Opinion

Quitting my job has forced me to explore the vast wasteland of my soul

Quitting his job gave former Clemenger BBDO strategist Al Crawford a rare chance for a bit of self reflection, but after decades on the daily grind, he was surprised to find little more than bat guano and rusted Pepsi cans. He details his journey to the centre of the void.

‘Stay away from your potential’ says the comedian Dylan Moran in an epic rant. That is something that you should leave absolutely alone. You’ll mess it up. It’s potential. Leave it. And anyway, it’s like your bank balance, you always have a lot less than you think.

Not for the first time in my life, I ignored a drunken Irishman and pulled the pin on my twenty year corporate career in March. I say pulled the pin as though I strutted out the door like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty; heading home to smoke quality weed whilst bench-pressing.

Sadly, it ended with a whimper, not a bang. Months of insomniac contemplation were accompanied by comedy back and chest ailments, which turned me into an emphysemic Quasimodo. When you start frightening clients on sight, you know it’s time to go.

Crawford: When the sight of you frightens clients, it’s time for a change

Many people who mash the eject button seem to have a pretty clear idea of what they want to do next; some burning passion or side-hustle that will parachute them gently and lucratively to earth.

Not so for me: my head was always full of the white noise of the day job. Even when I got home, I found contemplation nigh on impossible given the constant attention of two toddlers. It’s tough to think deeply when someone is trying to pile drive a remote control into your eye socket.

As I reached the end of the line, there was some solace to be found in the internet. The information superhighway abounds with upbeat pronouncements about finding your purpose, or shifting gears to unleash the supercharged you.

LinkedIn, specifically, is saturated with daily exhortations and aphorisms from captains of industry, although I feel that some of these people are hiding some deep personal sadness under the veil of maniacal positivity.

Perhaps because it’s difficult or undesirable to convey, very few of them dwell on something that’s struck me since I felt the fear and did it anyway: the state of limbo you enter after you’ve crossed a career Rubicon.

After twenty years nestled in the bosom of big institutions, I discovered a vast internal emptiness where I’d hoped for substance and clarity. The last few months have been an exercise in touching the void.

Big institutions

On reflection, this shouldn’t be so surprising. For twenty years, ambition has overwhelmed introspection. Climbing the career ladder became an end in itself, even in a line of work that George Orwell disparagingly called the ‘rattling of a stick in a swill bucket.’

So fixated do you become with the day-to-day rattling that you subordinate reflection and personal development to the trappings of conventional career progress.

Small wonder that, when you come to investigate your inner essence, you find bat guano and rusted Pepsi cans, rather than a treasure trove of ideas.

Even after going through some initial self-analysis, my list of strengths and weaknesses were as terse and superficial as big Keith’s self-assessment in The Office. Strengths: crosswords, bike maintenance. Weaknesses: melanin deficiency.

In retrospect, you shouldn’t just ignore Moran. You should do the very opposite: love your potential, feed it, pat it gently or it’ll suffer like a neglected Tamagotchi.

But if, as in my case, you’ve left it for dead, all is not lost. It is possible to revive it, but you have to reconcile yourself to the fact that any great recalibration won’t happen overnight. A Buddha-like acceptance of the in-between bit is necessary, despite your urge to leap back into the fray.

Hearteningly, beneath the superficial aphorisms and misattributed quotations, there’s also plenty to help you out. For bibliophiles, I highly recommend INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra’s Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career.

It brilliantly anatomises the phases of job transition, putting a premium on action, rather than thought and on talking to the outer edges of your network, rather than your inner circle.  For those who want more a more human touch, I can also recommend the patient and preternaturally perceptive, Katherine Hosie.

As I continue to explore the outside world as well as the inner recesses of my own cranium, the warm tingle of excitement is overcoming the adrenal surge of fear. And amongst the eddying dust devils and tumbleweed, I’m discovering some encouraging, long-lost signs of life.

Fighter pilot school, here I come.

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