Can you step off without dropping out?
What happens when you achieve everything you thought you wanted only to realise it’s not what you thought? Is it possible to pursue your calling without “dropping out”?
At any one time, 47% of people want to change their job.
A quarter of people say they made a mistake choosing their career.
This is no surprise to me. Every week I get emails and calls from listeners to my podcast, members of my network and, frankly, total strangers who’ve googled me, wanting to talk about the fact that they are convinced there must be a better way to live.
These aren’t kids just out of college complaining about their gap-year call centre job. These are life’s high flyers. They are C-level executives, high profile names in their industry, people on 6-figure salaries, doing the jobs that are sold to graduates as “One day this could be YOU!”
But it’s not working for them.
They are tired. They aren’t making a difference. It’s all politics and hierarchy and red tape and meetings. The bits they love are suffocated by the bits that make it too hard. They worked so hard to get here and it seems like it wasn’t worth it.
Instead they want to do work that is more meaningful — teach yoga, become a sailor, coach others, read tarot cards, take photos, work the land. They want to start their own venture, they want to travel more, they want to live in a way that doesn’t damage the planet, they want to really BE with their family.
Or they want to stay where they are but be a catalyst for deep change in their organisations, helping their outdated company, coasting on their past success and their ubiquity in their market, to prepare for the revolution that’s coming in their industry and in the world.
They want to step off the production line that leads inevitably to more work, more stress, more blame, more politics, more business travel.
But they don’t want to drop out. They’re not after an easy life. They just want to do something that means something.
Stepping Off the Production Line
It’s a tension I’m all too aware of. Running your own business doesn’t mean you’re free of the production line. The pressure to grow your business is always there. You get lured in to expressing your professional success through material acquisitions — the nice car, the nice house, the child in private school, the expensive holidays. You take on more overhead, give yourself and your colleagues a payrise, move to a swanky office and you’re just as trapped as anyone in a corporate job and you built the cell.
This month I celebrate 17 years in business. I left the BBC at the end of September 2000 and at first I felt that incredible sense of freedom that I had been yearning for.
No boss. No commute. No one dictating how I spent my time. Pure joy.
But it didn’t last.
By the time I’d accumulated 15 years in business, I noticed a deep sense of empitness about my work. Not every day. Not with every client. But my heart wasn’t in it any more.
I felt drained. Exhausted. I felt that I was simply working to pay for my life. More than that, I was simply working to accumulate enough money so that I could stop working. I was in the same bind as my clients. How could I possibly help them become authentic leaders doing meaning work and making a difference in the world if I was only in it for the money?
So I stopped.
I hired a coach and took a long look at myself and my business. I listened to podcasts, I meditated, I sat still and thought about what I wanted. I madly scribbled in notebooks — What am I here for? What is my value? What am I good at? What are clients getting when they work with me? What gives me joy? How do I want to live? What do I really believe? How can I get that message out to the world? How can I be true to myself while serving my clients? How can I be so free from my own needs that I can be truly there for them?
Over the coming months, I got snippets of clarity. And as I got clarity I took actions.
I renamed my speech. Instead of “Busting the Myths of Leadership” I called it Punks in Suits. A year later I started the podcast. Inspired by the title and wanting to live up to the name, I made it my business to figure out how to live and work in such a way that I released the true Punk inside. It meant a change of hair, a change of clothes, a change of lifestyle.
I stopped doing big change programmes with companies who didn’t really want to change. I turned down business and sat with the discomfort of my business turnover dropping without knowing whether new clients who DID want to change would come knocking at my door.
Most recently I took my child out of expensive private school and decided to educate her at home. I put family at the heart of my life and my choices and got out from under the school fees while I was at it.
And all the time I worried. Will people think I’m dropping out?
When I talk about moving to the countryside to raise Alpacas, do people think I’m not serious any more?
When I talk of taking my business on the road, basing myself in France or Mexico or Bali for a while, do people think I don’t care about my work?
When I talk about homeschooling my daughter, having her home while I’m working from home, do people think that I’m sacrificing my professional life for my personal life?
But these are exactly the reasons people don’t leave jobs they hate, or stand up for what they believe in at work, or take a job that doesn’t have the big title but does allow them to make a massive difference. We care so much about how others will view our choices that we have no space left in our heads to wonder how WE view our choices.
My own experience has taught me that you can step off, step out, be true to yourself WITHOUT DROPPING OUT.
None of these choices mean it’s inevitable that you start only wearing clothes made of hemp, or live in a trailer, or go vegan, GF or paleo.
None of these choices mean you’re giving up.
In fact, they mean that you are worth more.
When you hide behind a mask of conformity you cannot bring everything you have to offer to the work you do.
When you neglect your mental health you cannot be fully creative.
When you aren’t living a life that has meaning for you, you can’t be there for others.
This is me now.
Not really. This is me in fancy dress.
But you don’t have to dye your hair purple and stick safety pins through your nose.
Underneath your suit is a Punk trying to get out.
The world is full of people who are scared to stand up for what they believe, who are worried about what other people will think, who let their beliefs about other people’s assumptions determine their own decisions.
You can step off the production line and be true to yourself without dropping out. In fact, that’s exactly what we need in our businesses and in our world — people who are willing to break away from the hardwired indoctrination that keeps us complacent and complicit.
Nothing will change if we don’t.