baseball game. We happily accepted and spent the evening
enjoying food and drinks while we watched pitches from padded chairs, and
talked to industry veterans. Towards the
end of the game, we decided to take a walk around the park for the last few
innings. As I finished a conversation
with a sailor and his family that had started after I complimented his
extraordinary beard, I turned around to see that my friend was gone. I had left my cellphone in the car, and so
had no choice to make my way back to the parking lot.
The game hadn’t finished, so I decided to take my time. I strolled along the concourse and out
through the tall green gates that protect the stadium from dangerous
outsiders. I made my way down the
sidewalk outside and approached a man sitting on the ground, leaning against a streetlight. He was not far from my age, and as I moved
closer I could hear the jingle of a few coins coming from the bottom of the
foam cup that he clutched in his hand.
Suddenly my mind was consumed by the fact that I had never really tried
to understand or get to know someone who was in a position comparable to this
I sat down next to him and found that he was rather eager to
talk. I carefully probed into his life,
wondering about his likes, dislikes, family, and more. He told me he was homeless, and was a native
Detroiter. To me it seemed that he was a
fully capable individual; able bodied, sharp mind, and good communication
skills. I decided to ask him why he was
begging for money instead of working a job that would allow him to provide a
little more for himself and live what to me would be a more comfortable life.
“Well, for one, I’m
addicted to crack” he said. I recoiled a bit, never really having been exposed
to this type addiction in such a firsthand way. He continued “But don’t feel
bad for me. I am happier than I have
ever been! I don’t need money to be
happy, or a job. I have my friends and family, my community, and since I
started smoking crack, I have become closer to Jesus Christ than I have ever
been in my life. I have faith that it
will all work out…and it always does, brother.
I might not always be comfortable…sometimes I am hungry or cold, but
life isn’t easy for anyone, right? I
really wouldn’t want my life any different.”
I was completely taken aback by his statement. I sat dumbfounded as he went into detail
about his Christian beliefs and how a strong faith had been so important to him. I eventually thanked him and walked away as
the idea of a happy crack-addicted
homeless man sunk into my naïve consciousness.
A ways down the walkway, another man was sitting on the curb
of a blocked off street and played a trumpet as waves of people in Tigers
paraphernalia passed him uncaringly. I
sat down beside him and as I focused my gaze upon him, his note seemed to waver
a bit and I felt that he had maybe noticed me paying attention to him. He was an older man than I, and as he wove
his way through the beautiful, slow, sappy notes of the ballad, I couldn’t help
but to let my imagination run wild with images of his extravagant younger days
as a professional musician. He held onto
the last beautiful note as dozens of people passed by without seeming to
notice. I began to clap as I smiled,
almost speechless, and before I could say anything he threw his hands towards the
sky and yelped with joy: “WOOOOOO!! That
amazing!” I said. I don’t know if I could
have described the experience any better.
And just before I could say anything, a young girl, maybe six years old,
ran up and put a dollar in the man’s cup.
“I don’t even care about the money! Nobody ever listens to me! Thank you so much
for listening to me!” The man exclaimed. I looked at him and saw him wiping away tears
that were streaming down his cheeks. I
couldn’t believe what I had heard, or what I was seeing. I looked at him and
thanked him from the bottom of my heart.
He told me that the song was from West Side Story, and we exchanged
exclamations about how amazing life can be.
I left him with a huge smile on my face, knowing that
something special was happening within me.
As I looked at all of the people around me, I began to truly see the
fallacy in the belief that material goods would lead to happiness and
comfort. The men I had talked to had not
only been more or less penniless, but they were surrounded by people with money
and privilege. Yet, they were both so
happy. I could almost feel my money-related
fears exiting my body as I walked out of the shadow of the stadium lights.
I continued along with the herd of other Tigers fans, but
was in no rush to get back to my car. My
pace was slow as I tried to figure out what was happening to me. The powerful interactions had seemed almost
surreal in and of themselves, and to have two in a row seemed dreamlike. Then I
decided to stop and talk to another man sitting in the street in his
wheelchair. The man looked content, his
long black dreadlocks flowed out from a stocking cap, his beard graying. I stopped and greeted him, making sure to
look right at him and not at his legs that ended at the knees. We began the conversation as any two people
might. As we became comfortable with
each other, I asked him how he had come to the place he was currently. “Alcohol” He answered plainly. A wave of sadness flowed through me. I had had exposure to addiction like his, as
I am sure we all have in some way. He
must have read the expression on my face, because he continued on; “But don’t
worry about me. I got my community, I
got my church...I got my life. I don’t
need no more than that. Years ago I fell
out a window and had to start sitting’ in a wheelchair. I got through that. One night in the winter I got drunk and my
legs froze so bad that they had to chop them off. I got through that. Life ain’t always easy, but that don’t mean
you aren’t happy.”
I thanked him for talking to me and wished him luck. I was completely humbled.
I went to work the next day just like any other day, except
that I couldn’t help but continue to replay the conversations that I had had
the night before in my head. Over and
over I thought about these men who I would have looked at before as having
nothing, and thinking about how fulfilled and happy they were. I finished out the week in normal fashion,
but something in me had changed. By the
end of the weekend, the seeds that had been planted in my head had begun to
grow. I got both of my parents and my
sister together and explained what had happened and how it had changed my view
about money and what I now believed lead people to happy lives. I told them that I had been afraid of so many
things, and that I somehow wasn’t anymore.
While I think they all had been happy, proud, and comfortable in my
career choice up to that point, I think they all knew that my true passions may
have lain outside the world of finance.
I told them that I was going to think a little more about the situation,
but that I thought that my heart might not be in investing, and that maybe food
and community development were my calling.
I went to work Monday morning and began looking through my
emails as I normally would. Within 5
minutes of being there, the two young brothers who owned the firm said that
they wanted to meet with me in the conference room. The younger brother began “Paul, you’ve been
here for about 5 months now. You have
gotten a good feel for what we do, and we have learned a lot about you
too. First off, we wanted to both say
that you have done a wonderful job here, and that we wouldn’t be the only ones
to say that we enjoy having you work here.
But, we have also noticed how passionate you are about food, farms, and the
environment. Any free time you have, it
seems like those things are on your mind, and you are excited about them!” The
corners of my lips began to creep up ever so slightly as I tried not to smile
The second brother continued “Now, don’t feel like we aren’t
appreciative of the work you have done here.
You’ve been great, and we would be happy to keep things going just the
way they have been. But we just want to
stress the importance of doing something you love.” I nodded as he
continued on. “Now, we have talked about the situation and all of the partners
are happy to have you on board indefinitely, but we also want you to have an
open door if you decide that you want to leave.”
My body was tingling all over as I smiled in my seat. If I had not believed in “meant to be” before
that day, I can assure you that I did afterword. I answered them emphatically, “I have
actually been thinking the exact same things.
I was telling my parents last night that I was thinking about my passions
and the path I am on…I think I would actually like to leave…today.”
I exited the meeting feeling so amazed about life in
general. I packed up my stuff and sadly
said bye to the many friends that I had there, though more than excited about
my fresh, fearless new life path.