When I told people I had quit my job of 15 years and was effectively dropping out of the career I took 25 years to build, there was a wide range of responses. I was well-respected in my company and in the wider industry. I had accomplished many things, some which would have long-lasting positive effects for the business. On the outside, I seemed to be having fun while managing a fast paced team. I maintained excellent relationships within the company and outward facing to customers. People could reach out to me and ask questions about many different situations, if I didn’t know the answer, I could point them in the right direction. On the surface, I was a well-adjusted senior manager who could be trusted to get the job done. I had been promoted many times and was seemingly on a path towards the highest levels, someday. Looking at the statistics, I had much of the best that corporate life could offer.
Are you OK? What are you going to do?
Reactions started with disbelief and then quickly moved to the assumption that I must be moving on to something else. Some other position with some other company. But I wasn’t. And that was hard to explain. Because what I was going to do instead seemed so strange.
So I started to try to explain the unexplainable in terms which people might understand. At least the people I knew. I was to discover that there were lots of people “out there” who “got me” and what I was doing. I just didn’t know them yet.
If I told people I needed a break, that seemed to pacify the look of shock and concern for my mental health. I had been working more than a full-time schedule for about 30 years, I deserved to take a breath. I had even worked part-time on top of attending high school full-time. There was never a decent gap, always straight from one thing into the next. Graduate college on Friday and start a full-time job on Monday. That was what I thought I was supposed to do if I was going to earn “enough” money.
If I told people I wanted to travel with my teenage kids and my husband could work remotely from a country like Spain or Italy, that garnered looks of respect and acceptance. I was being noble for the benefit of my children and their life experience. I was making them better people and creating a shared family experience which would last a lifetime. This kind of trip was not common in my circle of friends and acquaintances but mass media covered it regularly enough to provide a sense of understanding.
Those 2 excuses bought me about a year or so. An acceptable amount of time to go off and have my fun and then return to what? Most people did not question me further. There was a general assumption that I would return and seek my place in the corporate world once again. Get back to my chosen ladder and begin the climb up the wall once more.
How about being my own boss?
When I spoke about starting my own business – an online lifestyle business, I got confused and concerned looks. People didn’t know what that was and complicating the conversation further, neither did I. Or at least I couldn’t explain myself very well. I knew I didn’t want “a job“, in the classical 9 to 5 sense. I wanted to create a life for myself where I could earn money doing a variety of different things and work with all sorts of people. Projects of interest, started by other people or by me. Volunteer for the first time in my life, give back. Write for free, to promote my ideas with like-minded people and maybe create and sell some books along the way. Make things for the fun of it and then see if other people wanted to join along. Teach. The list goes on and on.
I think everyone I spoke with, understood and agreed with my passion for trying out all these new ways of spending my time. But they kept waiting for the finale. And they were far too polite to ask, “how are you going to be paid“? They didn’t see the “job” in what I described as much as they saw “goofing off and having fun” part. At that point in the conversation, I would start to get a little scared and worry I was making a huge mistake. It was clear that without a solid business plan, including financials, many people thought I was not being serious. But I was confident in my ability to complete that step, in due course.
There was a lot of time to talk to everyone I knew at work, all my family and friends. When you hold a senior management position in a global European based company, you don’t quit and leave within 2 weeks. At least if you are a valued member of the team, which I was. The leaving period is long, allowing time to transition, finish up big projects and clean up outstanding communication. I see the good side of this arrangement. For one, I wasn’t going to another company, so I didn’t have to balance the pull of leaving with the obligations yet to finish. For another, my targeted leaving date was Christmas and the run up period to that break is always a nice time of year in my career. Finally, the long leaving period forced my husband and I to amp up our savings efforts and reduce spending as quickly as possible. We sold things, gave away things and generally got our house in order. Oddly, that was fun. We felt younger and lighter than ever before.
I don’t fit here anymore. I’ve changed.
Taking physical stock of my life and getting control of all my stuff was the last bit to fall into place. I had already done the emotional heavy lifting over years of consideration. I had become clear on a few things. I did not want to commute, battling the traffic and the crowds of people had lost its charm years ago. I did not want the responsibilities to other people and for other people. I spent precious time and energy managing those relationships instead of doing the creative and productive work which I enjoyed so much more. I did not want my compensation package to be linked to the goals of others, particularly when I had very little say in crafting them. I didn’t want to trade my time for money. These are some of the rules of corporate life. Even in the C suite, executives are bound by these rules. What I had realized is, there is no amount of money and no alternate job which could keep me happy in this framework anymore.
When I was young I thought the point of work was to earn money. I was a raving capitalist. One day I was having a conversation with my Dad and the concept of having a million dollars came up. He asked what I would do for that amount of money. I confirmed, just about anything. He gave me an easy assignment. How about standing with your nose in the corner for 8 hours a day? It would be a regular job, complete with two coffee breaks and a lunch hour. He asked if I might give it a try, at that moment? I lasted about 8 minutes. It was my first lesson in understanding what I would not do for money.
I’m not making a direct comparison between standing in the corner and corporate life. For most of my career was something wonderful. As I moved up the ranks I learned so much. I met some of the most wonderful people, cherished friendships forged from sharing pretty amazing adventures. I experienced fantastic things. I travelled the world, much of the time in a business class seat. I worked with people from different cultures, who spoke many languages. Life was fast paced and exciting. Some new challenge was around every corner.
Then one day I realized the novelty was waning. The challenges seemed more like chores. New ideas were not easily implemented and took so much care and feeding, to the point of exhaustion. And the travel that had once been exhilarating was becoming tiresome. I became aware of not-so-nice, albeit temporary cognitive effects from long haul travel. My brain was just not working properly when I was sleep deprived. I began to ask myself – “Is this as good as it gets?”
And I tried to make it work. The relationship I had with the corporate world was the point of my whole life. I put work first, it was at the top of my to do list every time. Of course that is not sustainable. So I tried to juggle things around. I tried to balance the scales between home and work. But I found myself feeling like 2 people. I was trying to compartmentalize myself and train my mind to think about certain things at certain times. But the gap was too wide. I couldn’t be creative at the set hour of 6pm and stop thinking about my job. I dreamed about my work. I couldn’t turn it off. It was sitting on my shoulder, commanding my attention all the time. Like it had always been.
I began to wonder – how do other people finally decide it is time to leave a corporate job? (That could be retiring as well.) I was curious, how does it work? Was there a 12 step guide? If so, where could I find it and was I already on the path? Enough people had quit their jobs in recent years, but they were generally much younger than me. I felt like I had missed the exit in my thirties and all those doors were blocked for me now. I also knew I could not wait another 20 years. I did not want to get bitter and resentful. I had a sneaking suspicion if I stayed too much longer I would fall into that trap.
I think the big decisions in life happen just like the small ones. You wake up in the morning, the sun is shining and you are inspired to have a picnic on the beach. You have either done this before or you have all the stuff you need, repurposed from another adventure. You have some family or friends who are available, or you are comfortable to strike out alone and see who you meet along the way. And in truth, you have been thinking about the beach for some time now. This day jumped out at you as good as any other.
I’m not trying to be flippant or diminish the importance of a major life change, like quitting a job. For me, all the years I was trying to change myself to suit corporate life, I was also realizing that the efforts were not really working out the way I wanted them to. I was not feeling any happier for everything I tried. In the back of my mind I was creating a list of failed efforts and reasons why the situation was not working for me anymore. I think there just comes a day when literally, you experience the proverbial, “straw that breaks the camels back“. It is usually nothing significant in and of itself and I can’t even remember what it was for me. That was the day I knew I was ready. But getting through the next phase was a bigger challenge than I thought it would be.
Actually “doing it” is much different from talking and planning.
For 2016, my chosen word was “freedom“. I had picked it during my annual Christmas vacation in Mexico, where I set aside time for goal setting. Lazy days on the beach, laying in the warmth of the sun, time spent thinking about myself. A rare opportunity, but another perk from earning the big bucks in the corporate world. At the time, I knew this was probably the year. Then, as I was planning in my calendar, just after the heavy travels of the first quarter, I imagined how the timing and leaving could play out. Once I realized the time had come, I simply choose the next available date to have the conversation with my boss, in person. I made myself a little rock totem to keep in my pocket for courage. My boss was not overly surprised, in fact he seemed to understand better than most people would in later conversations.
I think it is important to note that my word for the year could easily have been “fear“. But I didn’t want to choose a negative word. The reality is that to achieve freedom from anything you must conquer fear. When I think back, fear has held me in place my whole life. It has been what has driven me to succeed, play by the rules and earn the money which I thought was the key to my happiness. In a way, I owe fear a huge thank-you for keeping me in line and not letting me get into heaps of trouble. But I think fear became too strong, somehow. As much as fear drove many of my accomplishments, I have also acquired skills and competencies which are transferable to anything I might want to do in the future. Fear has no part to play in my transition out of corporate life or assisting me in my new ventures. Learning to dampen my fear before it begins to rise has been a hard-won reward for my efforts. And it doesn’t always work, but I continue to practice.
However, if I had known ahead of time that fear would be the least of the strongest emotions I would face in a long leaving period, I would have better prepared. But no-one can predict how they will feel during this kind of life transition. For most of the year, I had a sense that this would be my last year. A little secret, a little smile in the back of my mind when situations became a little messy at work. That was a nice time. For the build up to telling my boss, I felt a little queasy. Somewhat sick to my stomach. On the edge of the unknown, looking at the next phase of my life with a little anxiety. Wondering if I was making a mistake? Then people started to find out and had so many questions and concerns for me. It felt strange to try to explain myself. Then I attended a global meeting which gathered all the people I worked with, some for the whole 15 year period. The timing wasn’t right for an announcement to the whole company, so I still carried a secret, just as I had for many months already. That felt surreal. I had not felt the realization of such a major change coming to me since the day I brought my first child home from the hospital.
As I said to my boss, the book of my life with this company is coming to an end, the last chapter is being written. It was a such a nice metaphor, something which I was happy to say, rather than sad. The words came to me during conversations I was having with family and friends. The dress rehearsals for the big meeting when you actually proclaim your intentions to the one person who is going to do something about it.
It is one thing to talk about this kind of life change and quite another to actually do it. Luckily this is not a script for television, because my experience was not dramatic. At least not in the theatrical sense of a person storming out of a building after telling their boss to “take the job and shove it“. Everything in my case was amicable and well thought through. Plans were devised, everything was arranged, and announcements were carefully scripted. I suppose it should not be surprising, but all efforts were made for the well-being of the employees left behind and the general health of the corporation. Minimize the disruption to regular business as much as possible. If its done properly, the company will barely miss a beat and life will go on. Because I had chosen this option for myself, I assumed any support I needed had to be sourced by me.
One night, as I tossed and turned fretting about my future, I decided to get up and write everything down which was bouncing around me head. My basic wondering had to do with why the support for someone leaving corporate life was so hard to find? Why did it have to feel more like a divorce and less like a rebirth? Why couldn’t it be more like a graduation of sorts?
There is a huge industry built around helping people lose weight. A different theory, diet and exercise plan for every segment of the population. People are making and spending loads of money on solutions that should not be so difficult that they need an expert doctor to explain. Yet, the biggest life change that most of us will go through is when we change or leave work. If you manage to avoid the statistics which predict at least one major career change, everyone will have to retire at some point. Particularly from corporate life.
Creating a life.
Helping people transition out of corporate life is something I am extremely interested in. Particularly people like me. Midlife, mid-career women. I think we are a little more marginalized than men. Interestingly though, men I have spoken with seem to think they don’t have it any better than women when it comes to this kind of life change. They yearn for support as well. They are just as scared to turn their life upside down as I was.
Midlife can be a perfect time to stir things up. This is not a time of crisis, as the media likes to portray it. Rather it is an excellent opportunity to honour and learn from what has already passed. Assess skills learned and re-evaluate priorities and relationships. I think people turn to the biggest relationships in their life as the source of their angst. Marriages tend to be first in line. While that might be a great place to make changes for many people, I knew in my heart that how I related to others was my starting point. Bundled in there was all my relationships, with everyone I cared about.
Because my work ranked so high in my priorities and I spent so much time away from home, I knew I had to start there in my self-evaluation. I didn’t like what I found. Somewhere along the way, over many years, different jobs and companies, I had given up too much autonomy over my life. When I was young and learning something new and thrilling every day, it was a bargain that was easy to make. I felt on the winning side of the arrangement. Then, over the years small injustices started to creep in. Holidays cut short by some kind of customer emergency I had to attend to. My maternity leave period with both children, ended up being incredibly brief due to the perceived need for household cash flow. Phone calls, texts and emails at all hours of the day and night, which I felt compelled to attend to. For all this effort and sacrifice, I started to feel that I was not being compensated appropriately.
To be clear, I use compensation as an over arching word to describe the balance sheet of “what I was getting in exchange for what I was giving“. When the learning piece started to fall away and when I started to feel less and less autonomy, no amount of cash could equal the score. I think of my creativity, my desire to do good work, my passion, residing in a cup or reservoir. That cup needs to be filled. Over much of my career, I was blessed with ample opportunities to fill up my cup. Over the last 6 or so years I made a concerted effort to fill my cup on my own. But alas, I think there was a hole in the bottom, because no matter how hard I tried, I kept seeing it empty, usually when I needed inspiration most.
Now I am giving myself permission to take a well deserved break. It is time to read, explore, rest and generally recharge. I’m going to fill my cup of creativity and see which direction that process points me. In order to do this, I owe a massive amount of gratitude to my husband. It is his support and understanding which allow me the luxury of this time away from the pursuit of earning an income.
Follow along in this journey if you are interested in all the forms of creativity. I am going to uncover all the aspects and ways which creativity shows up in our day to day lives. From the way we think to the way we use our hands in expression, and everything in-between. Think of it as “creative therapy!”
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