Thinking more about my ‘A year to live’ post. And a story from my friend Sarah Jones.
A response to the post from Robert Day got me thinking when, after telling his story of leaving the wrong job behind and how it was going he’d said:
“So: I take from your post something that I’ve found for myself – follow your dream. I know that’s a dreadful cliché, but it’s true.”
Now for most of the last many years I’d have agreed that this was indeed what I was getting at. But his words made me realise that my ‘Year to live’ thoughts were changing this long followed urge. I replied:
“Do you know, I’m not sure I do mean ‘Follow your dream’ anymore? I’ll write more about this when I’ve thought more about it but maybe following your dream is another form of the over-driven ambition to succeed we so suffer from?
As you can probably tell, one thing I’ve learned from many of the people I’ve worked with is the relief of letting go. Letting go of the wrong work and the wrong people definitely. But also a quietening down of the rage to succeed. Doing things you love, sure – but maybe they’re not all big things. And maybe some of them are around you anyway? Friends you’ve never spent quite enough time with, cameras just waiting to be picked up for the love of photography?
A friend, Sarah Jones, quickly picked up on this exchange, particularly highlighting the phrase ‘A quietening down of the rage to succeed’ and how peaceful it could feel to let all that go.
So I thought we’d think some more about this, me and Sarah Jones. Because you see, Sarah is specially qualified to do so, having done the ‘Finding the work you love’ course of conversations I wrote about last time. Sarah has been out on that quiet walk, and had that conversation in a graveyard about what she’d do if she had a year to live. And as she now says:
“I carry a year to live with me every day.”
Here’s Sarah’s story:
“This time last year I stopped my life, and started talking to Ronnie, including a day considering what I’d do if I had one year left to live.
It’s fair to say that I’d spent the majority of my life being busy. When I was 18, I was pregnant. At 19 my boys were born, twins, 10 weeks early and so small that they couldn’t breathe without a machine to help them. At 19 years 4 months I was making 18 bottles of milk a day and sleeping very little. The next 20 years were busy, in fact, I don’t recall taking my coat off.
What led me to work so hard was others expectation that I would fail; supportive comments such as: ‘How old?’ ’19??’ ‘Well that’s her life over!’ to me were good motivators, and the easiest way to prove that life could still be within my grasp, I thought then, was to have a successful career.
So that’s what I did, choosing a career where I stood up for the underdog, fighting for people’s rights and gradually taking on more responsibilities along the way. Changing roles and organisations, getting pay rises, until eventually I found myself at the top of my particular career ladder.
My motivation to work had really been to prove something to others. But now I’d suddenly found myself compromised and downright miserable. In a top job where I was working with senior managers with little or no integrity or sincerity; ranks quickly and repeatedly forming to protect the status quo, and newcomers expected to leave their idealistic principles at the door, ta very much.
So, when, after just a few months there, my female boss asked me to consider doing something about my hair, (it failed the NHS senior management women’s hair test apparently) I left.
I’d been so busy working over the previous 20 years that I hadn’t really had any time to think about whether what I was doing day in day out was actually enjoyable. I had become compromised by work and stifled in a process that was slow and creeping and wearing. Career progression, in my case, hadn’t been a conscious effort, but it had taken me to a place where work had become the first thing I thought about on waking, and the last before sleep.
I’d had a work phone pressed on me so I could work when I wasn’t meant to be working. Managers were vying to get to the top of the in-house chart for who could send out the biggest number of emails at the most anti-social times. I was so busy but had no real idea what was going on around me. I mean; had my kids had a good day? Was the dog really enjoying his 10 minute drag around the park? I didn’t know. I was lost inside this ‘career’ I’d spent my whole life chasing and building.
Hating that I’d become that person, I felt the only option was to do something dramatically different, to find a new career, one that allowed me to be myself. So I started his ‘Finding the Work’ you love course with Ronnie.
We measured me against the work I’d been doing. What was it I stood for? What principles did I carry through in life and where did they stem from? What did I not enjoy and who wasn’t I?
Finding that fundamentally, I just wanted to be happy, because, really, that’s my favourite thing. And that what I needed to do was ditch the stuff that didn’t make me happy.
Getting to the part of the course that was the ‘A year to live’ conversation helped me to establish what made me happy. The process of considering death in a graveyard brought clarity and perspective to so much. And brought me that ‘quietening down of the rage to succeed’ as Ronnie so eloquently puts it.
I decided that with a year to live I would spend as much time with my family as I could and travel a bit more.
I didn’t make a list. Preserve me from Bucket Lists!
I didn’t want to tick things off lists. What happens when you’ve done them all? I imagine you feel obliged to make yet another list of yet more things to do. What happens if you don’t tick them all off?
It sounds exhausting! Too much like hard work.
I just wanted time and space; in some ways to have the option to do nothing. And really, we discovered that underneath I was pretty content with my life. Except that my career, my work had taken me to the point of compromise, where I was losing myself to some corporate persona.
So I found that the worst thing I could now do would be to find another top of the ladder job for this corporate persona to do. I decided, there and then in that graveyard, let go of ‘career progression’ – and the rage to succeed immediately quietened down.
And now – well I no longer share space with people who make even the eating of a piece of soft fruit a noisy affair: “IM SO BUSY I’VE ONLY HAD TIME TO EAT *THIS* BANANA!!!”
I do work I love, much of it from home, and I’m not compromised.
Sometimes I can spend a whole ten-minute break looking into my dogs’ eyes and seeing if that bonding thing that I saw on the telly last night actually does work. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll get bored and feel the need to work less from home? Not yet though, oh no.
What I do in my continuing ‘Year to live’ may change, but its principles will stay with me every day and I’ll continue to draw perspective and a quiet from it. Peace has broken out in my life.”
So no ‘Following your dream’ here. More a practical and necessary response to a life that was nearly strangled by a career, by the rage to succeed. And no massive changes or bucket list behaviour that most people don’t have the freedoms or fortunes to follow anyway. Just an elegant stepping off the career ladder to quieter work. Work she loves.
As in the previous ‘Year to live’ post I repeat, this is not a covert advert for the ‘Finding the work you love’ course. I’m having my own ‘Year to live’ now and that’s not part of it. Though I’m always happy to talk about life and the living of it. And will be back with further ‘Year to live’ thoughts and stories as the ‘year’ progresses.
Find the rest of these posts by searching on ‘A year to live’ in the Search box above right.