Today is the longest day of the year. From now on, the days are getting shorter, the nights stretching out. Just as I could do with as many minutes and hours as possible, they are slipping away, headed to bring light to people in another hemisphere.
It’s been 14 months since I’ve worked. Unlike so many who have had worklessness thrust upon them over the past year, my unemployment was self-imposed. I made the decision to step down from a rewarding but stressful job that had eaten away at every-last bit of my reserves. It was time to stop, look after myself for the first time in maybe ever, move home to London and re-fashion my life.
Fourteen months on, I can confidently say I made the right decision. There really is no place like home; I fit here in London. I feel it every time I walk through Greenwich Park – rain or shine – and see the light filter through the green leaves, wrapping me in calm. Every time I walk across Blackheath, the wind whipping through my curly hair and hitting my face like a refreshing splash of cold water. When I step into our little flat, mine for 20 years now, its imperfect walls, endless DIY projects, and even the scaffolding outside that’s holding up a concrete ledge that’s cracked and is damaging the brickwork beneath. It’s all home.
I berate myself now and then for not having enough to show for my 14 months of freedom. Then I remember I’ve achieved the most important things: I now exercise 3-4 times per week rather than never, I have a dog because she makes me happy even if the care and exercise she needs can be inconvenient, I cook almost everything I eat from scratch and never throw away any food and that makes me happy, I mostly sleep 8 hours a night, I make time to talk with my husband and we share our gratitudes before dinner every night as some people say their prayers.
I’ve also not been entirely idle. I’ve written a book proposal, signed with an agent, project managed our home renovation, had a couple of things published and just recently have accepted my first paid gigs. I’m finally ready to move forward.
One of the things I’ve found most difficult about this stage of my transition – the getting down to work bit – is expectation. Over 20 years, I’ve notched up various markers of success and worth: the fancy job title (CEO), the six-figure salary, the status of an organization. Deep down – whatever I tell myself about ‘refocused priorities’ and work-life balance – I’ve found it really difficult to shed these expectations. Perversely, my achievements paralyse me.
I’m also realizing that ‘mission’ or ‘purpose’ are mental straightjackets. I’ve built a career doing things I enjoy that just happened to make a positive contribution to the world; I’ve conducted policy analysis that has changed the way governments and businesses operate for the better; I’ve set up and run organizations that I know made a difference to people in need; I’ve held non-executive roles where my interventions have made those organizations more effective.
It’s easy to look backwards and see ‘mission’ and ‘purpose’ where really there was just interest and opportunity. Honestly, I’ve built my career by following my nose. It’s funny how we construct stories about who we are and why we do our jobs, to help us make sense of ourselves – for ourselves, as much as for other people. That’s not to dismiss what I’ve done or the difference I’ve made – I’m immensely proud of it all. But in looking forward, the filter of ‘mission’ has paralyzed me, too – no job big enough, important enough, making a significant enough impact. I’m coming to understand that good enough is good enough. Meaning is something that emerges along the way.
As I get going in earnest with this next stage of transition, I do so with apprehension and excitement. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll be doing this time next year – that’s the scary bit. It’s also what makes change exciting; my past doesn’t have to dictate my future.