Why I walked away from $100k (guest post by Steve Zengel)

Steve at Beach House CigarsNothing inspires action more than success.  If you’ve been hemming and hawing about making a career change, this story will inspire you….

It seems to me that once organizations (and people) know either that you have a lot of money or that you make a good amount of money, they tend to ask for some of it.  It’s understandable.  They need it.  You have it.  They ask for it.  Furthermore, what I’ve noticed is that if you give once, regardless of the amount, they tend to ask for more.  The greater the need, the greater the frequency of solicitation.  Again, this makes perfect sense.  I know.  I’ve been both the giver and the solicitor.

So, it came as no surprise to me that when I became a high school vice-principal and basketball coach with a publicly-known combined salary of a little over $100k, I would soon be solicited for donations from family members, friends, and several organizations to whom I had previously given.  You name it, I was getting it.  First, came the schools (in order of attendance-St. Rose High School, Villanova University, University of Miami, Monmouth University, and Rutgers University).  Then came the causes to which I previously gave because I wholeheartedly align with their mission (Feeding America, local community First-Aid squads, EMS squads, PBAs, etc., March of Dimes, National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, Special Olympics, Susan G. Komen, Toys for Tots, The American Heart Association, The ASPCA, The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, The Wounded Warrior Project, VFW), to name most of them.

I wanted to give to all of them, so I’d pull out my checkbook and start writing checks.  $5 here.  $10 there. $15 to another. And so on, up to my usual limit of $25.  After a while, it seemed like it was getting to be a lot, more than I could afford.  Soon I became squirrel-like, hoarding each dollar as if it was a nut I was saving for winter.  After all, I was married and we had bills to pay.  We had twin boys who were soon turning 11.  Knowing how quickly the first 11 years went by made the thought of them entering college in 6-7 years seem like it would a reality tomorrow.  I had a cigar shop on the side, as a hobby, from which I hadn’t received a paycheck, myself, since its inception and which, at any moment in time, could require an infusion of  capital in order to stay alive (you small business owners know what I’m talking about). So, at that time, I felt that those small contributions were all I could give.  I was embarrassed.  I felt stuck.

I shared this feeling with my good friend, Matt Catania, over a cigar in the shop one evening.  Matt had just left his high-paying position as an attorney in a prestigious New Jersey law firm to pursue ownership of Jersey Mike’s submarine sandwich franchises with his best friend and high school basketball teammate, John Helm (I coached them).  In sharing my feeling with Matt, I asked him what made him do it, what made him hang up his hard-earned law degree and hefty salary to go make subs?  In return, he asked me if I ever had a #2 Mike’s Way?   We laughed, but still, I wanted a serious answer.  His answer?  He loves helping people.  “Helping people?” I thought. I asked Matt to clarify how serving subs helps people.  He said Jersey Mike’s serves great food to thousands of hungry people in a friendly and fun atmosphere all day long and to show their appreciation to their customers, Jersey Mike’s gives a ton back to the respective local community in which the franchise is located.  I grew up in the same area as, and eventually became a teacher and coach in the same town as, the original Jersey Mike’s store.  Therefore, it was easy for me to understand because I had witnessed their giving back at local community events for years.

It seemed simple:

  1. Do what you love to do.
  2. Share it with as many people as possible.
  3. Give back as much as possible.

The next part of our conversation changed my life!

To paraphrase, Matt asked, “Z, what is it that you really want to do?  I don’t mean being a vice-principal, coaching, or making subs.  I mean what is it that you really want to accomplish before you die so that you can truly feel as though you lived a great and purposeful life?”

Some might consider this to be a deep question, one which causes pause for most.  However, for me, the answer was easy.  I wanted to give back.  No more “Steve, the Squirrel” attitude!  I wanted to give significant financial support to those who needed it.

But, I wasn’t sure how, or in what capacity, and I expressed that to Matt.  He laughed, pointed to the seven stand-alone humidors in front of us, full of 300 boxes of cigars, and said, “Give back through cigars!”  It was my a-ha moment!

We discussed several of the reasons as to why that would be a good idea:

  • I am passionate about cigars
  • I love being around people and cigars have a way of bringing people together
  • I already had a cigar business up and running

There was only one problem.

I was a high school vice-principal and varsity basketball coach. I’d leave my house at 5:30am, get to school by 7am, work all day, leave at 3:30pm, and get home by 4:30pm, just in time for dinner with the family.   I would spend some additional time with my wife and kids before leaving to check on the shop.  By the time I got to the shop, and giving the inherent attention required of a successful cigar business, I was drained, both mentally and physically (walking the entirety of the high school roughly 5-6 times each day as a vice-principal).  During basketball season, family time was sacrificed, as I’d often get home around 10pm.  I neglected my shop almost entirely.  It was failing miserably.

I knew what I wanted to do but I was afraid to do it.  I was making a little over $100k per year.  I had good medical benefits. I earned 20 vacation days each year, most of which I used during the summer to either spend time with my wife and kids or spend time in my shop.  I knew I’d have a decent pension waiting for me at the end of my career.  I was in my tenure year, thus, in effect, forever protecting me from job loss.  Not a bad gig.

Still, I couldn’t give back as much as I wanted and that was a problem for me.  I saw myself working in education for the next 20 years without ever having felt I lived a purposeful life.

In addition, most current educational literature at the time was against more traditional old-school methods of student discipline such as out-of-school suspensions.  However, more traditional old-school teachers were stuck in time, thus supporting increased rates of out-of-school suspensions.  It was a constant uphill battle and one I did not want to fight anymore.

I loved the kids.  I helped the kids.  Would helping kids another 15 years have led me to feel like I lived a purposeful life?  Maybe.  But, the constant struggle was taking a toll on me.  I dreaded my morning ride in to work.  The slowest I moved all day was from the identification scanner to my office door.  I starting taking my stressors out on my family and it simply wasn’t fair to them.  For me to continue would have meant that I trudged on, living miserably for a hefty paycheck.  That’s not me.  I knew it, but I wasn’t prepared to leave just yet.

Matt and I discussed starting a book club (he refused to refer to it as such and instead referred to it as a “Success Club”) in an attempt to better guide us through our respective transitions.  The first book we agreed to read and discuss was The Success Principles by Jack Canfield, famed author of the Chicken Soup series.

There were two great take-aways for me from that book.  The first was that in any situation, a person can do only one of three things; a) shut up and deal with it, with no more complaining, b) change it, or c) leave it.  The second was that it provided a template for a mission statement which required the reader to fill in the blanks as they related to future business and/or life goals.  I filled it in and the following became my mission:

I am using my charisma, energy, and passion to inspire and support others to live life more charitably, compassionately, freely, fully, kindly, and lovingly one cigar at a time!

Once I had that written down on paper, I read it to myself no less than 10 times each day.  Whether it was to myself in front of the mirror before getting ready for work each morning, in the car during my commute to/from work, or in bed before falling asleep, the pursuit of accomplishing my mission consumed me.  I started reading everything I could on improving my business.  Much of the material came from or Inc., the magazine.  I read stories about and immediately emulated, guys like Blake Mycoskie (Tom’s) and Bert Jacobs (Life is Good), creators of lifestyle brands who were giving back.  I closely followed Marcus Lemonis and took copious notes while watching The Profit on CNBC.  I read a Harvard Business Review on The Experience Economy.  And of course, there were Bono (Project RED) and Richard Branson (Virgin).  I was all-in, except for one thing: I was still working as a high school vice-principal and basketball coach.  I needed a nudge.

I got it from the encouraging words of wisdom and inspirational messages of Maggie Mistal, a fellow Villanova alum and excellent life coach who I met through another Villanova alum, pre-LinkedIn.  Earlier in life, when I was deciding between staying as a financial advisor with a decent salary near my hometown only a few blocks away from the beach or move away to Virginia to pursue a dream job of coaching Division 1 college basketball, it was Maggie who encouraged me to take the coaching job so that a) I can build upon my life’s experiences and b) I remove a possible later-in-life regret.  In looking back, Maggie would have been 100% correct.  I would have regretted not taking that coaching job.

This time, again, I reached out to Maggie who, through some email exchanges and shared videos, again inspired me to pursue that which will give me the best personal fulfillment.  Maggie’s insight and wisdom was the push I needed to make a well-thought-out, fully conscious decision to leave $100k in pursuit of my personal mission!

I resigned my Vice-Principal position on July 31, 2015 to accomplish my mission.

I have no idea how this will end.  But, I can, with absolute certainty, tell you this:

I am using my charisma, energy, and passion to inspire and support others to live life more charitably, compassionately, freely, fully, kindly, and lovingly one cigar at a time!

Thanks for reading!

Please consider supporting my mission.

-Steve Zengel

I hope Steve’s story inspired you to consider your own life’s mission and get on the path to really making a difference. So now the only question is, “what is it you REALLY want to do?”  Share your comments and reactions.  I’d love to hear them even if you’re a skeptic. 🙂

Update: It is with a heavy heart that I share that Steve passed away unexpectedly on April 24, 2023. May God bring comfort to his family.  Here is a link to his obituary.  I encourage you to read it as it will inspire you to live like Steve and pursue your dreams.  Steve didn’t die with his music still inside him.  He lived life well and that example is one worth following.  The link above has been updated to go to a cause Steve cared about.  And this podcast episode includes a dedication to him.  Rest in peace Steve, thank you for always following your dreams.  

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Troy

    Thoughtful and inspiring!

    1. Steve Zengel

      Thanks, man!

  2. John musumarra

    Steve I am super excited I came across your story. In the fall of 1991 you were teaching me and 13 others the value of being a member of pi kappa alpha fraternity. Many of these lessons are still with me today so it is no surprise you became a teacher of young minds. The courage to leave that job and attempt to help so many fine charities through the passion you have for cigars is remarkable. I am humbled.
    Best regards
    John “Moose” Musumarra

    1. Steve Zengel

      Yo, Mooooooooooooooose!

      So good to see this post from you. I so very much appreciate those kind words especially when considering the source, one of the kindest guys i ever knew. Funny, people who didn’t know your last name thought others called you Moose because of your size and strength paired with your humility and kindness. Man, this was great! Thank you, Maggie, for letting me use your space here!


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