This is a time of milestones, so naturally I’m feeling a wee bit reflective. I turned 45 yesterday. This week is also the 20th anniversary of beginning my first full-time professional job, as a baby researcher fresh out of library school, at Ernst & Young in Auckland.
I’ve spent the last two weeks contemplating a crossroads in my career: whether to keep working full-time in communications, which is frying my brain but funding my comfortable lifestyle, or to take a step into the uncertainty of freelancing, trading security for flexibility and better mental health.
Looking back on my professional life so far, it’s been a wild ride, starting out in business research and then sneaking into communications via the back door of website content management. I had three amazing years at the OECD, and then came back to NZ as a sole-charge communications manager for some small but very dynamic organisations such as the Productivity Commission, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and the Sustainable Business Council.
Sounds impressive, right? So why am I struggling to function at a time when my professional opportunities have never looked brighter?
Until recently, I was juggling two days a week working for SBC as well as for a sustainability consultancy, thinkstep-anz. I was attempting to lead the communications function for both organisations – and failing. I had recruited my successor at SBC, and also two junior staff at thinkstep, but wasn’t doing either of them justice.
The job title Communications Manager suddenly seemed too vast for my brain to encompass, from developing a media and communications strategy to delivering website projects, leading a team to produce social media, articles, video and other content, as well as deal with all the other tasks that crop up when Communications is in your job title.
Throw an emotionally-taxing family issue into the mix, and it was meltdown time.
My introverted soul needs space to mull over complex ideas before coming up with solutions, a plan or turning them into action – space I wasn’t finding.
Writing, in particular, works best when you can achieve a state of flow. It’s like driving on an unknown road in the dark – you can see the route a little way ahead, illuminated by a small tunnel of headlights. But the further away you get from the bright city lights, and oncoming traffic, you can switch to full beam and the whole landscape springs into sharp relief. You may not get to your destination faster, but you can see the way ahead and can proceed with confidence.
And confidence, believe me, is half the battle. Having faith in your ability to pluck the right words out of thin air to tell a compelling story and make your audiences feel something – knowing that whatever you are doing, is working, is what keeps writers, and I imagine all creators, going.
Throw in an interruption, though, and I’m a rabbit in those headlights, not sure whether to run forwards or back, and the inspiration of the moment is crushed under the treads of an 18-wheeler. Sometimes it comes back, but it will take a good 15 to 20 minutes to tune in again to that state of flow. Add that up over a working day and it’s soul-crushing.
Flow doesn’t just happen at your desk either. Walking to the printer, the tearoom or the bathroom can be a much-needed break to prod a recalcitrant phrase to mind. How often have my colleagues asked me a question when I’m making a cup of tea, only to get short shrift because my mind was elsewhere?
But communications roles are in many ways anathema to introverts, requiring you to switch modes several times a day or even an hour. Every time the phone rings, I tense up. Could it be a journalist chasing a new story, which may need anything from hours of research to rearranging a senior executive’s schedule and briefing them so they can give a media-friendly answer at short notice?
Media coverage is the oxygen of most communication roles, and many people thrive on it. I have huge admiration for the many journalists I have dealt with who are doing a great job under enormous pressure, as well as for the senior spokespeople I have worked with who can perform wonderfully in an interview. But that tiny jolt of adrenaline with every phone call never dries up, and it does not respect my state of flow.
Many roles I have had also involve open-plan offices, which contribute to feeling bombarded, either through hearing loud discussions between your workmates or through a culture of approachability where you can be interrupted at your desk at any point throughout the day. My coping mechanisms include noise-cancelling headphones, and turning my desk into a haven of concentration – herbal teabags within easy reach, personal pictures by my monitor, a little marble elephant I can rub for luck. I thank the gods of productivity that I have never needed to deal with the white-collar battery farming that is hotdesking, which seems to accrue short-term benefits to the financial bottom line of any organisation while eroding the goodwill and social glue of the workplace.
So at the beginning of February, I stepped aside from thinkstep entirely, just before I left for a camping holiday. After 10 days almost completely off the grid in the beautiful landscapes of East Cape, far from the daily commute, I have come back with a clear head to re-imagine what my working life looks like now. It will involve working from home a lot more, and flexing my storytelling muscles for hours at a time.
I’m very grateful to both thinkstep and SBC for the fantastic opportunities in the last 18 months. At the same time, being able to hand over the main communications role at SBC is a relief. The potential for communications to contribute to profound, systematic change to make society and business more sustainable is huge, and at times holding that space sole-charge for SBC has felt overwhelming. I’ve signalled to SBC that I am available for writing and content production if needed. And beyond that?
They say find your bliss. Well, for 30 years (at least) I have dreamed of writing full-time, the more creative the better. And luckily the more I write in a corporate context, the more easily words seem to flow in other pieces. I’ve been fortunate that some corporate work has let me develop a distinctive voice for the organisation, which helps me when it comes to finding my own voice. The audiences and formats might be different, but the feeling of hitting your target is just as good whether it’s an article, a newsletter or something altogether off the hook.
Coincidentally, my Facebook feed turned up a headline last week referring to the 2016 study that concluded three days a week was the optimal amount of time to work for brain function after the age of 40. An ideal to aim for perhaps! Now I understand why so many of my older colleagues have gone into contracting or part-time work. It’s so much more satisfying to feel like you are doing your best 60% of the time than delivering a so-so result 100% of the time.
Perhaps you’ve gone through something similar yourself? I’m here if you want to compare notes over a coffee or just need a sympathetic ear.
And now this is the official start of my freelancing life. I’ve updated my website and Linkedin profile, and will be shortly making a few coffee dates with some of my contacts. Hit me up if you need some writing or editing done. In the meantime, I’ll be writing a few pieces off my own bat, for the pure joy of tapping back into my flow.