Finding Your Passion Part 2: My Why

Rick Vinnay

Rick Vinnay
Clinical Director, Employee Assistance Program

Passion – a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept.

I grew up on a small truck farm in Southeastern Michigan. In case you’re wondering, a “truck farm” is not where you grow trucks. It’s where you grow flowers and vegetables, then “truck” them to the farmers market to sell, hence the name “truck farm.”

The work was physical and hard and I learned at a very young age how to earn money as a farmer. My six siblings and I were required to work the farm but my father allowed us to keep whatever money we earned at the market. At the time, it seemed like hard work, but looking back, it was a wonderful learning experience and it was really the start of my career. The most enjoyable part was that I instinctively knew why I enjoyed the work I was doing. Quite simply: I liked earning money. At that age, I didn’t have the insight to think about the work itself; the money I earned was motivation enough. Without even realizing it though, I learned skills and passions I’ve carried with me throughout my whole life, in all my work experiences. 

I never thought much about what I wanted to be when I grew up until I was a senior in high school and had to decide what to do when I graduated.  I began to think more about the work itself and I knew I did not want to farm. I met with our guidance counselor, Miss Shirley.

Miss Shirley looked at my grades and said, “You do very well in math and science. Have you thought about being an Engineer?”  I had uncles who were engineers and thought to myself, they seem happy.  I responded “ok,” and was on my way.

Five years later, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. My dream was to work in the solar industry, but my timing was not so good.  The year I graduated from college, President Carter left office and President Reagan and his administration came in and literally eliminated the solar industry overnight.  Instead, I accepted a job in the auto industry at General Motors but after five years, I realized it was not a very challenging environment for a young engineer.

My next job took me to an international German firm in Chicago, where I worked in sales and marketing. I discovered that I especially enjoyed interacting with people and building sales relationships. I discovered I was a real people person, an uncommon trait among engineers. I was well rewarded monetarily for my talents and knowledge, which is what I cared about most at that time. The positions I held were challenging, dynamic, and involved international travel, learning different cultures and the German language. This exposure made me realize that I had a strong interest in other cultures and figuring out how others view the world, what made them “tick.”

Then one day, as I sat in the lobby of a large engine manufacturer waiting to meet with a client, I began to study the lobby walls, which were lined with pictures of the equipment they manufactured. One of the most remarkable pictures featured a “Tree Harvester.” It is a very large machine that basically pulls big old growth trees out by their roots to make clear cutting an easy task, especially in the Brazilian rain forest. I suddenly felt very sad about the impact of this piece of equipment. Several days later I was sitting in a marketing meeting where the focus was on the burgeoning China markets. The presentation was on the pent-up demand for autos in China and how our company was planning a huge marketing push to start selling equipment in China.  I remember thinking, “so this is the legacy I am creating on this planet,” a thought that really depressed me. I started seeing a counselor as the why that had brought me to this job was no longer in line with the things I truly cared about. The counselor recommended I do some volunteer work as an experiment. I started volunteering at a suicide crisis hot line.

I was now experiencing a good old fashioned, full blown, mid-life crisis and struggling to find some meaning in my life.  At the time, I was working on an MBA in night school, working full-time as an engineer and volunteering.  A year into my volunteer work I made an appointment with the registrar at the college I was attending.  I was anxious about the conversation, but I knew I had to make a change. I told her, “I need to switch to the School of Social Work. I hate what I am doing for a living.” She responded, “Do you have any idea what you will earn as a Social Worker?” I told her, “I don’t care. I can’t live like this.” Looking back, I’m surprised she didn’t send me for a mental health exam. But I was elated. I had found my purpose for working: helping others.  

After finishing my masters in social work, I accepted a position in Child Welfare making one-fourth the salary I had been making as an engineer. But it didn’t matter. I loved getting up every morning, helping others and seeing the rewards that came from working with one person at a time to make the world a better place. I had discovered my “why” and that’s something you simply cannot put a price tag on.  Since that decision 20 years ago, my career has evolved and I continue to be fascinated with the realization that my work in the Employee Assistance Program allows me to help others every day of my life while drawing on my background in many industries and behavioral health settings.  I’ve learned that if you really have a passion for doing something, pursue it. You never know how your career and life experiences will come together but if you follow your heart, they will.

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