Why Do We Work? One Career Changer’s Answer

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Why do we work?

On the face of it, that’s a stupid question. We work to put food on the table and a roof over our heads, of course. We work toward the prospect of children in college and ourselves in rocking chairs. In other words: we work because we have to.

TIME is running a series of stories called Why We Work in which we explore the question more deeply. (Send me ideas if you’ve got ’em: lisa_cullen@timemagazine.com.) I kicked things off with an article called The Zeal for the Job, in which I looked at people who change careers–and what that says about why we work.

As the deadline approached, I sent out a panicked e-mail to some friends with a “desperate plea” for leads on anybody they knew who had switched careers–a banker turned baker, a lawyer turned landscaper, a violinist turned victrola-maker.

I was amazed at the response. It turns out all sorts of people have played switcheroo with their careers, abandoning longtime and extremely successful work to do something completely else. My friend Karen’s sister-in-law is a landscape architect who became a teacher. My friend Alan knows an oboist turned interior designer. My friend Gerry knew a teacher who he thought became a vintner, but when he checked it turned out the guy was less a winemaker than a wine drinker.

And those are the ones I didn’t even profile.

The assignment really got me thinking. Working for the sake of putting Wonderbread on the table doesn’t explain these people’s careers. They were bringing home plenty of bacon before they decided to toss their pans aside. Sue Parks, a lovely lady whom I found through my friend Jane Haas (who herself is a journalist turned founder of Womansage.com), ditched her dazzling career as a traveling top executive to pursue her passion: walking.

Sue Parks, a top exec for Kinko’s, decided to pursue her passion in her next career. / Photo courtesy of Sue Parks

She describes her epiphany to me thus:

I was leading this crazy lifestyle, working in Dallas for Kinko’s and flying home to my husband in California. Between the hotels and airports, the one consistent theme was the walking. Everyone wondered how I stated fit and sane. I mean, I was eating out for every meal, getting on planes at 6 a.m., getting to the hotel at 6 p.m. What I did was everywhere I went, I put on my shoes and walked–outside, inside, in the airports. When I started trying to detertime what I wanted to do, that was my a-ha moment. This was my passion.

So that’s the ticket, at least for Parks: she works for passion. The next step was figuring out just what to do with that passion. Parks settled on WalkStyles, a primarily Web-based company offering equipment, apparel and networks to walking enthusiasts.

Sure, she needs her new venture to succeed financially. If it doesn’t, she may have to go back to working for Kinko’s in retirement–maybe this time running the copier instead of the entire corporate operations.

But her current work means more to Parks than a paycheck. You can hear it in her voice. It goes all squeaky in excitement as she tells me about new products, partnerships, staffing, culture. She says to me:

It’s a passion that comes from every bone in my body. It’s a bit different than when I was talking about office culture. Now it’s about developing a culture and a philosophy from scratch, about how we treat customers–it’s all part of me. I’ve been so fortunate to work at great companies in my life. But this is different. It’s in my fabric.

Tomorrow, passion guru Curt Rosengren talks to me about finding it in your work. Stay tuned.