On Saturday, in the midst of a frenzied day of running errands, I stopped at a little gourmet shop to catch my breath and eat some lunch. As a former gourmet and natural food store owner, I am drawn to Mom-and-Pop places where I know that the food is prepared with an extra bit of thought and care. On this particular day, however, I found a real gem of a store owned by an energetic chef who prepared the most amazing salad I have ever tasted. Fresh, crisp greens with just the right blend of sweet and bitter flavors, succulent figs, crunchy walnuts, and two tiny rounds of creamy goat cheese - if only every salad could taste this good. Quality ingredients do matter.
It was late in the afternoon—that restful time in the food business between the lunch rush and the early dinner crowd—so I had a chance to chat with the proprietor. I’m always curious to hear the story behind the decision to open a small grocery store, especially given the difficulty of competing with the big chain stores in an industry that has such small profit margins.
During the course of our conversation, I learned that this 40-something proprietor was once a fast-track, Wall Street financial wizard. As a young woman, she thought that investment banking would be her dream job, but after years of the daily New Jersey to New York commute, only to sit among a bunch of take-no-prisoners colleagues, she was fed up and exhausted. The job paid well, but it drowned her spirit and ate at her soul. So, when she couldn’t stand the misery any longer, she decided to do what she always really wanted to do—but was discouraged from doing because, after all, she was the smart girl who could do higher-level math—which was become a chef. She exchanged designer suits for checkered pants and went off to culinary school where she improved her technique and expanded her repertoire, and even more importantly, restored her health and rebuilt her spirit.
We talked about her experience in culinary school, which was very similar to my experience in massage school. How can you not enjoy your classmates when they come from all walks of life, bring to the classroom a rich assortment of perspectives and experiences, and cook food for you—or massage your feet? But this sort of training isn’t just feel-good fluff. This chef, with two semesters of calculus on her traditional school transcript, was surprised by just how much science she had to learn to be successful in culinary school in the same way that my former massage-school classmates had been shocked by the difficulty of the anatomy and physiology classes they were required to take in order to practice safely and effectively.
After culinary school, she spent time as an apprentice cooking on a boat, and then worked in catering before opening her gourmet shop four years ago. She took me on a flavor tour of her store, telling me how and why she selected certain products. For her, food is so much more than a way to make a living. Food is how she expresses the core of her being. It is how she shows others that she cares for them and that she wants the best for them in their own lives—even if they are otherwise complete strangers.
As I drove home after lunch, I thought about how interesting it was that this chef/proprietor was the third person in the course of four or five days who told me about her transition from a prestigious legal or finance career to a job that some would see as just a notch above manual labor—especially if the job was held by a person who hadn’t previously been educated at an elite university. Earlier in the week, I learned from a friend that his Yale undergrad/Harvard law school wife was leaving her hoity-toity law firm to start a gardening and landscape business. And just a few days before that, I ran into one of my gym buddies who spoke joyfully about the transition she is making from law (she is a partner at a well respected D.C. firm) to personal training. One could argue that their power careers had provided them the financial security to make the transition to lower paying work, but such is not the case. All three of these women have financial responsibilities that require them to work and their career change either did or will require them to make lifestyle changes.
I thought back to a 2003 New York Times article by Lisa Belkin in which she wrote about the Opt-Out Revolution among Ivy-educated women. These were the smart girls, the chosen few, the ones who were once on the fast track to fame and fortune, until they got there and decided to walk away from it either to raise children or pursue some other interest. Like the finance guru turned chef, the lawyer turned trainer, or the lawyer turned landscaper, these women came to understand that the world of work isn’t exactly what they thought it would be—despite their straight A’s and perfect SAT scores—and they exercised their right to walk away. Good for them.
But what if instead of being women of privilege, any of these individuals had been a low-income woman from a disadvantaged background? What if she had been a woman of color? Would Martha Stewart feature this woman in her magazine—as she so frequently does the perfectly coiffed, shabby-chic attired, lawyer-turned-organic beet farmers among us? Would these less-advantaged women be held up as role models for those who are burned out from years of pressing their nose against the glass ceiling? I don’t think so. Instead, the ever-so-caring thought leaders of today would probably make some glib comment about the futility of a poor woman having such … clear your throat … aspirational goals.
Somehow it’s OK for those in academic circles to encourage students who can’t pass high-school chemistry to aspire to cure cancer, or who can’t pass 8th-grade algebra to aspire to be a famous scientist, or who can’t write a complete sentence to play college ball on the way to the pros, but just let a woman who has been cooking for her friends, family, or church for decades talk about becoming a chef, and watch how quickly the elite will put a kibosh on her dreams.
We don’t talk about the obligations of those who have enjoyed the advantages of a heavily taxpayer-subsidized elite education at a selective institution (even those who pay the full sticker price enjoy significant tuition subsidies from taxpayer largess). We set them up nicely, give them the best that higher education can offer, and then congratulate them for having good values when they decide to leave the world of work for whatever reason … or to never enter it in the first place. If they elect to take a low-paying job in the developing world and put their loan payments on hold, even better.
But let a poor woman dare to pursue her dreams, and all of a sudden our otherwise politically correct thought leaders start talking about her obligation to the taxpayer, as if her decision to raise children or care for parents or pursue a job she loves, even if the starting salary isn’t great, makes her a selfish deadbeat. Some are simply quick to assume that if she isn’t working, it’s because she wasn’t very competent, or bright, or well trained in the first place. For poor women, unemployment—including voluntary unemployment—is seen as the sure sign of failure.
I guess in the egalitarian world of work and higher education, some people are just more equal than others. Does this mean that Yale and Harvard need to adjust their Web site to make sure that future students know that some are using their $200,000-plus education to be … well … gardeners? Just how much does my lawyer-turned-gardener friend need to earn before she can be counted among the ranks of the gainfully employed?