As I took my seat next to a smartly dressed man on a recent flight, my eye caught the ID tag on his carry-on, shoved beneath the seat in front of him. U.S. Figure Skating Association. Wow! Since we were in week two of the recent Olympics, and the men and pairs had just completed competition, this had my attention.
“Are you returning from Pyeongchang?” I asked, working carefully to pronounce the South Korean city as I’d heard Savannah Guthrie do.
We chatted a bit about his job for the association -- as a teacher of coaches around the U.S. At some point the conversation steered into how long he thought he’d continue before retiring. Chagrined, he threw out, “You know, nonprofit work doesn’t really pay very much.”
I’ve been in nonprofit work my entire working life. So has my husband. While we never entered the sector for the paycheck, the paycheck has provided for us and our family. Like any other unit, we’ve stretched the dollars to cover housing and food and cars and clothes and kids’ activities and even vacations. As Evan and I near “retirement” we’ve carefully planned and saved and currently sit in a spot where we think we’ll be okay once the regular paycheck ceases because our regular work has stopped. We think.
But there’s another concern that I’ve begun to dip my toe into. What then? I’ve never “defined” myself completely by what I’m paid to do. Yet what I do still somewhat defines me. I speak and write and lead and love others. When I stop doing that as my “job” who will I be? Will I still be me without pay?
I’ve had several windows of unemployment where I’ve tried on this “payless” condition for a while. Months between positions. A brief sabbatical. The transition from an official leadership role for a specific nonprofit to working on my own in a solo act. In such moments, the days often yawned with emptiness -- as did my bank account. No staff. No coworkers. No mission statement of cause. And no paycheck.
It was a bit scary to be honest. But we were fine financially -- really. And eventually I learned that this second concern -- who am I without pay -- is the true life-defining question. Many of us will live two decades or more without our former “paycheck” and on a fixed income. We’ll be “fine” financially. But who will we be without paid work to do?
As I stood and retrieved my own bag from the overhead, a sentence whistled through my thinking: “Purpose is its own paycheck.” What might be worse than not having a paycheck through the end of our days is not having a reason to be through the end of our days. A purpose to put our feet on the floor and pursue each day. Meaning to contribute to the lives around us. Significance.
I turned to my seatmate and shared the sentence, knowing it was likely as much for him as it was for me. “You know,” I said, “Purpose is its own paycheck.” He paused, thought something to himself and then responded, “That’s good. I think I’ll put that in my power point.”
Cool, I thought.
And no charge.
Suggested resource: Hello, Beauty Full by Elisa Morgan