The First “Back to Work” Monday of the Year

One of the most formative days of my life came on the first Monday in January 2008. 

The year prior was supposed to be — and in many ways still is — the best year of my life. I got married. Sarah and I went on an amazing honeymoon to Hawaii. We moved into a beautiful suburban home. We were launching into life. 

Yet, that year was also the year my grandfather died in February, and I came back to the post-honeymoon reality that I didn’t have a full-time job. Until that point in my life, I’d always believed that hard work was rewarded. To that end, I’d earned an undergraduate degree from Purdue University and completed all of my coursework for a Masters in Education from DePaul University except one final course. This course — a capstone course whose only requirement was a full-time teaching job — was all that stood between me and the degree. And as our moving truck headed to the suburbs, I thought that finding this job would be a no-brainer given my relationships and the 3.99 GPA I’d earned in my coursework. 

I was wrong. 

Questioning Everything About My Life

Not only did I NOT land a full-time teaching job, but I also had to unroll from the capstone class because “substitute teaching” didn’t meet the full-time teaching requirement. And to make things worse, the only work I DID get was substituting in the district where I grew up. There I was —my fancy college education in tow — walking back into the high school I’d proudly left just six-and-a-half years prior. 

While I didn’t voice this out loud back then, I must humbly confess that I felt like a loser. Note: All these years later, the more mature me realizes that there was a LOT of dignity in the work I was doing. But I was blind to that reality then. I’m being brutally honest about how I felt then, not what I think now. This clarification is important because I now realize how much value substitute teachers bring to the education system. More on that below

As Sarah has recalled, in years since, I spent many nights that fall questioning everything about my life. I was angry at God for not providing the job I wanted, depressed over my inability to “pull myself up by my bootstraps,” jealous of my wife’s full-time teaching job, and nursing my broken pride over the fact that my wife was the “breadwinner” in our household. 

Returning from Holiday Break

At this point, you may wonder what the first Monday in January has to do with this story.

At least in the US, the first Monday after a big holiday break is a day when teachers are virtually mandated to be at their school. Barring some kind of crisis, the expectation is that they are supposed to be there. 

And this year, on that first Monday after the holiday break, I had no work. 

My wife got up, got ready, and left. 

I got up, sat alone, and wept. 

Ok, so I didn’t weep first. First, I took a walk. It was a cloudy Chicago day. It was about 40 degrees out, there was no snow on the ground, and it was dark. It was the exact kind of weather a movie director would call for had they been filming my first day in January. 

As I walked through our neighborhood, the puzzle pieces of the previous year started coming together. All the emotions I’d felt began bubbling to the surface. I know this will make me sound crazy, but I started talking out loud to God. Before long, I started arguing. As I unleashed my pent-up frustration, depression, and anger, I didn’t feel much in return. I didn’t hear “God’s voice” or anything like that. 

I simply heard silence. 

But it wasn’t a lonely silence, but an oddly comforting silence.

That’s when the tears came. And I am brave enough to own it. 

As I pulled myself together, a few things crystallized in my mind. But before I share them with you, let me explain why I am telling you all this on the first day of January 2024. 

I know a few things.

I know that the last few years have been hard for most people reading this blog. 

I know that some people who read this blog are leaders of businesses that have not met expectations.

I know that almost everyone’s life is harder and more complex than just a few years ago. 

Therefore, as we enter a New Year, why don’t we start with perspective and hope? My invitation is to lean in right now and let these lessons saturate your soul. 

What I Learned

Here is what I learned: 

First and foremost, I learned that work is always dignified. Oddly, it was on that fateful Monday morning when I was walking through our neighborhood that I realized the work I’d been doing as a substitute teacher was holy. Yes, holy. It mattered to the teachers I was substituting for and the administrators. It mattered to the kids (well, at least a few of them!), and it certainly mattered to their parents. This moment shaped my view that as a leader, I need to remind every person on our team that they matter, and so does their work. I am deeply passionate about this because the first person I had to remind of this reality was myself.  

Second, I learned that every Monday matters. Every one of them, but especially that first Monday in January. I promised back then that I would always go back to work on the first Monday in January with renewed hope, passion, and perspective. Thank you, Lord, for the work I have to do! It is thank-God-I-have-a-job-Monday. Amen! 

And last, I learned that God‘s purposes for my life are deeper and greater than my current circumstances. All I wanted during that time of my life was for someone to hit the easy button for me so that I could land a teaching job and realize the plans I’d made for my life. While this pursuit was meaningful, I learned several months later that God was calling me elsewhere. These were not my plans, nor were they Sarah’s. They were His.  

That year — 2008 — wasn’t an easy one. It was a year of opportunity, meaning everything was disguised as hard work! But, it was work. And with the help of mentors, one of them who reads every one of these posts, I launched into a different life at Hoffer Plastics. 

The Gift of the First Monday in the New Year

It is once again the first work Monday of January. 

What a gift! 

May God bless you and yours this next year. 

Thank God we have work to do!