When I kayaked the Grand Canyon in 2012, I encountered many other boaters on the river. Some were on private trips like mine and many others were on large, commercial rafts. I couldn’t help but notice obvious differences between the private and commercial experiences.
For starters, the 30-foot-long motorized commercial rafts carried up to 18 people in each boat. Like Greyhound buses, the big rafts offered more secure passage as the guides motored through 10-foot waves. The passengers sat idle and hardly appeared to get splashed as they ogled the scenery in rapids where people in smaller boats took care not to flip or get washed overboard.
Meanwhile, my 15 comrades and I had to scout the bigger rapids and do our best to make the right decisions. One mistake could affect the entire group. We were on our own, but that’s the way we liked it. I imagine some of the commercial passengers envied us, too, in spite of their prepared meals and easy ride.
Since leaving the security of a large company and working for a small consignment shop in Carbondale, I’ve noticed some similarities between my Grand Canyon experience and my employment.
It took years to build up the courage to leave the security of a big company ship. I was already struggling to maintain financial stability — a car repair might throw me over the edge. How would I survive, or at least enjoy life, without health benefits and paid sick days?
That security was an illusion, and it’s an illusion that’s draining some amount of happiness and opportunity from this country. It’s natural to seek out the safe bets in life, to have a clear-cut career path with paid vacation days, affordable insurance and retirement plans; a guarantee that you’ll have a paycheck well into the future as long as you don’t get fired. Big companies offer that, and more people are working for big companies these days. That means the big companies are getting bigger and calling more of the shots (even “our” Constitution has been interpreted to say, essentially, that companies are people, too).
I’m not saying it’s necessarily bad to have large corporations — just like it’s not bad to have guided trips in the Grand Canyon — but there is a tendency for them to take over (the National Park Service issues more permits for commercial trips as private permits are becoming scarcer and more regulated). What I am saying is that money seems to hold too much power over our decisions these days, and it’s adding up against us.
That’s why it’s refreshing to work for a young entrepreneur I’ll call “Justine.” Unlike some business owners I’ve worked for in the past, she has a more relaxed attitude that is so refreshing. She doesn’t worry about squeezing every dime of profit from her customers and employees. There is more give and take in her transactions.
In fact, I’ve witnessed multiple occasions in which she had no profit after helping a needy family afford a pair of skis or piece of gear that allowed a kid to have an experience he wouldn’t have otherwise. Yet the shop is successful and the community supports us, probably because we support the community.
Still there is no guarantee a mistake won’t wipe us out. I don’t have paid vacation or health benefits. However, I don’t commute more than a few blocks, and Justine seems more invested in me as a person than the big company ever was. She even lets me write in the store when business is slow.
If anything, I have more motivation to work hard and ensure the shop’s success. Between Justine and a few of us employees, we are a team in every sense, and the direction we sail in is entirely up to us. Isn’t that the American dream? The newfound glow of happiness I feel as I walk to work says yes.
It’s natural to chase dollar signs, but it’s good to remember that our humanity is always the better investment. In other words, when it comes to your career, follow your heart — not necessarily the bottom line — even when it points you through the maw of crashing waves. You’ll be happier, and isn’t that better for everyone?
— “Open Space” appears on the second and fourth Friday of every month. Derek Franz lives in Carbondale and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.