Sometimes, the best plan is to not have a plan at all
My name is Helene, I am french, and I’ll turn 35 in a few days. I am on my way to escape Corportate world. Here is a story about how in the process of a burn out and a year off, I reconnected with myself, and ended up at an inspiring carrer change festival, called escape to the woods, that has been a wonderful accelerator in my life change process. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
To set up the whole scene :
I picked my studies and then my professional path by default, a pretty classic story. I decided to do an engineer school, because i was good at maths and physics at high school, and i had no clue what to do with my life. My brother, sister and cousins were pretty much all in that ingeneer path, so i ended up there too. That was my first real “default” decision. Even if, as far as i can remember, starting in high school, i always wondered what i was doing here, in this classic life… The feeling remained during the 5 years of engineer school, that actually never really interested me. And remained there when i’ve been seeking for an internship, and then a job…
I have been carried away by this classic rat race without having the courage to escape. I’ve been really really close to quit everything 3 times actually, once during my studies, when i was close to double a year, then right after graduating, and then in 2009, in between two jobs. But I never dared…. Because i didn’t know what to do, and i didn’t allow myself to think big and believe in myself. I thought I needed a clear plan B before doing any move… Fortunately I had passions for boardsports in my life, they were driving me, offering me an alternative way of living and seeing things. And of course, adrenaline! The variety of people I met through boardsports shifted my vision of life, and proved me that there were so many different ways to live a life.
For the best so, i have been introduced to boardsports through snowboarding, when I was 16, thanks to a snowboard VHS my brother had. I took my first lessons during the following winter. For the first time i discovered what it was to have a passion, that never ending wonderful source of joy, escape and motivation. Few years later, when i was 19, i decided to learn surfing, and this is where my boardsport passion grew even more. With surfing, i have connected for the first time that level of passion that turns to pure obsession. The feeling is so amazing, impossible to describe. And finally, I discovered longboarding and gravity sports on my parisian path in 2003, during my degree internship. A friend brought me with him at a slalom skateboarding world cup organised at Trocadero, right in front of the Eifel tower. It looked Mega! Few days later i was joining the fun, and I quickly got completely adopted by this gravity sports community. And that was the beginning of my biggest passion so far. Now, i have yoga too, bringing the same feelings. I feel lucky.
This is just to emphasize how my passions always brought me to the happiest place i ever experienced, and highly contributed to my life balance. It was not simply riding with people down the hills, it was about gathering with my second family, a colorful community made of other lovely misfits, like-minded people, and an eye-opener about all the possible professional and personal paths you can take to have a meaningful and fulfilling life. Of course (and luckily) i also made wonderful friends outside this community. However they all know that who I am can’t be disconnected from streetluge, boardsports in general, and now definitely yoga. My “low” years had kept me away from a regular pratice sometimes, I realize now how big of a mistake it was, but never completely.
Sooooo… A misfit unicorn-chaser stuck in a classic corporate life… It had to explode at some point, and lucky me, it did!!!
Here is now an attempt to make my long story short :
I got my first job in telecommunications few month after graduating, in Paris. At first i wanted to go for one year in New Zealand, but my friends let go the project and I hadn’t the courage to do it alone. Then second job in 2006, which allowed me to escape from telecommunications and Paris, to start working in Annecy in the Alps, as a program manager in real estate development. Landing in the moutains was a blessing, i could enjoy as much as i wanted the roads in summer and snow in winter! I was pretty stocked back in those days, except for the job.
I started a new job in 2009, still in Annecy, as a project manager in urban development. I was working on ecological urban planning on interesting projects, and quickly, I over-involved. In theory it was a great job, i was going to save the world with ecological planning and building. Practically, it was far from being a piece of cake, business-wise and politically, and I needed a lot of energy to keep alive the ecological and social purpose i wanted to put in my projects. My growing stress slowly took me away from my balance, from my passions and my enthusiasm… So far, i had always said that i would never let my job determine my personal life. But it was clearly happening. At first I thought it was maybe that, growing up : being more tempered, resigned, less enthusiastic… MISTAKE! So I was there : small highs and low lows, bitter sweet fulfillment at work, high pressure, tiredness, boredom, lack of inspiration….
I decided to start a therapy in 2012, which was the best decision ever. I think everybody should do a therapy around its 30’s. Seriously. Accepting to look at yourself in the mirror is not always an easy path, but learning to know yourself, including your dark sides, is the key to self acceptance and opens the path to true happiness.
That therapy made me realize how I had trapped myself in a life that was never meant for me. I was trying to find/invent purpose through my work but reality was always coming back to hit me. Mainly through the rules, pressure, frustrations related to corporate and political world. I am not blaming it all on my former job, it had many good sides, and the majority of my colleagues were nice and caring people. Many people accept the bad sides of corporate and business cold-hearted approach, and see it as a big game. It is just not the kind of game i like. I really don’t want to be ungrateful, these years also brought me a lot, but I was just not fitting in.
April 2013 : first stage of my burn out…. Strong anxiety, which took me few months to recover from. Eventually it did, but i was still feeling fragile, and i hadn’t found an escape or a purpose yet. I was feeling trapped.
January 2014 : I applied for a job in a NGO, but did not get the job. I realized there that I could not project myself any longer in this job and life, but still, i hadn’t any plan B… Aaaaaahhh, that freaking, counterproductive, need for a constant plan B. Control, in one word. At that moment i decided that, whatever would happen, i would be better off without my mortgage, so I put my flat on sale. Few months later, in may 2014, I finally decided to see my boss and break my contract. A week later, after months without getting any offer, i received one for my flat.
BOOM! It was happening. The shot of adrenaline was high, I was there, with an empty page in front of me. But there were also so many things still holding me back, unconsciously. The “letting go” journey was clearly not over with that decision. I wasn’t even half way, i just didn’t know it yet. Plus, I still had 4 month to go at work, the time to do my notice, and close the flat sale. These 4 month have actually been emotional and nervous roller-coasters. Exhausting. I hadn’t the slightest idea about where i was heading, I just knew i had a home for 5 month starting in october, in south west of France — which was really cool by the way. However, this bloody « i need a plan B » thing was still messing around in my head, anxiety was back, big time, and insomnia had also invited herself in my life. Insomnia is a bitch, you know… Not so surprising in a way : I was reseting everything. At that moment I was at my lowest, now i know it, looking backwards. But it didn’t prevent me to start my escape.
Ever since, I have been through quite a bunch of fulfilling experiences and travels, getting better and better each and every day. It took me time to “land” in that new way of life during the autumn, I was feeling so lost, so fragile, so empty. Thank you burn out. I already started the travel part earlier in the summer, but not by myself, and not with peace of mind… I have waited a few weeks to feel strong enough to dare travel by myself. I started small, then went bigger and bigger, and healed my soul and my nervous system in the process.
This is how, starting in August 2014, I have traveled to Tanzania with my family, got involved in a popular TV show in England, helped organising a world speed record at mont Ventoux in the process, moved in south-west of France and lived in 3 different flats, decided to go deeper in yoga and meditation in my everyday life but also through my travels, traveled to Canaria Islands twice, to Indonesia, and also went on few amazing road trips in Spain, Switzerland, Italy, and France of course. I’ve riden more my streetluge, reconnected with some valuable old friends, i made plenty of new friends, came back regularly in Annecy, and ended up at “escape to the woods” festival in Kent in september, followed by an unexpected stay in a warehouse in London filled with great and inspiring people.
There would be so many good stories to tell about each travel, and about my personal journey through connecting with people, practicing yoga and meditation, going back to my passions and having a healthier diet. I will keep that for later, in more specific writings. Otherwise this (already long) text would turn into a book ;). Even if, i have to admit, shutting down that part makes that text slightly incomplete to me. Huuuuum? what? you said perfectionnist? I don’t know what you’re talking about…. But i promise, if you go on reading this piece, you’ll reach the “introspection” part.
There’s been also more than one low moments in my year off. Most of them in between two travels as you can imagine, but definitely not all of them. Travelling is a wonderful insight tool, and facing yourself can go from a great relief and happiness to a hardcore self judgement or sadness. I had a lot of time to think, and i quite struggled with keeping me busy and inspired. I was feeling guilty about maybe not making the most out of this year. More than everything else, i have been pretty scared by the idea of going back to surfing, and i haven’t taken advantage of my dream surf location. I have done (and still does) my best to let go about that guilt, to be kinder to myself and accept that i just needed this “lazy” time to digest my burnout, and my various experiences, insights, highlights or disappointment.
So now that you know me better, let’s focus on how I ended up at the escape to the woods festival :
What led me to these woods? We have to go back in Bali for that, in Ubud, end of january 2015. So, here i am, in Indonesia, enjoying it but still a bit lost. I had the firm intention to discover, connect with people and hopefully grow. After a couple of weeks, i had my first real down moment, that appeared through a bed bug attack in a cheap and unhealthy homestay in Ubud. I had literally 40 bites on my body over one night, itchy as hell because of heat and sweat… I did not know what to do with this and i was a bit in-between two steps of my travel. I still had more than 3 weeks to go and a low inspiration/lonely moment. I am sure that people who travel by themselves know what i am talking about. So I decided to treat myself and upgrade my lifestyle, in order to run away from bed bugs. I found a room in a lovely hotel with a wonderful pool in central Ubud, and decided to head at a small friendly warung where i knew i’d met people. 2 minutes after sitting by myself i connected with the australian people next to me, and after 30 minutes of chat they invited me to join them to climb a volcano at sunrise 2 days later. Spot on!
Later that night, I came back at the hotel with a smile on my face and sat for a while in a chair on the porch in front of my room, listening to gekos, and other animals that make the night so special in Indonesia (I was also generously feeding the mosquitos), when these two girls came to me, Lorna and Chelsea. They just arrived at the hotel and we started to chat. The following day, we enjoyed each other’s company and stories. They explained to me what brought them here, one from England and the other one from Australia : an english organisation, called tribe wanted, related to another one, called escape the city, that were providing a co-working space in an inspiring freelance community, where you get support, help and where you can develop your accountability. The goal is to gather people willing to work on their projects, startups or freelance jobs in a completely different surroundings, with like minded and supportive people, who were not fitting in the corporate world and were willing to bring purpose in their life and job, on their own terms.
Wow ! So cool !
After listening to my story, they told me i HAD to check the escape the city website. Lorna, from England, also told me about this festival, escape to the woods, she attended few month before with this same organisation, and she told me i should really come to the next edition in september. A few days later, i went away from Ubud, going on my next step towards Nusa Lembongan, but without taking the opportunity to visit the co-working space. It was not time yet, but the seed was in my head.
I connected to escape the city once back home, through their website, which was offering an exciting vision of worklife, full of hope and purpose, and offering services that were really ringing a bell to me. I put it in my bookmarks, checked regularly and waited for the registration for the festival.
Before the festival, I was absolutely unable to explain to people around me what this “woods thing” was. Some people were a bit worried when i was trying to explain it. (I am sure more than one thought : Is it a sect? — ahahah no, it’s not)
I didn’t really know what to expect myself, I just had this strong intuition that it could be game changing. It ended up being beyond my expectations. Around 240 persons absolutely likeminded, driven by a strong will to give purpose, a great kindness and genuine care, a feeling of being able to be yourself, and meaningful talks that bring deep insights. Small talks ? We didn’t even think about it. Not here, not now. We were all there for the same reasons : sharing our stories, our ideas, our view of the world, finding inspiration, connect to people, get advices. Depending on which workshop/unconference you were picking, it could bring you in a strong insight, hearing stories that really ring a bell, so deeply. Or you could attend practical and very useful workshop on startups, digital business, social working, … You coul exercise in the morning with king of awesomeness Danny Bent or join a yoga or meditation practice with the lovely Lucy. And those open-mic sessions at night…. Wow! You feel so little and at the same time so inspired and empowered when you hear these stories of people making good things happen in this world. I have heard the most impressive/inspirational/creative stories i have heard from my own hears in my whole life : to name some of them : Emily, Dave, Eiji, Shari, Herman, Adam, …
Watching Eiji’s Happy movie as homework for the festival was also a great moment. It is a must-watch. There are so many interesting, wise, loving contents in this gold nugget. His sunday’s sermon in the woods was really moving, and so true. Mr Happy chose to talk to us about … Death! An unexpected approach. Death is the only thing that is certain in your life. And he started his talk by guiding us through a tibetan death bed meditation. Visualizing quietly your own death was a first for me. Even if i am used to meditate, I had difficulties to go deep in it in the beginning. It made me realize how much death is a taboo for me. Forcing my mind to finally face it, even symbolically, shifted my vision, and helped me embracing how important it is to make your time on this planet valuable, for you as much as for the others. It raises the question of what kind of legacy we want to leave after we’re gone. I am grateful to have shared quite an experience with the other lovely escapees.
During the whole weekend, there were no small groups here and there, everybody was ongoing, was welcome to join any discussion or just sit and listen to them, with always that feeling of belonging to a community, a tribe. That feeling i had so far only felt in downhill riding community. I was feeling it there. Different but the same energy.
The confidence, strength and hope that these 2 and a half day brought to me and to many others are invaluable. I had for sure a good intuition about this weekend, but you never allow yourself to hope that 2 and a half day can empower you so much, and potentially change your life forever.
After this festival, I feel that everything is possible, that my professional unicorn projects can become reality. You have to allow yourself to start little while still dreaming big (thank you Shari for this one — and for being who you are)
The fact that Escape the city exists generates hope, proves us that there is room for a different approach, a different life, a fulfilling work at your own pace and terms. Of course it might not be the easiest/safest path, but the rewards are invaluable. While i am writing, i can see more and more testimonies of people who are escaping or preparing their escape. And i am clearly not the only one for who this weekend was an accelerator.
I don’t know for the other escapees, but it is still complicated to explain what this weekend was without having people opening big questioning eyes. Well some more than others, and there are also some people who smile widely, and say « i wish i was there » and « go for it ». Witnessing that is awesome : the good word is spreading.
Just come join us next year in the woods if you are curious, if you are about to quit, or done it already and in betweens like me, or even if you already started your own 21st century career.
The insight moment is now, ladies and gentlemen:
A wise man told me recently : “we don’t need to learn anything, we all just have to remember the truth we already know”. It is all here, deep inside.
So rather than calling it “what I have learned from this burnout, year off and from the woods”, I will say “what I have connected or reconnected”, even if there is still plenty of room for improvement in each :
- Routine, and lack of stimulation are freaking toxic, for me at least. I need on a regular basis time by myself to get back to my center, but when i have too much free/lonely time, i fall in a huge procrastination trap, and its never ending vicious circle of frustration / unachievement / loss of self esteem. I also need minimum of structure and accountability to avoid my brain to go in every directions, as well as little pushs from the outside
- Yoga and meditation are wonderful tools to grow to a better, more balanced self, and connect more deeply to happiness, gratefulness, compassion, and of course energy and awareness of your body. The benefits are overwhelming.
- In my opinion, you can’t really grow on the path of happiness without having first explored and accepted your darker sides, as much as your brighter sides. Therapy is an very efficient tool for this. Accept the yin and yang nature of all, starting by your own. You won’t fully accept and love others if you don’t accept and love yourself first. Not a piece of cake, right ?
- Forgiveness is a very powerful asset too. I used to struggle with that, big time. But one of the biggest step forward i have done this year is to connect to how fulfilling and relieving forgiveness is. It is far from easy, but it’s like everything : you got to train and it is getting better and better!
- More generally, when it deals with relationship with others and with yourself : rather than develop a long text here, i will just tell you to read and apply the four agreements (from Don Miguel Ruiz). 4 simple, yet very challenging, rules of life. Consider them as little exercises, and do your best to incorporate them in your everyday life. Moreover, it helps a lot to deal with the two previous points.
- You don’t always need a plan, A/B/C… Learn to let go, be openminded and catch the opportunities to meet new people, learn/do new things. Follow your intuitions, listen to your guts, to the signs the universe sends you, and not to the outisde world’s noise and pressures.
- That connects me to another major lesson : everything comes in time. You can put intention, but don’t try to force things. The balance between letting go and make things happen in your life is delicate to find. I have always been very impatient, in control, and/or over enthusiastic, so I know a thing or two about timing/rushing mistakes, and the challenge to let go… Accept that it is all about baby steps, each one is important.
- After that burn out, I am much more connected to my hyper sensitivity now. I have learned to accept it, even if it plays tricks on me all the time, it also brings me strong intuitions and valuable empathy. I am learning how to filter all the informations and energy flow that come hit me, from people around me. Sometimes I scare myself when i realise how clearly i can read through some peoples or some situations, but some other times I make major judgement mistakes. Even if half the time it is just a question of bad timing, or over-estimation of other people’s sensitivity : it is not because i feel something that the people around are ready to receive the information… My empathy leads me to a global understanding of people’s behavior and mistakes, and tolerance, but anyway I’d better learn to shut up a bit more, and be more patient.
- More than ever after this year, I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason, the good and the bad. every good moment, every new experience or person, every disappointment or struggle, every disease or injury, they all happen at a certain point of time in your journey to teach you a lesson. You gotta look inside you to connect its meaning, the symbolic beyond it. Embrace it but don’t let it define you. Learn from it, and go on. And yes, this can be pretty hard.
- This leads to the concept of impermanence : nothing remains forever in life : it can sound like a big cliché, but we have to embrace the present moment. It is one thing to know about it, it is another to aplly it and experience its benefits. Enjoy the good and learn from it, acknowledge the bad and learn from it. It will pass, that is for sure. Hell of a challenge also, to accept letting go the good when its time has come to and end
- Be humble about your growth, you learn and improve everyday, during your all life, and everybody can potentially teach you something. I have been lucky enough to meet a certain amount of “yoda masters” on my way, that have crossed my path each time with a remarquable synchronicity. I have also had the honor to be called a yoda master a few times. Once the student once the master. For sure the most powerful combo is when you can be both inspired by someone and be an inspiration to that same person. This is when magic happens. It is rare and valuable.
- To keep your balance, keep your passions in your life, during the good and the bad. More generaly, find what makes you happy, and do it as often as you can. Even in low moments, even if you don’t enjoy them because your are in a bad place in your head or heart, do it ! It does not have to be always about passion, but your are the only person that is responsible for your happiness, and about when you allow your happy time to occur. Take it as a guideline, a light when it is dark.
- There is one last lesson, maybe the most important ? Surround yourself with like minded people who inspire you, it is the key to enthusiasm, self esteem, creativity and efficiency. Don’t hang out with people that lead you to a bad image of yourself. Find your gang and support each other, work together or simply next to each other, share the good and the bad moments. This helps to become accountable : When the power of many unite to become the power of one. So find your purpose, find your tribe(s), your gang(s), your community(s), whatever you call it, and just go for it! For sure, you can achieve things by yourself, it just needs a lot of discipline. I don’t really have it, I feel more confident when I interact with people that stimulate me and when ideas and support flow naturally.
During this whole journey through the burn out and the first year of my escape, many people helped me in a way or another, with unconditional support, inspiring talks or projects, sharing different views of the world, make some words and ideas resonate strongly in my head, help me to get rid of few naive illusions, reconnect my self esteem, trust my intuitions, let go gently what is not meant for me, connect with my truth, reconnect with my happy places, empower myself.
Of course some have also questioned me, or haven’t always understood my behavior when i was in my low moments. Witnessing my struggles and anxiety was not a sunday morning walk in the woods (or at the beach if you prefer), even more for my closest friends or family, I know that, and I am sorry for that. I know you did your best, everybody has to deal with its own struggles also.
I love you and thank you all in a very special way.
So, what’s next ?
My personal journey is going on, my professionnal escape from corporate is taking shape, and i have the strong feeling it could end up in a pretty awesome way. I feel already that happiness and contentment, the one you feel when you connect your inner truth, your purpose. But I also know i still have quite a way to go. It is exciting and fulfilling but also frustrating and a bit scary. Back to Yin and Yang. The bad in the good, the good in the bad.
One thing is sure : my body, mind, and soul completely reject the idea of going back to the classic corporate world.
For the rest, for the first time in my life i project myself in terms of professional path, even if there is no real plan yet. I want to develop my own projects, related to coaching, yoga and help other to escape, it is now time to make my ideas become actions that lead to a new reality. And I am going to work on it next to my new tribe of escapees. In the same process i want to find my value as a freelance worker, and also check carefully jobs offers on escape the city, so i can allow myself to never go back to a corporate job…. What is best for that process than surround yourself with people already working freelance or doing what is necessary to develop their own business with a purpose?
So i have decided to join tribewanted Bali for 2 month, and who knows, what opportunity will come next? These days it is all falling into place. Opportunities and ideas are raising. For the rest of the story, time will tell what comes out of it! I really want to build myself a 21st century career, so let’s go for it!
Wow, this is actually a long text. Funny (or scary?) thing is that i quite restrained myself. There are so many things to say, so many things i want to share. Hope you enjoyed it.
The word of the end : bed bugs can lead you to unexpected and inspiring path! ;)
Oh, and yes, another thing : no, I am not in a sect. Unless you think that seeking happiness, purpose, growth and fulfilment is one. Then, I am totally in !
If you want to follow me, here is my blog : https://heleneschmit.wordpress.com/
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As a post scriptum, I wanted to share a few quotes that inspire me, little mantras or nice challenges. Most of them popped in my life in the last 2 years, some are pretty recent, from the woods or not :
When there is a will there is a way
You can only understand your life by looking backwards, but you can only live it by looking forward
There can’t be happiness without a struggle
The wound is the place where the light enters you — Rumi
What good shall i do this day? — A question to ask yourself every morning
Do or Do not, but don’t try to do it — Dave again — even if the original quote is from Master Yoda himself ;)
Fuck it (just do it) — the letting go rule — master Eiji
Without a purpose you are a shit factory — from Eiji again (there is a whole concept beyond this quote i’ll be glad to explain to you next time we meet)
I want to be the best version of myself
Change come from the power of many, but only when the many come together to form that which is invisible : the power of one — read on a panel in the woods
Freedom is ours to hold, it is just a struggle in your mind to keep your soul — the beautiful girls
You can keep your symbols of success, then i’ll persue my own happiness, you can keep your clocks and routine, then i’ll go mend all my shattered dreams — sixto rodriguez