As I write this, my boyfriend of nearly six years (yes, I know, Grandma, six years, and still just “boyfriend”) is contemplating three job offers. The offers come from private companies that offer things like livable salaries, signing bonuses, and just plain old bonuses in general. They offer equity and stock options and unlimited vacation. If you had asked me six years ago, before we met, what my next partner’s professional aspirations would be, I would have told you he’d be fighting deforestation, rescuing three-legged puppies, or at least doing something related to saving The Children. He’d be living on ramen but he wouldn’t care, because the cause came first. So what the hell happened?
What happened was that I fell in love, against all odds, with a private sector dude. You might as well have told my 22-year-old self that I’d fall in love with an evil, money-grubbing villain in shades and a trench coat, with a yacht in Greenwich and a 16-bedroom chalet in Aspen. I pretty much equated those things with the words “private sector,” a world where I perceived everything to revolve around the bottom line, profits, and keeping shareholders happy.
Depending on how you’re coming at this, all of this paints the younger me as either the bastion of morality or a naive, shortsighted person. What I was, without a doubt, was a product of my environment. My parents, both psychologists, taught my siblings and me that we should dedicate our lives to helping others. For them, a career was not simply a means of survival, but a vessel for meaning. They never pretended money was unimportant, but they suggested that as long as you had enough, it was less important than the meaning behind the source of that money. I emerged from this upbringing focused on finding a career that would feed not my bank account, but my soul.
Fourteen hundred miles away, my boyfriend grew up with a different model of what work means. His father owned (and still owns) a hardware store that he purchased after returning from the Vietnam War. He’d stay late on Christmas Eve if he thought he was going to sell one more snow blower. He took pride in helping his customers solve whatever problems they showed up with — a clogged toilet, a front lawn that refused to stay green — and he demonstrated this to my boyfriend when he worked Saturday shifts throughout high school. My boyfriend saw a father whose career was, at its core, about providing for his family. And that drive to provide stayed with him.
When we met on a September night that soaked us with warm sheets of rain, I’d just started a new job in city government. He was then, like now, deciding between offers from several companies. On our first few dates, we spoke less of work than of who we were beyond the cubicle. We connected over a shared love for Prince, for walking endless miles on city streets, for adventuring in unexplored corners of town. It was all going so swimmingly that I silenced the little voice in my head that whispered, but his job! His big, bad, private sector job!
“So what do you want out of your career, ultimately?” It was a loaded question, and he knew I had a right answer in mind. It had been a couple years since that stormy night, and we’d broached the subject more than a few times. Over a plate of katsu curry in a fluorescent-lit East Village restaurant, we came to a standoff. I, no doubt, was trying to steer him; rather than meeting somewhere in the middle, I was attempting to lasso him over to my side. I tried to squeeze him into my narrow framework of good and evil, worthy and unworthy. He, meanwhile, was trying to figure out the best way to pay his rent, to lay a foundation to someday support a family, and to find a niche that suited him. It would have been nice, I realize in retrospect, to have a girlfriend as a supporter and not an adversary.
“I want to contribute as much as you do,” he told me. “There’s more than just one way to do that.”
On a visit to his hometown, we stood behind the counter at the hardware store. Customers came in, talked about the weather, and sought advice. My boyfriend and his dad directed them to aisle three and cut their keys. They sold them paint thinner and drywall anchors. I’d never felt so intimately included in the literal nuts and bolts of private enterprise. I began to look differently at the broad strokes with which I’d painted the private sector. This store kept a roof over a family of five, contributed to the local economy and the fabric of a community. How could an entire sector be evil, I asked myself, when it supplied the majority of humans in a country with jobs, fostered innovation, contributed to the wealth of a large number of individuals who turned that wealth around and invested it in malaria prevention and maternal health and hurricane disaster relief? That bleeding heart man of my youthful dreams would be out of a job without those private sector benefactors supporting his causes.
I began to shift my focus. Perhaps it was I, not him, who needed to broaden my horizons. The public sector job that I’d imagined as a vehicle for my altruism was proving more complicated a landscape than I’d anticipated. I’d return home from a long day of emails and meetings and PowerPoint presentations and try to remember who it was that benefitted from my so-called public service. Was I in it to serve the public, or to serve my own limited definition of a meaningful career?
Everyone I know, whether they’re in non-profit management or private equity or theater or sales or medicine, is searching for meaning in life. If there were one place to find it, we surely wouldn’t have to search so tirelessly. Some find it during their 9-to-5s and others in their off-hours. Some find it by working for a cause they believe in, others by writing checks, and others by raising children who will go on to etch their own meaningful lines across the earth. Part of growing older, I’ve learned, is ditching the strict bifurcations of youth, the forcing of all things into bucket black and bucket white, and accepting the endless oceans of gray.
So in the end, did I sacrifice my morals? Well, I found a guy who’s constantly thinking about how to use technology to make people’s lives better. Who asks me if it would be weird if he started high-fiving runners to encourage them to keep up the pace. Who’s helping moms carry strollers up two flights of subway stairs. Who admired my “FEMINIST” T-shirt and snuck into my wardrobe to borrow it. Who spent 12 hours on a train to be at my dying mother’s bedside. Who can’t wait to teach his kids how to be kind and fair and compassionate in the world. I’d say my morals are far from sacrificed. But that’s just me.