Updated: Jul 13, 2020
This is the 48th story of Our Life Logs.
Walking away from Wall Street was something I had to do to find happiness in my life. That kind of lifestyle wasn’t how I wanted to spend my aging years. You must follow what your heart wants—even if there isn’t an end goal in mind.
I lived a regular life near New York City during the 1950s and 60s. My mom was a musician, and my dad was a marketing executive. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents growing up. My grandma taught me to sail when I was six. To this day, I credit her for my deep love of the ocean. My grandpa helped me find my love of music, and I played the French horn for most of my childhood and young adulthood.
I went away to an all-boys boarding school just outside of Boston and had a miserable experience. We were not able to go off campus, and we had no contact with girls. This was painful for a teenage boy at a critical stage where he was beginning to develop interest in the opposite sex. Though I learned quite a lot from my school, the institution was going through a lot of changes and it was a difficult place to be. The curriculum and pedagogy were very traditional, which led to a constant “traditional vs. modern” discussion. I couldn’t flourish the way I wanted to with all this going on around me.
College wasn’t much better for me. I went to Harvard, which sounds impressive, but not in my case. It’s one of the top schools in the country, but it can be a tough place for kids who aren’t sure about what they want to do. While I was there, I didn’t know what to focus on. I switched my major about four times. Harvard doesn’t baby its students. It’s up to the student to take advantage of the resources they have available.
For a guy like me with no idea what to do, I figured out that Harvard would not provide me with the proper tools to succeed in college. Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, this was the first major decision that shaped my philosophy on life. I realized that I wasn’t enjoying my life, even if I was at a major university. I was so unhappy with not knowing what to study, that I quit halfway through my junior year, right after the military draft had ended as the Vietnam War was winding down. From there, I decided to work on a lobster boat.
Working on the lobster boat was an interesting experience for me. I worked with a lot of men that had just come back from fighting in the Vietnam War. I also worked with a fair share of men bitter and confused about where they wanted their lives to go. We worked on the boat for 12 hours a day hauling lobster over the side and trying not to fall over.
I had to be very careful not to tell those guys that I had come from college. If they found out that I was from the New York suburbs and that I was a college kid, they would not have hired me because I would have been looked at as a stupid rich kid. I even had to be very careful with my vocabulary. If I didn’t say certain curse words they would think I was uppity. Though I learned so much through this experience, I was no longer satisfied with the lifestyle. I had to constantly hide parts of my identity and could no longer be honest with myself. I eventually quit to go back to school.
Although I didn’t like Harvard, I knew I’d get better opportunities for work if I had a degree on my resume. I graduated with an English degree because I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t give what I wanted to do after graduation much thought. I was just relieved to graduate and get out of there.
Following my musical interests, I tried to be a freelance musician for a while. I moved to New York and looked for French horn gigs. I also took lessons when I could afford them. When my music career didn’t work out—though I’m glad I gave it a chance—I worked various odd jobs in 1975, like being a waiter. Waiting on tables was the hardest job I’ve ever done because it’s physically and mentally demanding. I had to lie to get the job because I had no experience as a waiter. They asked if I had ever waited on tables before and I said, “oh yeah, sure!” I didn’t stay a waiter for very long before I decided it was time for a change.
I began searching for another job. In my mid-20s, my father’s friend found me a job on a sailboat. I lived aboard the boat and took care of it. I was excited to start this job because I had experience sailing thanks to my grandma. I liked the solitude and being out on the open ocean. The owner asked me to set sail for the Caribbean after I’d been caring for it for six months, but life took me in another direction. An old friend offered me a job on Wall Street as a junior executive, and I accepted.
Although Wall Street is like the dream job for many people, I didn’t like it very much. I had to commute to the city on the subway, and it was exhausting. I didn’t like the environment. I didn’t thrive in it. Working on Wall Street is great for people that are trying to make money, but I was never focused on that.
Money hasn’t ever been a priority for me, which is why my decision to quit didn’t bother me. Walking away from my Wall Street job was the biggest turning point in my life. I realized money didn’t equate to success in my life. They offered to pay me twice as much money if I stayed, but no amount of money was going to make me stay. I knew I’d be taking a massive pay cut if I left, but I was not happy in this corporate job, and did not feel the need to climb the corporate ladder. I had to move on.
I always had an interest in science and the ocean, so I called Columbia University to see if there was a night class in geology. I got lucky and met a guy who was recruiting people to go on an Antarctic marine geophysics expedition. He needed people to stand watch and keep track of the instruments. We decided that I had enough experience from working on the lobster boat to join the expedition.
I spent the next six years being an oceanographic technician, supporting various projects at Columbia and the University of Rhode Island. Collectively, I spent over twelve months at sea. During that time, I taught myself computer programming, and when the pressure of long ocean expeditions became too much for my family, I got a job in California at a commercial oceanographic company and moved from Rhode Island to California.
Since then, I have had several jobs in software and technology, first as a developer and later as a manager. I’ve always been the type of person that looks for ways to help people. If my skills can help someone get to a goal they want, then I’ve done my job. I worked for a startup company that eventually got bought out by a bigger company. Through the startup, I met a good friend of mine that helped me get hired into my current job at a technology company working as a solution architect. I’ve only been here for a little over a year, but I feel great where I am professionally.
About ten years ago, when working for a large enterprise computing company, I was at a club in Beijing with my colleague and had a reality check. My colleague had a difficult upbringing but didn’t let it stop him from working hard to create a better life for himself. After he told me his story, I told him my feelings about life. I said that I felt like the choices I didn’t make in my life were like tree branches that just fell off, and I’m the trunk of the tree. The things that I may have regretted or worried about in the past were just those fallen tree branches.
My colleague asked my age and I told him I was 52. He said that “once you turn 50, how the world works and what really matters, you understand the Tao.” I finally felt understood. I lived my life without an end-goal in mind, but I found happiness. Some friends back home believe that “fate” determines the way life goes, but I don’t believe that. There hasn’t been anyone determining where I’m going to go. I decide where to go. It’s more important to think forward than to look back.
Through my colleague’s advice and my own reflection, I’ve found that life isn’t linear. My career has sometimes been impulsive and non-linear, but I like that it happened this way. I tried many things that were great for me at the times I did them. I’m glad I continued to move on until I found a good place to settle. Some people get lucky and focus on something until they succeed. Other people just do what’s in front of them and do it well. I know what I’m good at, and I try to use my skills to help people. I work with what’s given to me. I try to be helpful in a job. It’s not about me getting a better position. It’s about finding a situation where people need what I have to offer, and I satisfy their needs.
This story was told anonymously to us by a former Harvard graduate. Throughout his life, this man worked on both a lobster boat and on Wall Street, he worked as an oceanographer, a musician, sailor, a waiter, and as a software engineer in his lifetime. He lives his life based on his interests instead of focusing on getting a job with a high salary. He currently lives in the US, has been married for 13 years, and has three children and two grandchildren. He’s able to ask for a beer in eight languages and likes to work in his garage in his free time.
This story first touched our hearts on October 26, 2017.
| Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: Colleen Walker; Manqing Jin |