I know, I know. It’s November. But this post is still relevant. Five years ago last month, I made one of the toughest career decision I’ve ever faced, and certainly the toughest this side of the twenty-first century. I turned down a job that looked in many respects like a really good fit with my career goals and experiences, a job that on the surface would’ve paid pretty well. My decision to not take this job wasn’t made in a vacuum — this was October ’08, after all, when the US economic slowdown truly became the Great Recession here and around the world. But as it turned out, there are things more important than a higher salary and a job that looks good on a curriculum vitae.
Grantmakers for Education had interviewed me four times in six weeks between August, September and early October ’08. The first three were telephone conversations with various staff members, including the executive director. I already knew of their work through my college access and retention initiative at Academy for Educational Development (AED – now FHI 360). I interviewed for GFE’s program director position, which would’ve made me second or third in charge within the organization. Through interviews and research, I knew that GFE had been around since ’97 as a spin-off from the work of the Council on Foundations — meaning it had some support from the private foundation community. I also knew that they had a total staff of seven people.
But, most important, I knew that GFE’s offices were in Portland, Oregon. It wasn’t a deterrent for me. After all, my wife and I had agreed that any job search of mine would invite the possibility of making a geographic move. The cities, though, had included New York, Philly, Boston, Chicago and Seattle (with some considerations for Toronto and the Bay Area), not Portland specifically. In my mind, Portland, though definitely different from Seattle, was close enough.
By the time I flew out for my in-person interview with GFE on October 2 and 3, ’08, I did feel quite a bit of pressure riding on my interview and the decisions I’d make if offered the job. For one, I’d been privately predicting the economic slide that we now call the Great Recession since ’02. As a result, my consulting work for the second half of ’08 had all but dried up. I was teaching only one class at University of Maryland University College that fall, meaning that we would be going pretty deep into our savings to get through the end of the year. And though Boy @ The Window had attracted the attention of a few literary agents, the Great Recession had affected their businesses and their willingness to take a chance on a not-so-well-known author.
With all that on my mind, it was a wonder that I could focus on anything at all, much less the final interview. Yet I did, and in the process, met with a wonderful staff and found Portland a rather interesting city.
So I wasn’t surprised the following Wednesday that GFE called me to offer me the position. They gave me a low-ball offer, one that was only $5,000 more than I made at my last AED job, and far less than I made as a consultant (at least, when I had work as a consultant). But they did offer $8,000 in moving expenses. We went back and forth on salary and benefits over the next five days.
During that time, my wife and I talked at length about moving to Portland, Noah’s schooling (he was in kindergarten back then), and the negotiations. She finally revealed to me a couple of things I wished she had told me before my third interview. One, she wasn’t interested in moving to Portland (it reminded her too much of Pittsburgh, only without a sizable Black community). Two, she thought that GFE’s small staff and budget would limit my career and put a ceiling on my salary over time.
My wife didn’t want me to take a job and move out there by myself, with her and Noah here in the DC area. Nor did she want me to make a decision based on the momentary whims of the economy or because the job would be a relatively easy one for me. Ultimately, my wife reminded me that I preferred a challenge, work that could be exciting, that paid well, a community with a diverse nature, an organization that offered opportunities for the long-term.
On October 15, GFE came back with their final offer. It was somewhat generous. They increased the salary offer by ten percent, and offered $10,000 in moving expenses. In exchange, my salary would be capped for three years, and they wouldn’t pay into my retirement fund over that period (I’d have to add to it without them matching). They even offered to allow me to work from DC during October and November before moving in December.
Still, reading in between the lines, my wife was right. I could clearly see that if I’d taken this job, my marriage would’ve been over. Maybe not immediately, but it would’ve been a industrial-sized shovel full of dirt toward a buried coffin. The distance would’ve been too great to carry on anything resembling a family. As for my career, I would’ve faced a dead end in the intermediate term — forget about the long-term — financially and otherwise.
So I said “No” to GFE. I stared into the proverbial abyss, knowing that it would be a rough next few months. And it was. But I did pick up several steady consulting gigs in ’09 and ’10. My teaching schedule went from part-time to pretty much full-time by Fall ’10 (still an adjunct contract, though). I made sure that my wife was on board with a job not on our top-cities-to-move-to list before applying.
My decision was as much about finding the right position with the right organization as it was about ensuring the health of my marriage and my family. All have to be in sync on big decisions like this. I’m glad we have that clarity now.