This time last year, if someone had told me that I would finish a novel, build a website and start a blog in 2011, I would have said they were out of their mind. But it’s true. It has been a wickedly transformative year. Last December, I left my corporate job voluntarily after twenty-five years despite the appalling job market and financial crisis this country is currently experiencing. This was the most counter-intuitive move I could have made, but it felt like jumping out of a burning building. I had no choice but to go. I would have died if I stayed. Yeah, sure, my body would have still been there, functioning and making money, but my soul would have shriveled up and died.
I’ve always wanted to be a novelist, but somehow along the path, real life got in the way, and the critical voice inside my head told me that I would never get published or if I did, I would not be able to make my living as a writer. Despite that belief, I wrote a few novels over the years and tried to get them published, but all my efforts met with rejection slips from publishers or agents, often with encouraging handwritten notes saying my work was good, just not the right fit for them. The road to publication seemed impenetrable. So I gave up on my dream and pursued a corporate career where my work got noticed, and I rose higher than I ever wanted and made more money than I ever dreamed. I was considered an excellent performer, but the promotions and money gave me no joy, though they did provide me with the ability to live in a wonderful house and drive a nice car and take great vacations. I still struggled with my desire to write, rejecting it because it didn’t quite fit in with my corporate life, and after giving up on my dream, I just wanted to be normal and fit in. But the urge to write never went away, no matter how many times I told myself that writing was a wasted effort that would take me nowhere.
As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I began to feel like time was running out, but when Barack Obama was elected as president, I felt a renewed sense of inspiration. Whether you agree with his presidency or not, it’s hard to deny that getting elected as the first black president of the United States is a huge achievement. I thought if he could do it, maybe I could achieve my dream too. So I began writing again on a story whose characters have lived in my head since I was twelve years old. That’s a very long time for anything to stick around, so I figured it must be significant for me to write this particular story, even if it never got published or read by anyone other than me. I just had to get it out of my head. I spent almost two years writing the novel during my evenings and weekends, eking out the time and energy for it after long grueling weeks of corporate work that satisfied only my bank account. I did it because it was my dream, and I was not going to give up on myself now that I had found my voice again.
As I became more comfortable with myself as a writer, I started to feel more and more ill at ease in my corporate job. I was now in a role whose sole purpose seemed to be building organizational models that would allow the business to run more “efficiently” while laying off more workers. This task made me extremely anxious, and I began to feel like a fraud, living in constant fear of making a mistake that could impact some innocent employee’s life. Every day I woke up and dreaded going to work, fearing every moment, feeling like an imposter and suffering terrible anxiety. But that critical voice inside my head warned me that jobs were scarce and I had to hang on because that’s what smart sensible people did. I was handling the work of three people without any back up support, and when I took a brief vacation in October 2010 to visit my parents on the East coast, my boss called my cell phone five minutes after I walked into their house, asking if I could cut short my vacation because “something had come up” and they needed me back at work. Though she quickly agreed that I could continue with my visit after realizing I had actually flown across the country to see my parents, it was the straw the broke the camel’s back. Memories flashed through my mind of my dad getting phone calls from his corporate job in the middle of the night and while we were on vacation. I walked into the living room where my dad was sitting and said to him, “I have become you.”
That was an epiphany for me; realizing that I had modeled my life after my dad’s successful corporate career. He had been the provider, and I had always felt safe under his protection. Somehow I translated this into choosing a career that I thought was “safe” for me, not that crazy writing pipe dream I had, but a real job that gave me the imagined security of a steady income and a comfortable bank account. Now all around me, people were losing their so-called secure jobs, and it seemed I had sold myself out for the illusion of security, when there are no guarantees in any job. My corporate job was slowly sucking the life out of me, and it was only when I was surrounded by the love and assurance of my family and friends that I was finally able to let go and save myself. My dad gave me the greatest gift ever in that moment. He told me to stop working there if I felt like it was killing me, because it definitely would kill me eventually, by making me sick or unhealthy or crazy, and he had given up too many years of his own life to a job that made him unhappy. He knew the way I felt and he told me to get out while I could.
My first day back to work the next week, I was told our organization how to “go down” another forty heads, and I volunteered to put myself on the list for a severance package. It was the best decision I ever made. December 10th, 2010 was my last day at Corporate America, and the start of a new beginning. Yes, I really did jump out of a perfectly good plane at thirty thousand feet, with a severance package parachute, and in future posts, I’ll tell you what happened when I landed.