Chapter Sample – Introduction

INTRODUCTION

Does your corporate career leave you stressed out, burned out, or just plain bummed out?

Believe me, you’re not alone. But you don’t have to stay stuck in a job that doesn’t inspire you. You don’t have to choose between paying the bills and enjoying a fulfilling career.

Been There, Done That, Wrote the Book

I wrote this book because I know exactly how you feel. After twelve years on the corporate fast track, I walked away from a six-figure salary and a VP title to start my own company. Along the way, I rediscovered my creativity and my confidence and learned that it really is possible to love your work.

Making the leap wasn’t easy. It took me years of trial and error to escape from Corporate America. Once I left, I was amazed at people dying to know how I did it and whether they could, too.

This book is about exploring your options. It’s not a bitter anti-corporate rant. In fact, chapter 5 looks at some of the corporations that people love to work for. These are companies that offer entrepreneurial cultures, innovative work–life balance programs, and even free lunches. They almost made me want to update my résumé. Almost.

Unfortunately, your corporate home probably isn’t that warm and fuzzy or you wouldn’t be reading this right now. You need an exit strategy. Aren’t you glad I’m here to help?

I spent the last three years talking to more than two hundred amazing people who successfully made the transition from corporate servitude to careers they love. I spoke with entrepreneurs, filmmakers, nonprofit leaders, restaurateurs, corporate VPs, teachers, singers, and a reality TV star. And that was only the beginning.

I found corporate escape artists everywhere I went. In my clients’ offices, at my volunteer gig, in my writing workshop, at the gym, online, and on vacation. Along the way, both my brother and my best friend from college quit their corporate management jobs to pursue their dreams.

Memoirs of a Corporate Misfit: The Early Years

My personal story is just like thousands of others in cubicle land. I was a creative person who stumbled into the corporate world for a “temporary” gig that lasted twelve years.

I had always wanted to be a writer, ever since I composed my first prose masterpiece in crayon in the first grade (my mother laminated it for posterity). Even as an idealistic young thing, though, I never believed I could actually make a living as a writer. I majored in journalism because I thought that was the only way I could get paid to write, even if I was writing obits and puff pieces.

Unfortunately, entry-level journalism doesn’t provide much of a living, especially in New York City. The editorial jobs I was offered didn’t pay enough to support a lifestyle that included both regular meals and a roof over my head.

Luckily, I could type. While I was interviewing for pittance-paying editorial assistant positions after graduation, a temp agency sent me to work in public relations at an investment bank. I was dazzled by this new and foreign world—the fast pace of the financial markets, the fun of company parties and expense account dinners, the hobnobbing with the rich and powerful. Ah, the honeymoon phase.

When my glamorous new boss offered me a healthy salary to come aboard full-time, I put my creative career dreams aside. After all, I had no trust fund to tap into and I had to pay rent on my roach-infested apartment somehow. I decided that writing press releases was a valid alternative to running the copy machine at a magazine.

Then a funny thing happened—I kept getting promoted. At first, it was fun because there was a lot to learn. Earning raises and promotions fed my hungry ego, and it was nice to be able to buy new shoes once in a while.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when it got ugly. Maybe it was when I first encountered the joys of middle management. At some point, I stopped learning and started stagnating. My job became much more demanding and much less stimulating. My energy was sapped by the effort required to appear interested through hours of boring meetings each day. To my credit, I’m pretty sure I only nodded off once.

Nothing about my work was meaningful or exciting anymore. I’d been through countless reorgs, mergers, layoffs, and management changes, and I was exhausted. It turned out that I had finally climbed far enough up the ladder to realize that the view sucked despite the panorama of the New York City skyline outside my office window.

Worst of all, I started to get the sinking feeling that there was no way out that didn’t require moving into my parents’ basement. So I sucked it up and hoped things would get better after the next promotion.

Breakdown in the Fast Lane

After twelve long years, I had all the things that I’d always thought I wanted: a sweet paycheck, a fancy title, and an expense account. I had a “good job,” but I was miserable. My spacious office with its mahogany desk and its view started to feel like a jail cell. Every morning, I rose early, put on my sensible business casual uniform, and braved an hour-long commute to do my time in climate controlled conference rooms.

Okay, maybe the prison metaphor is a bit melodramatic. After all, I didn’t have to worry about getting shivved in the exercise yard, but that was only because we weren’t allowed outside very often.

If you picked up this book, you can probably relate to my feeling of being trapped in a job, and a life, that wasn’t working. I certainly wasn’t alone in feeling frustrated. Most of the people around me hated their jobs, too. In fact, I had started to wonder if that was just the way things worked. Maybe I was naïve to think I should get any sort of satisfaction out of my daily grind. Maybe I should just grow up, shut up, and collect my paycheck.

I tried that for a while. But I didn’t like the person I was turning into. I was tired, I was cranky, and I was fat. I was tired from working endless hours, cranky about feeling trapped, and fat because the highlights of my day had become lunch and happy hour.

Next, I tried following the advice in those other career books that insisted I could learn to love my job if I just tried a little harder. I volunteered for new projects and proposed new ideas, but just ended up working longer hours and feeling like more of a failure. I tried interviewing for positions at other companies, but they all started to sound the same after a while. I had grown cynical and could see the grim truth behind the happy interview-speak.

The professional career advice wasn’t working and I blamed myself. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I find a happy home in Corporate America?

How I Escaped

As my midcareer crisis worsened, I started to think seriously about making a radical change. An acquaintance of mine had started a consulting business and seemed to have the perfect life. She worked on interesting projects for lots of different companies and never got bored. What if I tried the same thing?

Until then, I had never considered the idea of launching my own business. Who was I to think I had what it took to succeed as an entrepreneur? Twelve years in Corporate America taught me to avoid risks and always cover my butt.

But I knew I had to do something. I asked the freelancers and consultants I knew for advice, and they gave me the inspiration and encouragement I needed to get serious. The funny thing is that as soon as I seriously considered the idea and gave myself permission to think big, I realized that striking out on my own was the perfect solution.

I knew how to write a good business plan, so I decided to write one for myself. Step 1 involved taking small freelance projects on the side and socking away some of my salary for future rainy days.

When I was ready for step 2, I put together a proposal for my boss and pitched the idea of leaving my job with a signed agreement to work twenty hours a week for my old company as a consultant. It was a ballsy idea, but I had crunched the numbers and found that the arrangement could save my company money while saving my sanity. It was a “win–win,” as they say in corporate-speak.

My boss seemed open to the idea, but before the conversation could get very far, my best-laid plans fell to pieces when the latest round of corporate layoffs was announced.

While my co-workers prayed that their names wouldn’t be on the hit list, I found myself fantasizing about getting downsized. I approached Human Resources and asked if they were accepting volunteers. I knew I was taking a major risk. If they said no, I would be exposing my carefully maintained façade as a happy corporate camper for nothing. I decided the risk was worth it for the potential payoff—a decent severance package that would help me get my new business up and running.

Thanks to the approval of my supportive and surprisingly open-minded boss, I was able to make a deal. Unfortunately, that meant no part-time consulting work, so I walked out the door with exactly zero prospects. I was so excited about my fresh new start that I hardly cared.

When I told my co-workers I was leaving, most of them thought I was insane. “Are you sure?” was the most popular response to my thrilling news. They could understand the impulse, but they couldn’t believe I was going through with it.

I felt like I had already waited too long. Fortunately, I have never regretted the decision for a minute, not even during those scary first months on my own when money was tight.

I Got Out with a Little Help from My Friends

Later, I realized how much I owed to those freelancers and entrepreneurs who took the time to help me. When I was at my lowest and had resigned myself to thirty-odd more years on the corporate hamster wheel, hope came to me in the form of these successful corporate escapees who were living the dream. Their stories showed me that escape was possible if I was willing to get creative.

Now I want to pass on the favor and share the lessons I learned the hard way. This is the book that I so desperately needed when I was standing in your shiny but painful corporate shoes.

I spent three years talking to corporate all-stars and escapees— from entry-level college grads to millionaire managing directors. I asked them about what they liked and disliked about the corporate grind. I grilled them about the challenges of leaving and the secrets they discovered along the way. I learned a lot about how and why the best and the brightest employees are leaving Corporate America, and I’m sharing it with you.

Whether you want to start a business, follow a passion, or simply find more time and energy for your personal life, this book can help. I wrote it for all of you who can’t bear the thought of another Monday in a cubicle; for everyone who has ever fantasized about a different career.

Trust me. You don’t have to stay stuck in a job you hate, and you don’t have to starve to find work that you love. All you need is a plan and a little bit of nerve.