This is part 2 of a two part series on Greed. If you are coming to this for the first time check out part 1 here.
Many years ago I was working for a printing company as a salesman. At the time I was making good money which afforded me a certain bachelor lifestyle. I never gave it a second thought how I was causing harm to the planet, and specifically trees. Not to mention the ink and other harmful chemicals that are used in the printing process.
Tracing the lineage of the printed piece from tree to customer there is a lot of harm in the process. And the irony, if you call it that, a typical printed piece such as a brochure or postcard will be looked at for less than a minute and then thrown away. Hopefully to be recycled, often not.
My next job was in corporate advertising in New York City. Working in that environment it was all about greed–bottom lines and numbers. I got sucked in and found myself playing the corporate game.
I will never forget the moment my view on a life of greed changed forever. It was after the internet bubble burst in 2000, I was the ad agency Director of Operations at the time managing a creative team of about twenty-five designers, copywriters and programmers. Our publicly traded company was feeling pressure from investors. There was talk of layoffs coming down from top management. The responsibility for layoffs would fall on the mangers, including me. I had developed relationships with this group of twenty-five and even became close friends with a few. I had never done anything like what I was being asked to do nor had any idea what to expect.
It was a Sunday afternoon and my usual routine read the New York Times newspaper at the local diner with my girlfriend. Something caught my eye in the business section related to stock losses and layoffs. I read the article. The title of the piece as best as I can recollect, “The highest paid CEOs, with the biggest stock losses.” Perusing the list, our CEO was in the top ten highest paid, and our company was in the top ten with the biggest stock losses. This did not compute with me at all.
It began to make sense that following Monday at work when word came down on high that we would be given a list of names, titles and salaries and a number we were to hit as a cost saving measure. It was up to management to determine who to layoff so the department could save money and hit their numbers keeping the investors and CEO happy. Needless to say I was not happy.
I looked over the list comparing salaries with names and thinking how close of a relationship I had with each of them. My strategy, choose those I was the least closest to first. Thing is, the number I had to hit in order to save the department money meant that I would eventually layoff people who were my friends.
Calling each one into my office throughout that day took a toll on me. Of course it was much harder on those I laid off. By this time word was out that if Allen called your name to come into the office it meant it was all over.
The last straw was calling in my friend. He knew right away, but tried to talk his was out of it citing family financial obligations. I told him there was nothing I could do, that my hands were tied. He shed a few tears, I held them back. The old adage to brush away emotions, “It’s not personal, it’s business,” did not work with me at all. I was the bad guy, carrying the message for the real bad guys, the overpaid CEO and investors.
The first of two days of layoffs done. walking from the office in TriBeCa to my Greenwich Village apartment I was exhausted as I played out the day knowing that tomorrow would be much of the same. Nearing my apartment I realized that I couldn’t take it any longer. I was the bag man, the henchman, the purveyor of doom for our CEO. Is this what I’d become? I had heard that working for corporations can be spiritually deadening. I wasn’t dead inside yet as I realized in that moment that laying off people purely for monetary reasons did not match my values. This was pure greed and I wanted no part of it.
The next day I went into my manager’s office and asked hypothetically what would happen if I were to ask to be laid off. After all my salary was twice the amount of a few junior designers on our team. She laid out the details, three months pay, six months health care and unchallenged unemployment for a year if I chose to go that route. It was a no-brainer and right then and there I told her I wanted out. I couldn’t do this. She knew right away and was very sympathetic. She started the paperwork and asked that I begin to pack my office of personal belongings and be ready to leave by lunchtime. Needless to say a huge weight was lifted from my heart. I know people were still going to get laid off. That I could not help. But I would not be that guy.
It was after this experience that I made a personal vow to no longer work for companies or do the types of work that are predicated on greed. I can say with confidence that while I am not rich, it has never been my motivation, I now have a rich life free of stress.
I have been working as a university teacher in Tokyo, Japan for more than seven years now. The salary affords me a decent quality of life and enough to provide for my family. The best kept secret now made public, I work eight months out of there and paid the same amount for twelve. This gives me a chance to travel, cycle, write both blog and book and more importantly spend quality time with my son.
In the end, greed is not a useful way in which to direct one’s life. I am sure some of you will disagree. The only thing I can say, go live your life that way and come back and tell me how it went.