By Indrani Stephania Stangl
My ‘career path’ is a long road filled with wrong turns and poor decisions. Along the way, I discovered that you don’t need to be passionate about what you’re paid for; you just need to be passionate about something.
I grew up on the Stanford University campus. My best friends’ parents were Nobel Prize winners and international scholars. When I was a kid, I had the typical dreams: movie star, model, chef, veterinarian. But by college, I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. When I chose a major, it was on the day of the deadline. I picked Cognitive Science without knowing what it was (and, frankly, I’m still a little unclear). When I graduated in 1991, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer (‘decided’ is a term used loosely here…it was more like ‘it sounds as good as anything else’). So I went to work at a corporate law firm as a paralegal assistant, alongside other goalless floaters who were struggling in various phases of life. It didn’t take long for the experience to quash whatever interest in law I’d had. The arrogant young lawyers struggled to bring in new business, and always felt the burden of being one billable minute away from losing their jobs. They took these stresses out on me, and I lasted less than a year.
The next year was one of jobless bliss. I moved back in with my parents on the Stanford campus, hung out with their dogs, sat by the pool, tanned, partied, and made friends at the junior college where I was taking prerequisites for vet school. I got a part time job at a veterinary clinic, only to discover that I was terribly allergic to cats. It did not matter how much Benedryl I took; I was a ball of snot and phlegm that could barely take a breath between sneezes. That was the end of that. The vet dream was flushed away with so many Kleenex.
One day while I was napping on the couch with the dogs after a few hours of sunbathing, my mother approached us with a rolled up newspaper. I thought she was going to discipline the dogs for being on the furniture. But instead, she beat me over the head with it screaming, “GET A JOB!” She threw the paper at me, revealing that it was the classifieds, with lots of red circles around things like “Nanny Wanted,” “Sous Chef,” and “Personal Assistant.” I was infuriated that my mother thought I should apply for any of these jobs; I was so much better than that. But I took her mental breakdown to heart. I needed a job. I needed a life. Hanging out with the dogs all day was fun, but I was whittling my time away. I looked at the paper and made a few calls, and sent a couple resumes to various places. I ended up temping for a burgeoning high tech company.
I was in the heart of Silicon Valley, but before the high tech boom. Friends who stayed with tech made millions at places like Yahoo and Google, but after a few months, I quit that temp job for a permanent job at a bank, making $2,000 a month. When the tech firm called to say they missed me and wanted to offer me a full time position, I turned them down saying I already had a job. They were purchased a year later by a huge company, while I was slaving away in a role in which I had zero interest. After three years, the bank offered me a promotion; my response was to quit. Around this time I rescued a dog from a shelter. She was neurotic as hell, skittish and aggressive. She brought a lot of focus to my life, even if my parents felt it was ‘misdirected.’ Looking back, my only real constant has been my need to have a dog around. A dog doesn’t judge what I’m doing with my life. A dog is a companion that cannot criticize.
I realize now that having too many choices, being told I could do whatever I wanted to do, that I was smart and talented and had the whole world at my feet, was debilitating in its own way. In retrospect, I probably should have gone into marketing or communications, but at the time I was overwhelmed with the possibilities, and I lacked guidance. Ironically, I went on to get a master’s degree in counseling, and I now work at Stanford, surrounded by bright kids with their futures ahead of them, declaring majors like Product Design, Journalism, Film Making, and Business. Oh, to go back in time—but fortunately, I’ve never felt that my job should be the source of my fulfillment.
Yes, I settled. But I have a good job, a job in fact that many would want. I work with smart students and brilliant faculty at one of the best colleges in the world. The environment is both physically beautiful and mentally stimulating. I make decent money—not enough to travel the world or buy nice cars or designer clothes, but enough to rent an apartment in a pricey neighborhood, go out to dinner a lot, travel a bit, and have a canine companion. I’ve decided it’s enough. My job doesn’t have to be my passion. Instead, I have a job that helps me support my passion.
I tell people I have a ‘real job’ and a ‘pseudo-job.’ I used to think that I would love to be paid for my ‘pseudo-job.’ People often say that it is incredibly lucky to be paid a salary for what one is passionate about. But if you are obligated to work at your passion, will the passion die with time? I am fortunate to have a job that affords me enough time and causes little stress so that I can focus on my non-profit dog rescue, my passion. If I were paid, I am quite sure I would not feel the same way.
For the last seven years I have been a volunteer at Pound Puppy Rescue, and for the last three of them I have been a member of the Board. I run all the logistics: manage the volunteers, answer all the e-mails, keep the 12,000 followers on Facebook updated several times per day, problem solve, put out fires, manage transportation from shelters to foster homes, coordinate the spay/neuter program, negotiate with shelters to release dogs, manage adoption events, care for sick puppies, and deal with the drama of rescue people. I see the horror and cruelty that our human race is capable of every day, as well as the love of people coming together to save a dog from imminent death.
Almost daily, I have inquiries about how to volunteer with the rescue, from people who say they are passionate about dogs. It is very rare for these people to volunteer more than once or twice, because they don’t have time—usually because of their ‘real’ jobs. As for my ‘real job’, I have had offers for promotions as well as new positions at other campuses and in private industry, but at this point in my life, I’m not interested. I’m in my mid-40s and I realize it would probably make sense for me to make a career change sooner rather than later, if something comes up. But for now, I don’t want to risk my ability to stay focused on my passion.
Yes, my volunteer ‘pseudo-job’ can be stressful—more stressful than my ‘real job.’ I lose sleep often. I am not paid a salary. However, I am rewarded tenfold by the feeling I get when I find a permanent home for a dog that feels love and safety for the first time. My ‘real job’ is just a job. My ‘pseudo-job’ is my life’s work.
Indrani Stephania Stangl was born and raised on the Stanford University campus, and currently works in Student Services there. She is a longtime volunteer at Pound Puppy Rescue, a non-profit rescue organization that saves pregnant dogs and puppies under three months from the pound. Even when she doesn’t have a dog by her side, she always has a pocket full of dog treats, just in case.
Photo credit: Jim Block