We’re in tumultuous times. Such unprecedented times. Times of uncertainly. We’ve all heard the ads and the reporters and gotten the emails and seen it on the telly. Frankly, I wish people would find more creative ways to talk about what’s happening in society and the world and also look at the possibilities that come from how we can each build upon ourselves – to take the tumultuousness and see about creating intentional happiness – in the times we’re in.
Last week The New York Times Magazine featured a series of essays on “What We’ve Learned in Quarantine.” One of the essays talked about the process of caterpillars turning into butterflies, highlighting that we typically talk about the “before” of being a caterpillar and the “after” of emerging as a butterfly, but spend little time looking at the messy and crowded process of being cocooned inside the chrysalis itself. Sam Anderson writes:
“It turns out that the inside of a cocoon is – at least by outside-of-a-cocoon standards – pretty bleak. Terrible things happen in there: a campaign of grisly desolation that would put most horror movies to shame. What a caterpillar is doing, in its self-imposed quarantine, is basically digesting itself. It is using enzymes to reduce its body to goo, turning itself into a soup of ex-caterpillar – a nearly formless sludge oozing around a couple of leftover essential organs (tracheal tubes, gut).
Only after this near-total self-annihilation can the new growth begin…. These parts gorge themselves on the protein of the deconstructed caterpillar, growing exponentially, taking form, becoming real. That’s how you get a butterfly: out of the horrid meltdown of a modest caterpillar.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but over the last 10-12 weeks, I’ve found myself in various stages of this caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation. I’ve put opportunities in my path to force thinking, conversation, and growth. One of these is a course on well-being.
Through this course, I was introduced to an awesome tool to determine my Signature Strengths, which are basically the top characteristics of my emotional quotient (or EQ). (If you have the cash to spare, I highly recommend getting the expanded results at the end to learn more about your strengths at all levels.) If you know me even a little, you won’t be surprised to know that Kindness was my number one strength and that Leadership and Love of Learning also made the top five.
I could have easily read the report and put it to the side, but as part of the course I was taking, I was encouraged to stretch my strengths. For the last four weeks, I have been flexing my Signature Strengths, focusing on one each day and finding ways to deepen my understanding of each trait and to use that day’s strength in creative ways.
As I stretch myself in the daily actions of exhibiting kindness, learning more, recommitting to the principles of servant leadership, finding beauty around me, and deepening my social intelligence, I find myself making sense of the growth goo into which I have been submerged and intentionally solidifying into the person I am becoming. The person I want to be.
This is, by no means, and easy process. Growth sucks sometimes. We are brought face-to-face with ingrained aspects of ourselves and the lives we live and have to make decisions on if we are going to continue down the path we are on or if we are going to pivot. In creating intentional happiness for us and the world around us, it is ultimately up to each of us to ask ourselves the questions:
Am I happy?
Am I making others happy?
Are my actions hurting or helping?
Am I a force for good in the world?
What can I change today to make myself a better person and the world a better place?
I left my job a few months ago. I had been sitting on this decision for a while. I liked my work. I was invested in our mission. I enjoyed interfacing with many of my coworkers. What I didn’t love was a continued expectation for excessive overtime, that work was to take precedence over personal and family commitments, that almost complete projects were upended (more than once), and the repetition of “we’re family” was part of the workplace culture. (It’s not healthy, I promise, and having leadership that uses that language puts workers – you and I included – at a disadvantage with our time and financial value because “family” workplaces expect employees to give more (or all) for less.)
I’ve burnt out before.
Burnout is no joke. Dragging out of bed and through the day bleary-eyed. Difficulty concentrating. Taking hours longer to complete a task because I. Just. Can’t. Move. Any. Faster. Having to bribe myself to go to work. All the signs were starting to show. What was most frustrating for me was that I had tried to address my concerns about unmanageable workload early on (starting more than a year before giving my notice). During one exchange when I asked how my boss would like me to prioritize certain types of tasks, I was (unhelpfully) told, “It all just needs to get done.”
All of these individual things aside, I knew months before I finally left that the time was approaching. It took me a while to get all the pieces in place. Was I in a financial place where I could leave? How long could I manage to be unemployed without incredible strain? Was it the right time? Would things get better? Should I give it another chance? How much longer could I go before burnout really got me? I’m sure there’s a point in my life where I would have up and walked off a job. (Actually, I have up and walked off a job.) But this was not that place or time.
I have value outside my job.
We’ve been conditioned (very much so in the United States and also in other parts of the world) that our job – the type of job we hold and rank within it – determines our value as a person. I’ve been to countless networking events and social parties where the first question I get asked is, “What do you do?” I’ve tried to flip this on its head by replying with my hobbies, but the follow-up question is always, “No, what do you do for work?” I realized probably close to a decade ago that this question is very much a matter of people determining each other’s status and worth in society and have made a concerted effort to flip the script on this question by opening my ask with something else. Really, anything. “Do you have any pets?” “What’s your favorite dessert?” “What are your hobbies?” The possibilities are endless.
Know Your Priorities.
In reality, our work is only a part of us and what we do. For me, work ranks third in what I view as important in my life.
1. Family: Myself, my immediate family, my chosen family, those for whom I would literally drop everything no matter what.
2. Community: The people and places with whom/where I collaborate and in which I invest my time, talent, and treasure in order to leave the world a better place than I found it.
3. Career: A job (hopefully one I like a lot) that allows me opportunities to share my abilities and positively impact our mission as a whole. The vehicle that keeps a roof over my head and food on the table and allows me to fully invest in #1 and #2.
It’s taken time to find my own value (yay, life experiences!), but as my own understanding of my value as a person has matured, my patience for people who don’t respect the autonomy of others (be it in learning or communication style, preferred hobbies, style of dress or physical expression, etc.) has gone down. I am a baker. A pianist. An activist. A bookworm. A yogi. A gardener. A cat mom. And so much more.
Even with all the uncertainty that comes with not having another job lined up, I knew it was time when the time came. I was on the precipice of burnout. I wasn’t feeling valued. When I did set my end date, I gave a statistically long amount of notice. I was honest in my reasons to leave in the hopes that systemic change could happen for others. I hope I set my team up for success. I wish no ill on my colleagues and hope that their work towards the mission continues successfully.
Quitting can be scary and that’s no lie. There’s the aspect of not knowing how others will react when you give your notice, what they will say about you (to your face or behind your back), or if you’ll simply become a pariah for the last few weeks you’re there. And it was scary. But it was also an incredible, empowering step in staying true to myself and doing what I needed to do – for me.
The closer I got to my last day, the prouder I was of myself for making this choice. The closer I got to the uncertainty of what was next, the stronger I felt in my decision.
I’ve carefully selected a handful of fields I feel I will really enjoy. I’ve curated a list of important interview questions to make sure I’m valued from the beginning (including questions about work/life synergy, workplace culture, the cohesiveness of mission/vision/values, and more). I have some incredible friends helping me on this journey and while I really don’t know what’s next, I know I can do it.