Leaning out, stepping back, & finding happiness

I’ve always been an overachiever. Anything less than an “A” (or, hell, an A+), felt like a small failure.
I didn’t meet expectations, I exceeded them.
I wasn’t on the softball team; I led the All-Star team (as the pitcher)!
I didn’t need to be our valedictorian, but hell if I wasn’t going to be right up there at the top of my class with the rest of my brainy crew.

At some point, this drive for success translated into my work. I worked hard, I got promoted, and years later, I found myself leading a team and reporting to CEOs. Professionally, I was at the top of my game, so much that I could build my own consulting business and work with startups all over the world as their marketing & communications expert. I was my own boss, commanded an enviable salary, and could make my own schedule.

I was miserable.

From the outside, it appeared that I had made it. Money, ambition, reputation, success. Yet the inherent pressure, the instability of consulting, and the realization that I wasn’t learning anymore, drove me to leave that all behind.

I was tired of being the head of something, exhausted from having to make the majority of the decisions. And while I was getting to know about new industries, I wasn’t learning new marketing or communications skills; people hired me to do what I was good at but in doing so, I wasn’t given the opportunity to stray from my core skill set. And most of all, I missed having colleagues (consulting work can be very isolating) and a boss. I really, really, REALLY missed having a boss, both from whom to learn as well as to help take some of the responsibility off of my shoulders.

I wanted to NOT be in charge of it all anymore.

So I quit. I ended my last consulting contract, and — as if the Universe was reading my mini-moleskine journal where I recorded all of these gripes — I got an email from a contact at Google who had a role on her new team. It was part of a small group, the role was leading a project, but not a managerial one, and I would be smack-dab in the middle of the Google marketing org, many steps back from the CMO I once was.

It sounded perfect.
I was hired within the week.

Four months later, I am happier than I have been in years, mainly due to the role I play professionally. I report to an incredibly brilliant woman who models an extremely healthy work-life balance; our team is led by another phenomenally talented working mother who I look up to tremendously. We work hard — harder than I have ever, ever worked — but that makes the downtime that much more sweet and enjoyable. After a day full of productive meetings and decision-making and building awesome things that get launched to the world (and into the stratosphere!), I leave at a reasonable hour to go home, order Seamless & unapologetically watch awful TV shows with my puppy. Or have an improptu glass (or three) of wine with a friend. Or go to bed at 9pm. It’s my time, I earned it, and I know it makes me focus and be productive during the day to have this alternate experience when I’m not at work.

As for “leaning in” (vs. “leaning out”), I personally feel that I’m as — if not more — vocal and participatory and empowered in a less high-profile (or, if you want, ‘important’) role than I ever was. Stepping back to see what I really wanted in a job — the ability to learn, a strong role model, a boss I can look up to and a team I can collaborate with — feels more successful to me than running the marketing & communications of a multi-million dollar startup or my own company.

Sometimes you find that you’re at the top of your game…in the middle. And it feels great.