When I finished my undergraduate engineering degree, I had little money, but it did not matter as I was used to having little money. I owned an old car, clothes, and some household items in my small apartment. I accepted a job offer and my future employer paid to move my personal items from Denver to Los Angeles. My new salary would enable me to live comfortably and far exceeded my typical part-time earnings. My life was about to change, and I felt blessed.
Yet I yearned to do something fun before entering my chosen profession. I had worked every summer in an engineering related job and during the school year, I worked on campus while taking a heavy engineering course load. I was burned out and decided not to start my new job until the end of the summer. I applied to Philmont Scout Ranch and was hired as a Ranger guiding Scout groups in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of northern New Mexico. I spent the summer of 1980 living in a tent, teaching teenage scouts, and backpacking in spectacular scenery.
My summer in the mountains was made possible because I did not need a larger salary to pay college living expenses or to build my resume with relevant engineering experiences. My overhead living expenses were low: no loans, children, or normal daily living expenses. Philmont gave me a tent, food, camping gear, medical care, and a livable salary. My basic needs were met until I traveled to Los Angeles to start my new job.
In Dr. Mark Albion’s book Making a Life, Making a Living: Reclaiming Your Purpose and Passion in Business and in Life (Warner Books, New York, NY, 2000), he used the term ‘walking costs’ to describe the costs related to leaving a job. The higher the expenses related to a person’s lifestyle, the more difficult it is to make a career change. Albion was formerly an Associate Professor at Harvard Business School (HBS) who was rapidly becoming a star business school professor. When his mother had cancer, he decided to leave HBS and become a social entrepreneur and author. He was able to make this transition because his walking costs were low.
“We may not be able to control many forces of employment, but we can control our own employability by being flexible and focused. Being flexible means gradually lowering your walking costs. It means being careful not to build a lifestyle or expectations that make a transition difficult. To overcome potential loss and ease the transition, have friends and activities outside your workplace and industry, and develop an identity outside of work.” (page 39)
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, alluded to walking costs in his famous sermon The Use of Money. He coined the phrase: Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can. Wesley wanted workers to be productive with their God-given competencies. He then balanced productivity with modest living and saving for future needs. This lifestyle makes transitions possible. Walking costs are lowered by intentional decisions that build flexibility.
Unlike the Protestant ethic that spurred capitalism through industrious work and frugal lifestyles, Wesley did not stop after gaining and saving. He added give all you can. Wesley preached the Christian theology of loving your neighbor. Albion’s statement about having a life outside of work is supported by Wesley’s statement in his sermon: “Giving is the antidote to materialism.” Materialism raises the walking costs and decreases flexibility. Generous giving liberates individuals from the dependence on possessions by being part of a community.
My summer job at Philmont Scout Ranch was one of the highlights of my life. I spent only three months there, but this experience etched so many fond memories. When I departed for Los Angeles in late August, my mind and body were ready for a new challenge. I was able to walk through the Sangre de Cristo mountains, train scouts in outdoor skills, and connect with God’s creation because my walking costs were low.