Musings: What I Learned From Stephen

I once worked with a man I’ll call Stephen. I like to think that I learn something from (nearly) everyone I interact with, but I recently realized that recognizing what I learned from someone can take time…even years.

I was a bit taken aback when I realized how long it’s actually been since I worked with Stephen. At the time, I was a young new manager and “supercommuter”, sometimes commuting up to 5 hours a day, round-trip, to get to my job and back home…and this was before working from home with any regularity was a “thing”, so this life-draining commute occurred every single weekday.

In my role, I was responsible for a functional area with mutiple direct reports, one of whom was Stephen. He was a somewhat reserved individual (with stunningly bushy beard!) but he clearly had a good sense of humor. As a manager, I believed that it was one of my duties to encourage my staff’s professional growth, so I was always looking for opportunities for them to expand, professionally.

In Stephen’s case, he performed what would be considered an administrative role, and he did it well. I appreciated that he was dependable, avoided being ensnared in office politics, and did his work – especially since the work of other team members was dependent on his. As opportunities for advancement presented themselves, I encouraged him to pursue them…to no avail. Stephen simply was not interested in career “advancement”.

At the time, I could not comprehend how someone could not want to climb the career ladder – after all, it would mean increasing responsibility (great for the resume, right?) as well as better pay. Who wouldn’t want that?

What I could not appreciate back then is that Stephen worked his job so that he could continue to do what he really loved. He was an artist first, and his “day job” was a simply a means of allowing him to pursue his true calling. Sadly, the arts often do not pay a living wage or provide benefits like health insurance; by doing the job that he was in, Stephen was able to meet his basic needs without having to worry about being a starving artist. In addition, because of the kind of role he was in, he had flexibility that other roles (like mine) didn’t have.

Stephen didn’t dress in expensive clothing and I suspect that he lived a frugal life, but he had what many people wish they did: a passion, something worth making sacrifices for. He didn’t care about his title or impressing other people. Stephen knew how to prioritize, even though society was pressuring him to change his priorities.

To Stephen: I think understand now. If I could have explained your lesson to my younger self, I would have…and I may have made different choices. I hope that – since I last saw you – your life has been fulfilling and you have continued to follow your bliss. And thank you for your quiet wisdom.