Working

I sacrificed my twenties at the altar of the career gods. I had no intention of slowing down once I survived college. I had invested too much blood, sweat, and tears to sit back and ride my degree before the ink had fully dried, so I dug in and began seeking the experiences that I needed to build a career.

I landed at Georgia-Pacific as a Cost Accountant. It had been my chosen path, but after a year in the role, I realized that maybe I had been mistaken. GP was an old-school, industrial company besotted by a unimaginative hierarchical structure that moved people from cradle to grave efficiently. I had simply traded Dad’s death by assembly line for a less-physical death by rote process. The indigestion of dissatisfaction rolled up my chest as the familiar itch for change gnawed at my gut.

Not all was lost in that first job. I met one of the best group of people with whom I had ever had the pleasure of working. The core group of us guys became fast friends. We worked out together in the company gym and went out together during lunch and after work. We turned the dreariness of a Dilbert-esque landscape into a fun experience. I missed the hell out of those guys when I moved on after a year and a half in the role (I still miss them), but I needed something more satisfying, more meaningful.

The next step led to the most transformative era of my career. I took a role as an auditor at G-P (and later at FedEx) and began a multi-year trek around the globe. Audit itself has its pluses and minuses like all jobs, but getting the opportunity to travel the world and see the guts of a business at its most intimate level gave me decades of experience compacted into a much shorter time frame. I got to see parts of the world and meet people I would have never had the opportunity to meet had I not been in these roles. Most importantly, Audit helped me discover what I’m truly good at – making sense of the chaos. I’ve always been a plan-and-organize and analytical type, and it turns out those skills are useful beyond organizing my room and making snarky commentary.

I’d never been out of the Southeast until I took that first trip to Binghampton, New York to audit a distribution center. Binghampton, a prototypical worn-out, industrial town that sits on the southern state border near Pennsylvania, was nothing like what I imagined when I thought of New York (who knew there’s more to the state than New York City). The wide streets were lined with well-kept row houses from another era. A lone bar with glaring neon lights broke up the monotony of the sulfur-tinged street lights. The chill of that October promised a miserable winter to come. There had to be better places to see in the world.

There were better places, but I’d see none of them with G-P. Most of its facilities lingered in struggling, out-of-the-way towns that no one had ever heard of or sat in the middle of distant locales befitting of the setting for Stephen King’s Children of the Corn. For better or worse, I’d had my fill of isolated, rural areas. To this day, I still find such places suffocating and unnerving. I’d much rather be in the thick of a pulsating urban center with its crushing foot traffic, intriguing diversity, and endless array of things to explore.

Later at FedEx, I finally had the opportunity to see much more of the world. Early on, I visited Seattle for the first time and fell in love with the city, an affair that laid the groundwork for the future. I traveled the globe, literally. I once flew Memphis-Amsterdam-Dubai-Hong Kong-Memphis over a ten-day stretch moving east until I returned home. I explored the ramshackle Olongapo City outside Subic Bay in the Philippines, where I learned what abject poverty really is. I had dinner with Middle Easterners on a carpet in the desert outside Dubai and learned how similar we all are despite what we see on the news. I toured the famed temples of Japan, ate cow tongue at a Korean BBQ joint, and took a crazy car ride up the pointed mountain leading to the Cristo Corcovado outside Rio de Janeiro.

I felt like a living version of Where’s Waldo. I remembered world events through the lens of the hotel I happened to be at when they happened. I watched the coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing from a lodge bar in Philips, Wisconsin. I saw the aftermath of the Centennial Park bombing in Atlanta from a Best Western in Tacoma, Washington. News of the terrible Kobe, Japan earthquake reached me at a quaint hotel in Bemidji, Minnesota under the shadow of the giant Paul Bunyan statue in the middle of a blizzard.

I had moved to Memphis to work at FedEx, but I was rarely there. I joined a wonderful group of folks in the Audit Department, many of whom remain my friends to this day. We had countless great times together and shared many of the adventures that subtly altered the courses of our lives. We couldn’t help but be changed by what we saw in our travels. We were learning and developing in our careers, but we were more than casual, purposeful observers of the world.

As glamorous as all the travel sounded, it took a significant toll on me. I had continued to run, but late nights and endless restaurant meals left me feeling lethargic and plump. My personal life had all but been abandoned. By the time I roared into the late 1990s, I knew it was time for a pivot, a full-blown reset of my life. When everyone else was worrying over the impending Year 2000 issue and enjoying the seemingly boundless fruits of the tech bubble, I started looking for my next career move. I had to get off the travel merry-go-round. It was fun while it lasted, but the price of playing became too high. In the seminal final year of that highly-charged decade, the dominoes started to fall.

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