50 Shades of Green

When you work somewhere for more than a decade, as I have at SYPartners, you start to wonder what life is like at the other places where other people work. When I first started this sabbatical, I told myself I'd spend some time investigating other people's working lives, and now, halfway in, I've broken bread and talked shop with more than 30 people (and collected intelligence about a few dozen more). 

And if there is one observation that rises above all else, it's this: The grass isn't actually greener anywhere—it's simply a different shade of green everywhere. Each person is juggling his or her own set of tradeoffs and rewards. In some places, an exceptional who makes up for a ho-hum what. In other places, the why justifies all. An ambiguous how can be tolerated if the what makes you go wow. And a cozy where can mitigate a mostly missing why.

I've talked with people working where others would kill to work—which provides some comfort when they're killing themselves to do it. I've talked with people at startups on the verge of breaking through—the sense that they're just two weeks away from good fortune helping to lessen the fear that they're just two weeks away from failure. I've talked to people who've carved out an enviable niche of freedom and flexibility in a freelance life—even if every day, they're hustling to preserve it.

I've talked to retirees loving being lazy yet itching to feel a bit more productive, and midlife workers enjoying the peak of their professional prowess while daydreaming about someday getting a break. I've talked to people doing soulful work for next to nothing and those doing soul-sucking work for a pretty penny—both reassuring themselves that the end must justify the means.

I've lived long enough to know that you can't have it all—at least not all at once. I'm sure there are exceptions who prove the rule, just as I know there are plenty of people who deserve plenty more than they have. But I am beginning to wonder, after all these conversations, whether my goal should simply be to have the right things in the right moment. I'm trying to figure out what the right things are for this moment. And when I do, I'll know if I'm standing on the right patch of grass.