Sure, there’s the kudos of your employer’s brand name, and your status conferring job title. But more than that there’s the loss of the whole story of who you are, the role you play and the script you enact with others.
Turn up at dinner with city sorts and introduce yourself as an Associate Lawyer for a Magic Circle firm, or a Product Manager for a Dow Jones company, and people think you’re someone. You’re character fits their map of what’s important in the world.
Go off in pursuit of your new age retreat centre, your virtual cup cake business, or your social media enterprise. Or just explain that you were made redundant in the last round of cuts, and see how people react then.
Will they get it? Will they understand what’s driving you? Will they see your value?
And do you care?
It’s a tough one, because we understand ourselves so much by the way we see ourselves reflected – or not – in other people.
But dealing with disapproval, or just downright indifference, is a vital rite of passage if we are to healthily leave the corporate theater.
My own story talks to this.
Until eleven years ago, I had big jobs for big firms. I wore the status I believed they conferred like badges of office. I drew strength and confidence from them.
I could say, I’m Christine Livingston, Human Resources Director, American Express, and people would be impressed.
I could turn up in a sharp suit and present tough messages to a Board of Directors as a Managing Consultant with Gemini Consulting and know I’d be listened to.
Leaving those personas behind to become a freelance HR/OD consultant, as I then did, and who was I? How would I distinguish myself from the thousands of others saying they did the same thing?
And was I crazy to imagine it was possible?
What made these questions even more difficult to wrestle with was other people’s reactions.
When I resigned from Gemini, my boss took me to lunch and told me I couldn’t leave.
“You’re star quality,” he said. “You’re going to go to the top of this firm. Hang in.”
When I stood my ground, he then began to question my mental health, and offered me a paid sabbatical while I sorted myself out.
Then there was the headhunter. A moment of doubt saw me, while still under notice, interview for a top Training and Development job. It was huge. I’d conned myself into imagining I might be able to have the kind of work life balance I wanted and pursue my professional interests through it. But starting to hear about the international travel requirements brought me back to reality. When I told the headhunter that I was withdrawing from the selection process and why, he was dumbfounded.
“You’re quitting a stellar corporate HR career to freelance? But why? You have no commitments; no family. Are you crazy?”
Then there was a former colleague. It wasn’t an obvious put down, but the offer of contract work, doing much more junior stuff than I was capable, delivered an ever so subtle insult.
All these things and more made me doubt myself profoundly. Maybe I was ill, crazy, less capable than I’d dared to imagine?
This was all so unexpected, confusing and immobilizing.
The breakthrough came when I began to understand that these people were voicing my own worst fears. Sure, they were expressing their opinion. But by voicing what a little part of me was secretly believing, their words cut deeply.
The moment I dared to confront my own concerns was the moment I could answer them. I owned that indeed I’d never been more clear about anything in my life; that if forgoing top jobs in order to create the space for life and relationships meant I was crazy, then crazy was good; that I was able and talented, corporation or not, and was going to own my level of ability without need of a job grading system.