Life In the Slow Lane

I spent most of my adult life in the fast lane. It could be exhilarating. Stimulating. Challenging. Rewarding. But it also could be stressful. Conflicting. Unfulfilling. Depleting.

Six years ago I decided to pull over. I’d had enough, at least for the time being. I was spent and disillusioned. So we packed up and moved to Colorado.

Why Colorado? Because it’s a glorious place; its culture and values resonate with my own. And its climate is far superior to any place I had lived. We would travel. Hike. Bike. Explore the West. Breath Rocky Mountain air. Bask under the incessant sunshine and spectacular skies. Try to learn to experience life in a different way. Be less into doing and more into being.

It was time. I had just finished a stint as president of Bridgewater College. It was a fool’s errand. I was at the point in my professional life that I could be unconcerned about career and money and pursue something simply for the mission (i.e., my passion). And there was no other mission that appealed to me as much as education — higher education in particular. Education had opened doors for me. I was a zealot you might say. I could think of nothing better to do with my remaining professional days than to help a college deliver a rich, stimulating, contemporary and affordable learning experience to students, many of whom shared a common background with me (rural, modest means, etc.). So off to college I went. But I hadn’t thought it through.

It was a 24/7, 365 job. All consuming. We even had to live on campus (a very bad and old-fashioned thing to force college presidents to do), constantly surrounded by duty, scrutiny and, worst of all, judgment. I loved the educational part, especially my interactions with students and certain professors, coaches and staff. But it wasn’t what I had naively expected (my fault, no one else’s).

Without rehashing details here, suffice it to say neither higher ed nor this particular college community was what I had expected it to be. It was a disheartening realization.

Moreover, I hadn’t given due weight to the repetitive nature of campus life. Each fall you rewound the reel and played the academic year over. The movie Groundhog Day frequently came to mind. It was ill-suited to someone like me who gets easily bored by repetition.

For a myriad of reasons, it wasn’t long before I realized I had made a mistake. It was a job that looked much better from the outside.

Vera, your grandmother would tell me that the job was killing me. At first, I rejected her assessment. But I came to realize she was right. So I took the first opportunity that presented itself to leave. By then, I was exhausted, physically and emotionally. Colorado beckoned. I decided to change lanes.

I don’t mean to suggest that the college experience was the only thing — or even the main thing — that caused me to change lanes. It wasn’t. The college was merely the coda on a professional life that had depleted me. The career had been rewarding in various ways, yet I had come to realize it came at a price. Indeed, I had paid a steep price that was hidden from all but a few close friends and family. I had no desire to continue on. So when we left Bridgewater, I decided to pull over, into the slow lane, to see what life was like there.

Recently, when talking by phone to our investment banker in Boulder, Colorado, I was asked if I thought I’d ever return to full-time work. It may have been a test. We had discussed this before, so she knew the answer. And she had no reason to believe the answer had changed. She knew I didn’t miss the fast lane. What I think she was actually asking was, “Are you content in the slow lane in Indiana?” It’s not unusual for Coloradans to wonder how people can be happy anywhere else! And she knew how much I loved Colorado and all the things we did from our base there.

I quickly replied, “No, I had no desire to work full-time again.” But it wasn’t just a reflex. It was a statement of aversion — aversion to a life that was unbalanced and misdirected in almost every sense of the word and that had nearly destroyed me.

She told me about clients who get upset with her when she doesn’t return their Sunday emails until Monday morning. I love Boulder, but it has a lot of self-absorbed Type A personalities. Some are her clients. (Confession: When in the fast lane, I sent many weekend emails.)

She also brought me up to speed on her family. Her teenage son is a really good baseball player. She told me an elite team wanted him to play for them, but that she and her husband would have to shell out $5,000, plus, of course, cover all of their son’s travel expenses. “What are we doing to our kids?” I thought. But that’s life in the fast lane. She and her husband passed. I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed with her as our advisor, despite the distance now separating us. She deals with fast-lane people all the time, but those Nebraska values of hers (where she was reared) haven’t succumbed to the values of the hyper-competitive Boulder elite. She still thinks baseball is a game. And that kids should be allowed to play. I like that about her.

I don’t mean to denigrate the fast lane. It’s not an inherently bad place. There are many fine people there doing incredible work that’s making the world a better place. And the fruits of that life allowed me to jump lanes at a relatively early age and move to Colorado. And it’s what allowed us to pull up stakes and move to Carmel to be near you and your parents, Vera. I realize that. And I’m grateful.

But I also realize that most of those fruits weren’t necessary. I just thought they were. Many people live happy lives with a fraction of what I had. In fact, there is an argument to be made this kind of fruit, to excess, can be counterproductive. Money and possessions have a way of surreptitiously undermining happiness. They delude us into thinking “success” is the key, and that we’re more important than we really are. They delude us into thinking what we do and what we have are more important than whom we are.

I also realize those fruits aren’t free. And the price to be paid, while not always apparent, can be steep. Finally, it’s become apparent to me that the pursuit of achievement and rank often are but mere devices to deal with our own insecurities.

A friend once wrote on my Facebook page that she prayed I would “find a new passion for a new stage of life!” I hope she’s not praying too hard. I’m not sure I want another passion. I’ve come to believe passion is highly overrated.

There is a lot of passion in the fast lane. But there’s passion, and there’s passion. I’ve had my fill of what most people think of as passion. Personally, I’ll settle for doing something I enjoy and can do well, that aligns with my own values and beliefs and that makes a positive contribution to the world, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

For most of my life, insignificance had been a threat. Something to fear and overcome. I’m now much more comfortable with my place in the world. And much more aware of the limitations of success, excellence and achievement. Yet I still struggle with the threat of insignificance.

I used to think what I did mattered and it was my responsibility to accomplish something permanent and significant. Now I realize such thoughts are self-delusional and primarily are reactions to insecurity and humans’ quest for meaning and purpose. It’s a surrender to externalities. I’ve finally (very late in the game) come to realize that the health and state of the internal is far more important. But the world of achievement and competition — of success — remains a powerful lure. I suspect it will always be so. I also suspect the threat that feelings of insignificance pose will be with me forever.

Nearly everyone with whom I interact professionally is still in the fast lane. Their palpable stress and competitiveness serve as a constant reminder of what it is about the fast lane that repeals me at this stage of my life. Hence, my quick response to my Boulder investment adviser and friend.

I do wonder whether it would be possible to live one’s life somewhere other than the fast or slow lanes — someplace with balance, that doesn’t take itself too serious, that gives equal weight to externalities (contribution) and self. It’s probably possible, but it’s damn hard in the culture in which we live.

America is all about money, acquisition and status. Our culture is consumed by money. “Success,” we call it. We don’t even debate what “success” really is. If you suggest it might mean something other than money or acquisition, you get odd looks, like you’re from a different planet. Worst yet, they may suspect you’re not a true believer in capitalism. What could be worse? It is, after all, America’s true religion.

With relatively few exceptions, we run our companies for one and one purpose only: to increase shareholder value. Non-executive employees are mere tools, to be used and thrown away, replaced with a younger, more naive generation when the time is right. Community and country aren’t the corporation’s concern. The market will take care of everything we’re told. Meanwhile, entire communities are gutted and left to die. People are kicked to the curb like trash. But few seem to care. Earnings per share and stock prices are all that matter.

Much of American no longer even pretends that character and virtue matter. Graft and corruption are commonplace. We sell our political power to the highest bidder. If you don’t retire from Congress rich, you’re considered an idiot. Former presidents cash in on their fame; in my lifetime only one has lived a life of public service grounded in a deep compassion for others.

Our health care system is principally run for the benefit of shareholders and doctors whose high incomes are protected by government-enforced cartel rules. The system is bleeding us dry, and we seem incapable of doing anything about it. Corruption, greed, apathy and ignorance block our path.

Even nonprofits have lost their soul (which is why I no longer contribute to most  of them). I spent some time in higher ed, where colleges provide cushy jobs (and lifetime job security) to tenured faculty and most administrators and just enough emotional rewards to sentimental alumni to keep the money flowing. Meanwhile, these institutions are complicit and guilty up to their ears in heaping $1.5 trillion of student debt onto the backs of the students they profess to care so much about. And perhaps even worse, in many instances the educational product and experience they deliver to their students are, quite frankly, just plain crappy. Myth, mediocrity and hypocrisy are the prevalent attributes of many colleges, and that’s a generous characterization.

Especially since the 1980s, America’s passion is money and rampant individualism. Greed became acceptable. More than acceptable. A core value. If it works for me, then it must be good.

Moreover, bureaucracy and self-interest have trumped aspiration, curiosity, discovery and any sense of the common good. We live for today without much concern at all for each other or, particularly, for future generations. We unwittingly submit to corporate forces that have no other goal than their own enrichment. We have ceded control over our collective destiny to capitalistic forces that don’t give a damn about anything but themselves.

For some of us, it’s became harder and harder to live in the fast lane, which is where most of the action happens. There is simply too much about it that conflicts us and co-opts us. Admittedly, I was complicit, as guilty as anyone else. My problem was, I knew it. In a way, I wish I had been a truer disciple of America’s religion. Life would have been so much easier in the fast lane. I wish the stuff and status had been enough.

In the 20th century, America built and accomplished great things. We put men on the moon. We built an amazing national infrastructure. We educated kids from working class families. We loosened the reigns of oppression and afforded a race and gender rights and privileges they had never had. We defeated fascism. And America prospered.

In the 21st century, America is about Facebook, iPhones, Amazon, Wall Street, financial assets and getting ahead — individually. Our heroes are the ones with the most money. Our country’s leader is one who embodies and glorifies extreme selfishness, greed and narcissism. We are no longer called to “ask what you can do for your country.” We no longer reach for the stars. We have relinquished our noble visions and aspirations. We are fast becoming a land of haves and have-nots. We are heaping debt on our kids. We are blindly allowing pressures to build that, if left unchecked, will pull us apart, permanently, with much carnage along the way. And we’re either too blind to see what’s happening or we’ve decided not to care. The elite are too busy building their portfolios. We think the fast lane is the place to be and don’t mind running others off the road in our haste. We seldom ask where we’re headed. We just keep driving, the pedal to the metal. It seemingly never occurs to most people to ask, Why?

Looking back, I suppose I should have owned and run my own business or firm. Or school. Or whatever. Perhaps I could have created my own lane. But it may be too late for that.

I don’t pretend to know the future, but for now I’m going to stay pulled over in the slow lane. I’ve constructed a life in which I can walk everywhere I need to go (except to your house, Vera, which is possible but would be unduly time-consuming). I don’t have to play the game (much), and I never have to pretend that things which really aren’t all that important matter so much.

I don’t have to be anyone’s well-paid serf. I no longer have to stroke insecure superiors, board chairs or trustees. Or play the ridiculous power games that competitive, ambitious white men in the corporate world seem to enjoy so much. And I don’t have to be responsible for something over which I have only limited control. I can be freer than I’ve ever been.

Is this the lane in which I’ll forever stay? I have no idea. It’s like I told my Boulder friend: “I don’t know what the future holds. One should never say never.” That said, I’m pretty certain my future doesn’t entail pulling back into the fast lane. But it might entail something new and different. It might even include a new “passion” to which my other friend alluded.

But if it does, it will be a different kind of passion. It will be one that I’m willing to fight for. Half-way measures no longer cut it. My days of complicity are behind me (at least, I hope). Silence and submission, while always repulsive, now seem intolerable.

I have tasted freedom, and the prospect of forfeiting it is unacceptable. If I relinquish my partial retirement and go into something full time, my goal will be to work with people whom I trust and respect — with people who merit my admiration — and pursue work that truly does make the world a better place.

Finally, I hope I’m able to make smarter decisions and not allow some naïve concept of passion to lead me into places and situations that conflict with my own values and aspirations. In short, I hope to be wiser.

All of that said, I realize it’s easy to change lanes at this point in my life. The fast lane was good to me financially. I’m one of the lucky ones. I can now live a life of privilege. I’m mindful of that, and am spending more time these days thinking of ways to give. To share. I have something in mind, but it could be perceived as kind of radical. I haven’t even shared the idea with your grandmother yet. I’m afraid of her reaction. But I will. When I’m more certain this is the right thing to do.

I suppose the point of all of this isn’t about lanes. Rather, it’s about life and intentionality. And not being too quick to accept society’s values. Or to live the life you’re expected to live. I suppose it’s about meaning. And significance. And happiness. And contentment. And living the life that is within you and merely looking to be let out.

It sounds easy. It’s not.

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