Writing Your Own Story Beyond The Corporation

09112008180Quit your corporate job for whatever reason and it’s not just the security of the pay check you lose.

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.

My story still unfolds, but I’ll never regret choosing to write a new script. What’s holding you back from rewriting yours?
Creative Commons License photo credit: roland

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Comments

  1. Gee Backhouse says:

    Hi Christine,
    This post made me smile so many times! As you know, I’ve already chosen my direction and continue to write my new script but I couldn’t resist commenting. The part where you said that your boss questioned your mental health makes him sound so narrow minded and typical – doing something different and adventurous doesn’t mean you’re bonkers! It’s made me happy and healthy.
    Here’s to living adventurously!
    Thanks,
    Gee
    .-= Gee Backhouse´s last blog ..Front Page =-.

    • Christine says:

      Thanks, Gee

      Isn’t it wild! He was completely convinced I’d lost it. I’d certainly lost something – my tolerance to put up with that sort of stuff!

      I’ve never looked back. I so enjoy writing my own story as opposed to being in someone else’s drama.

      Here’s to living adventurously indeed! :)

  2. CV Harquail says:

    Christine, this post really spoke to me. I think you put your finger on an important insight– that other people’s questioning of ‘who we are’ once outside of the approved convention echos the same questions we ask ourselves. This has been especially ironic for me, since I made my academc reputation studying how people define themselves through their memberships in organizations.
    Developing, articulating and inhabiting an honest self-inspiring answer to the inevitable “what do you do/ where do you work” marks a new level of freedom– and it’s a challenge to reach. Which is why reading you posts can be so helpful !! cv
    .-= CV Harquail´s last blog ..Facebook for Women vs Facebook Designed by Feminists- Different vs Revolutionary =-.

    • Christine says:

      I think we do define ourselves in relation to others, CV. Which is all well and good so long as we’re all happy with whatever drama were part of. But when we begin to see ourselves differently to those “others” it can be tough to untangle and separate out. What’s mine, what’s theirs, what’s ours? These are the questions of what Jung would call the Individuation process; the process of becoming uniquely ourselves and doing what we’re uniquely meant to be doing.

      Thanks for the endorsement!

  3. El Edwards says:

    This made me smile too Christine. People really like being able to put you in a box don’t they? A couple of days ago, one of the mums at school caught me off guard when she asked me if I’d be going back to work when my youngest started full time school next April. I mumbled something inaudible. It was only later that I thought ‘go back to work? I’ve been working for the last 6 years!’

    Then this morning I gave blood. The lady engaged in small talk about work. On my form it says I’m a supply teacher. I had to explain that I don’t really do that anymore. And that’s when the questions started. In the end I opted to tell her I was a writer. So much easier to put in a box than ‘muse’ or ‘entrepreneur’!!
    .-= El Edwards´s last blog ..How to get stuff done for superheros that’s you and me! =-.

    • Christine says:

      I must admit I was thinking of you when writing this post, El. How do you put a “muse” in a box? I can only imagine the other mothers’ faces if you dared to say that!! And yet, without wanting to put you in a box, that is indeed such a large part of who you are and what you do. Thank God for your large dose of self-belief and the community you have online who completely know that’s the case :)

  4. Very cool story Christine.

    I got a similar “are you mental? You could go all the way” speech when I left my last job and went to join the education company I’m with now.

    People couldn’t understand why I would leave security and stability for the chance of something bigger and better. But you know what I knew in my gut I was right. I bet it was the same for you?
    .-= Ben´s last blog ..The best way to achieve your goals =-.

    • Christine says:

      Seriously, Ben? Uugh! As Gee suggested above, what lack of imagination.

      It’s fascinating what you say about knowing in your gut you were doing the right thing. My experience was similar and indeed when I coach people around this place I get them to focus on it too. In a scenario where lots of things we once knew become “unknown”, our instinct knows. That’s what helps us keep the faith on ourselves and find the way through these major transitions.

  5. Julie Walraven | Resume Services says:

    Christine, Again, I can so get this post and relate to it personally. I have been on my own for 27 years but I subcontracted to non-profits as you know until last December. Throughout 27 years, I got the “when are you going to get a REAL job?” Because for many people, going on your own, forging your own path, isn’t a “real” job. Then when I started dropping contracts and changing my focus, I got more of the “are you crazy?” questions. I am positive that many people thought I had gone totally bonkers when I dropped the last $1000 per month contract last December in the worst economy in 80 years.

    But though there have been ups and downs, I too can say, this has been a great year. And the foundation I have laid this year will be only better as the economy improves.

    You go! :-) You’re not crazy! Keeping writing the new script.
    .-= Julie Walraven | Resume Services´s last blog ..Achoo! Allergic to mail! =-.

    • Christine says:

      What an awesome comment, Julie. Nearly a post by itself!

      Other people do often think we’re crazy when we stop adapting so well to society’s expectations of us and follow our own path. I think it’s tough sometimes to look at mass insanity and allow ourselves to be the sane ones rather than the other way around. Still, believing in the wisdom of our own choices is vital.

      Thanks, my friend :)

      • Julie Walraven | Resume Services says:

        Your posts always put me in a reflective mood, Christine! It’s hard for people who think there is only one way – working for someone else, which is fine if that is what works for you.
        .-= Julie Walraven | Resume Services´s last blog ..Achoo! Allergic to mail! =-.

  6. Archan Mehta says:

    Chrissy:

    Thank you for sharing your work. I feel blessed to be able to read your work.

    You are like the light shining bright at the end of the deep, dark tunnel.

    It is gloomy inside, yes, but we feel optimistic because you are our ray of sunshine.

    I think you add value when you share with us the trials and tribulations from your own life.

    Your personal and professional accounts touch the heart and lend credence to your concepts.

    This helps the reader to have empathy for your words and ideas.

    I am glad I stumbled across your blog a while ago. I just want to encourage you to keep up the great work you are doing here. Buck up.

    No matter what the odds, people like you are sure to succeed and even find happiness.

    Cheers to you and have a nice day. Kind regards.

    • Christine says:

      Hi Archan

      I appreciate the feedback. I’ve been experimenting with more personal stuff recently, so I’m happy that you feel it adds value and helps create empathy.

      Thanks so much, as ever, for your support and encouragement. I hope life is treating you well these days?

  7. Hi Christine
    A great thought provoking post as always but what worries me as someone who is currently talking alot about writing my own story is how important those badges and boxes are as validation of you as a freelancer. If I can’t put that I’ve been a top notch coach for XYZ supercompany what validity will I have in the big wide world of self employed super coaches. Will my self belief and tenacity really see me through. Perhaps just the fact that I’m writing this wobbly response is all the answer I need or maybe I should just stop wobbling and start doing eh?
    Thanks
    Sara

    • What a great and honest comment, Sara! It has really made me think.

      You know, I see no harm at all about using your experience as a mark of differentiation. There are hundreds of coaches out there (out here?!) and we need to distinguish ourselves. If you can use brand names as a kind of shorthand for people to understand where you’ve come from, why not. Those who can, do. And, rightly or wrongly, especially in some circles, that stuff counts. So, there’s no point in hiding it or playing small. And you need to understand and play the business-getting game.

      The challenge for me, however, is in not letting that define us, or using it too much as a crutch. To be able to dig into ourselves and find leadership and personal power that doesn’t rely on having these badges. That, in my experience, is where the strength and true uniqueness comes from.

      Will your self belief and tenacity really see you through? I think it’d be unusual if they didn’t wobble from time to time – mine certainly do!! – but I can also tell you that, in those moments when you experience yourself being wholly in your own story, you feel amazing and amazing things happen.

      Fab conversation!

  8. Thanks for taking the time to reply Christine. My worry is that I don’t have the badges and so your words offer me comfort and reassurance that I can do this. I think part of the problem comes from not wanting to wait to be ‘wholly in my own story’ so maybe if I can knock that one on the head I’ll get somewhere eh?
    Thanks again for your time
    Sara

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