Have you ever switched to part time in the corporate world?
This past weekend I attended the awesome annual WDS gathering in Portland, Oregon. Host Chris Guillebeau and a team of amazingly passionate volunteers brought people together from around the world to listen to stories, join workshops, mingle, celebrate, and even attempt to break some world records. All with the values of Community, Adventure and Service, exploring the question — “how does one live a remarkable life in a conventional world?” On a WDS facebook group someone asked if anyone had tips on going part time in a corporate job. I started writing a comment in response and it turned into a full blown life spill. Which now that I look at it has less to do with tips on going part time, and more on my personal journey the past several years. The comment exceeded the 8000 character limit on facebook and so I’m sharing it here on Medium instead :).
I went part time at a large software company in 2011. It took months of internal soul angst to build up the courage to have the honest conversation I needed to have. The team was going through a re-org and an ex-manager scheduled a 1:1 to talk to me about positions on his team. He told me how he felt — that I had strong potential and that I should be at a higher level than I am, and went on to explain how he can help me get there, etc, etc. I had come into the discussion prepared to speak my mind, to tell him that I’d like to leave my successful 14 year career and take 6–12 months off to figure out what I want to do next. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I “grew up”, but I knew that going through the daily grind of my job wasn’t giving me the time and space I needed to really explore what I wanted to do next. It was a great job that paid well, I truly loved the company and the people I worked with. And with a promotion just six months ago, on paper I was on a strong career track. I was also a new dad with a one and half year old daughter. So all in all there was no rational reason for me to be dissatisfied or want to leave. None.
But something else in me that I didn’t fully understand was crying out louder. That spoke in crystal clear voice, that it was time for the part of me that enjoyed the promotions and bonuses to step off the driver’s seat and let this other part guide the way. This other part that I was only barely getting to know, that was about to plunge me into a sea of ambiguity and unknowing-ness, but with a certain conviction that this was more necessary than any mind created idea or plan thatI could put together. This part that felt like some kind of messenger for what one might call the soul.
So I stopped him (let’s call him Pete) mid-way in his pep talk and told him how much I appreciated his encouragement and support, but here’s where I was — that I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, or to be completely blunt — I had no clue. But I felt I needed to take a break and create space to recharge and explore. I was completely open and transparent. He had a look of questioning on his face, like “I just told this guy how I can help promote him, and he wants to leave!!”. He then paused and said, “I’m going to stop talking now because I’m really good at convincing people and I’m worried I’m going to talk you out of something I think you need to go do”. He went on to show me his heartfelt letter to a few close friends when he first left the corporate world to go build his own startup. We connected more as fellow travelers than manager-employee. The team was in need of someone to help ship a feature in the next two months. So I agreed to stay on for couple months and he extended his full support to help me in any way feasible on my next steps. After the feature shipped they threw a farewell celebration for me, and I took my remaining 6 week vacation time with no idea what I’d be doing next, except an intention to create time and space for myself and explore a wide variety of opportunities within and outside the company. When I explained all this to someone else on the team whom I considered a mentor, he suggested why not ask to go part time — “if you’re leaving anyway it can’t hurt”. I felt so shy and odd doing this. My internal voice went— “wait, isn’t something like part-time only approved for women who are returning from having a kid, how can a healthy man who has a feature PM role be approved for part time? What is so-and-so going to think about it, and is so-and-so is going to mock me?” Well, I did ask Pete and he asked the team and they said yes and he was so fully supportive. Mentally I thought of it as a phase out period where I’d go part time for 6–8 months and build out my next steps on the side. I loved Pete’s straightforward blunt comment in one of our 1–1s — “I want to help you but I think you’re confused”. Which I totally agreed with. That’s why I needed the time. I sheepishly mentioned that I’ve always been interested in training/workshop type environments, my parents have done this sort of work too. But my internal voice kept saying — “you’re a technical PM, what are you doing thinking of training and workshops?” Pete connected me with Todd and Chad, the founders of Pathwise Leadership, with whom I completely hit it off. For me, they were the first real teachers I had come across in my adult life. Teachers in the deeper sense of the word. It’s like they immediately saw right through me, through my ego and struggle, and tapped into something bigger. This felt like the beginning of that soul piece of myself starting to get some real attention.
Back to the part time thing — I started with 3 days a week, but found it impossible to contain it to this amount. My manager supported me with keeping boundaries, but I felt guilty delaying email responses and missing meetings. I eventually expanded to working 4 days a week. Here’s the part where I would have loved to say I was successful at finding my dream career and everything ended happily ever after. I’m a lazy guy in many ways and the reality was that this 4-day work week experiment ended up turning into a whole lot of 3-day weekends. I’d spend Friday doing mostly nothing. Which was wonderful in some way, and in hindsight maybe exactly the thing I needed. There was a preparation that started then that although didn’t pan out as planned, perhaps created the shift that eventually led to new and interesting things showing up in my life.
That year we ended up getting pregnant with our second kid, and after 8 months of being in a part-time role I went back full time. So part of me says that the part time thing didn’t work out, that it was a failed experiment. I even got the lowest review score of my career that year, as I had expected given all the changes I was attempting. But I remember when I got my lower than average bonus and review score, thinking — this was clearly the BEST year of my 15-year career. The connections and relationships that formed that year were stronger than anything I knew possible, and ones that I would in no way trade back for the extra $$. And although going back full time felt a bit like a failure, I had a different and fresher outlook. I was so grateful to have been given the opportunity. I also felt somewhat detached from the so called rat-race, and free-er to express what was on my mind. I continued to feel the daily pressures and stresses at work along with that nagging feeling of always being behind, but I knew my “work”, the real work that was just barely getting started, was to bring more of the human aspects into the organizations where we spend so much of our time and energy. In the next year I prodded two of my managers to join me at the Wisdom 2.0 conference where we heard from remarkable leaders speaking about living more mindfully in this age of technology, I got asked to help lead a grassroots team-culture initiative for a 90 person team, I continued into the second year of the Pathwise leadership program and got an opportunity to co-teach Pathwise classes. I continued to form amazing individual relationships through seemingly random and coincidental ways. As one example, I ended up co-teaching a Pathwise cohort where someone two rungs above me in the corporate ladder was a student. And the class was in the same building where we worked. And I was the co-teacher. Felt so bizarre at first but I somehow just naturally fell into the co-facilitator role for those three hours of class. It was just humans in a room with shared experiences, ambitions and struggles, without the titles and badges.
Through the entire process (and even now) I’ve often felt confused, unsure, depressed, in question, but at the same time there’s been some sort of underlying thread of confidence that all of this is “right” and that I’m continuing to prepare for new and interesting possibilities in my journey. This is the same time that I got hooked onto Chris Guillebeau’s blog and inspiring work by others such as Seth Godin, Leo Babauta, Jonathan Fields, Nipun Mehta. All of whom I consider guides in one form or the other.
During this time I also discovered poetry. A poem just showed up out of no where after a Pathwise class on systems thinking in 2012. We did an exercise where we looked back at our current selves from the perspective of our future self, and for me it opened up the concept of Time in a whole new way. It’s hard to really describe this in linear language. Which is why I suppose we have poetry. I’ve continued to write poems along the way, which seems less a function of having time, and more an output from having slow-time — where I’m able to slow down my otherwise overactive mind, and pay attention to what is going on around me and within me.
Now three years after that first poem I’ve mustered the courage to speak at open mic nights in Seattle, to share my work and more importantly, continue finding my voice. I also hosted my first attendee meetup at WDS this year to get together with other somewhat shy writers and write. I ended up writing a poem during Jon Acuff’s talk this past weekend, which was all about finding one’s voice. It again felt like the words just showed up from no where. It was fun to share the poem with him that afternoon. I remember at first thinking — “I want to ask this well known author to sign this poem, he’s just going to think I’m some weird dude writing crappy poems”. I’m glad I didn’t listen to my lizard brain. I told him how much I loved his talk, that I felt his entire talk had a rhythm to it and sounded like one long poem. He was so gracious and excited to hear this. He asked if he could take a picture of the pages in notebook, we exchanged contact info, and we hugged. I was pleasantly surprised the next morning to see a text message from a friend who was at the conference too, which said — “Hey good morning. I am reading Jon Acuff’s book this morning and came across this quote: ‘I’ve always wanted to write books of poetry.’!!” What a great coincidence :).
Total side note here, but I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of Jon before this conference, and had no idea of his writing fame. And so instead of having the usual and unplanned awe I seem to feel around celebrity, I felt like I was chatting and connecting with him as simply another human being. Albeit a pretty awesomely creative one. I could write a whole separate post on how we de-humanize ourselves and others by putting ourselves and others up on these podiums in physical and mental space. Let’s save that for another day.
After much digression, back to the main story if there is one here. My position was eliminated in 2014 as part of a large round of layoffs. The severance gave me a much needed buffer to take some time off and explore alternate career paths, while also spending more quality time with my wife and two kids.
As a side note, my little nugget of advice here — it may not always pan out the way you want, but from my own experience — when you’re about to have that scary and dreaded conversation with someone who represents “the system”, and you’ve got all kinds of voices, defenses and resistances in your head, pay attention to them but then just be as open and yourself as best you can. The people you’re talking to are human too, you’ll get past the awkwardness and they’ll relate to you in ways you might not have imagined possible. And if they don’t then that place or that manager was not right for your soul anyway. In my case I can’t think of a single experience where being open, honest (and awkward) did not work out for the best, either then or eventually.
Coming to the present, a few months back I decided to turn down going back to a really great PM job at another tech company. I would have been working with someone I trusted and admired, the same person/mentor who in the previous chapter of this story told me — “why not ask Pete if you can go part time”. Ironically the very next morning after I told him that I wanted to give myself 6–12 months to experiment with alternate paths, I was asked by a friend if I would be interested in joining as a consultant with her company, Simple Intentions. To lead team workshops and manager programs geared around cultivating a greater sense of awareness. I will be flying to India in Sept to lead a set of workshops at the same company where I worked for 17 years :).
I registered a company last month, called it Next40 Ventures. To serve my next 40 years, and with a desire to serve others in this same bucket. My vision for the Next40 community is to bring people together and help one another experiment with life ideas that serve “who we are” and “where we want to go”, more so than “were we’ve been”. To disrupt the systems in place today which make us continue to polish our past, even if that’s not really what or who we want to be in the future. And yet we keep polishing and polishing. Because it’s what’s expected, what everyone is doing, and what seems like the only way to continue to make a living. It seems broken.
Ok wow, Kevin (who posted the original question on the WDS group), if you’re still reading this, you triggered something in me. This must be the world’s longest facebook comment. I suppose I needed to get some of this out, and you helped. There are many more sub-stories that in hindsight look like they were part of some larger plan, but at the time felt absolutely random and coincidental. All of them involve connecting with amazing people who saw in me more than I saw in myself. And perhaps vice-versa. All I feel is an indescribable sense of gratitude.
So bringing it back to the original question — I’m not sure if going part time specifically was a successful strategy for me, I’m not sure if I have any valuable practical tips to share, and I’m not sure whether I’d recommend it to someone else. What I can say is that stepping into the unknown and continuing to suffer and grow along the way has served me in ways I could not have possibly imagined. I am still in the muck in many ways, but at least comfortable enough in it to be able to write and share this. The learning cohorts and teachers in my life have felt like a miracle. My relationships with long time friends is evolving in ways that’s hard to define. New opportunity and confidence continues to show up in unplanned ways. I have begun to own and express my poetry. There is this small matter of paying the bills but even that is now on a path with sufficient light on it. And Pathwise, WDS along with other communities continue to urge me on. I thought of adding my wife, kids, parents and siblings to this list but I don’t have language yet to express what their support has meant. Especially my wife who is my rock.
I realized at WDS that the parties, talks, adventures, and conversations are all fun and inspiring, and I will keep enjoying them. But more than anything the reason I go there, the reason I care about and seek to help others that are on a similar journey, the reason I am grateful if you’ve read this far, the reason I write and want to write more is that it gives me an internal sense that I AM NOT ALONE. And paradoxically, the thing that I seek to grow within me is a greater capacity to be alone by myself, without grasping or clinging.
I suppose voicing my wish to go part time was an important step along the way. Thanks for listening :).