By Suzanne Farrow
It’s been over 15 years since I wrote my business school application essays professing to know what I would be doing with my MBA. I realized at the time the futility of making such declarations, but it’s simply a rite of passage. Upon finishing business school two years later, the big decision of where to go next had been made and I re-entered the work world firmly in control of my future, or so it seemed.
Needless to say, when your big decision is to take a job at Enron, your career has the potential to immediately veer off course. I was about to give birth to our first child when the company filed for bankruptcy and I was tired of watching the mind-numbing news coverage of my friends, boxes in hand, filing out of the building. So, I was ignoring the conversation as my medical resident husband chatted with the other resident in the delivery room, until the resident turned to me and asked, “Are you a doctor, too?” “No, I have an MBA.” “Oh. You weren’t one of those Enron MBAs, were you?” “Actually, yes I was.” (Cue the uncomfortable silence, a quick apology, and a rapid exit.)
And that’s where the “fun” started. I was determined to ignore my business school essay career plans and look at any potential position that seemed interesting and challenging. Months of job searching in a Houston economy glutted with people just like me resulted in some comical interviews:
“So, I see you were laid off from your last job. Did that bother you?”
“Well, no, the whole company filed for bankruptcy. Our entire department was laid off.”
“So, then you didn’t take it personally?”
“Did I take it personally that the company filed for bankruptcy? No. I don’t think they did it to upset me. Did I take it personally that they laid me off? Well, since I was one of THOUSANDS being laid off, no, I don’t think I could take that personally.”
I’m a practical girl, so eventually I did the responsible thing for my family and accepted a similar role to the one I had at Enron. I quickly realized that all those big things I thought I wanted—a challenging career with a rapid ascent up the corporate ladder, a comfortable salary, recognition by my colleagues for my skills and contributions—I just didn’t want anymore. But how do you walk away from a job and a career path you worked so hard to get?
And then God had a way of intervening to shake things up…a lot. Our second child needed open heart surgery when she was born in order to survive, and then was on a feeding tube for a year. It’s hard to be a type-A control freak and realize you have absolutely no control over the things that matter to you the most. I knew I couldn’t go back to work after maternity leave, so I took the leap and quit. A husband still in residency, a toddler at home, a newborn needing occupational and physical therapy, and no income, and yet, it gave me peace to walk away.
They tell you “not to sweat the small stuff” and yet the small stuff is sometimes what really matters, especially in the midst of all the big stuff. And I don’t mean that staying at home versus working outside the home is the right way to go, or that some jobs are more important than others. What I mean is that every day, there are small things, small decisions, small interactions that can make a huge impact. Over the last year, I’ve had the honor of getting to know two “ordinary” people whose extraordinary stories have driven this home for me.
Kristin Elliott is a Baylor University student who was diagnosed with an incurable and terminal cancer several years ago. Her doctors contacted the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which grants wishes to critically ill young people. Make-A-Wish asked Kristin what they could do for her. Personally, I would have gone with something off my bucket list (which, by the way, I don’t yet have despite my 9 year-old son’s admonition that I need to “get on that” since I’m turning 40 this year). Kristin asked for help funding housing for AIDS orphans in Zambia. Make-A-Wish wasn’t sure what to make of a request like that, but they gave her a small amount of money, the same amount they give for a typical shopping spree. Once her story reached the Houston Chronicle, her money started to grow. Then the story hit ABC’s World News, where she was named a Person of the Week and eventually one of their Persons of the Year, and her fundraising exploded as money poured in from all over the country. Kristin has since built an orphanage, partly funded a clinic for AIDS patients, and has been able to visit Zambia to see the children she is helping—a remarkable and unexpected outcome that started very small.
Kris Hogan is the Athletic Director and Head Football Coach at Faith Christian School in Grapevine, Texas where in 2008, his varsity football team was scheduled to play Gainesville State School. Gainesville State School is anything but your typical high school opponent. Gainesville is a maximum-security youth correctional facility where all the players earn the right to play football with good grades and good behavior. Because the players are incarcerated, they cannot have family or friends at the games, so they usually have very few people present to cheer for them. Kris emailed the parents at Faith Christian and asked that half of them sit on the Gainesville side of the field. On the day of the game, Faith Christian made a spirit line that stretched over half the length of the field, cheerleaders made signs, and the stands on both sides were filled. The Gainesville players assumed that their opponents just had lots of fans and that they had put the overflow crowd on Gainesville’s side of the field. As they started to walk around the spirit line, their coach told them, “It’s for you. RUN.” The Faith Christian parents cheered for the Gainesville players by name. Many of the players said this was the first time they had ever had anyone cheer for them, for anything. When asked, Kris and his wife Amy said they couldn’t understand at the time why it was such a big deal. But Kris’ decision to have his school’s parents cheer for the other team has had a long-lasting impact. As with the adult prison population, the recidivism rate for kids coming out of youth correctional facilities is very high, but for the boys who played that night and for those who have played in the now annual game since, the recidivism rate has been zero. That one simple decision to cheer for the other team has led to the creation of a non-profit, One Heart Project, targeting at-risk and previously incarcerated youth to help them prepare for jobs, education, and life outside prison. One simple decision that seemed so easy is now exploding into something that is positively impacting so many.
So, some small stuff is just small stuff—annoyances as we go about our daily lives. However, some small stuff can turn out to be a catalyst for things that have long-lasting and far-reaching results. Thousands of small things along the way have helped my daughter grow into the healthy and happy kindergartener she is today, and hundreds of small decisions have led me, in my work with non-profits, to cross paths with people like Kristin and Kris. These days, I’m far more inspired by their philosophy of doing what they can where they can than I am by the master plans I once wrote for myself in those long-ago admissions essays. I now make a point of sweating the small stuff knowing that, if I do, the big picture will most likely take care of itself.
Photo provided by Suzanne Farrow.