Here’s a little story about a lot of screw-ups that finally pushed me to design my work around my life, instead of the other way around.
My first screw-up was the most epic and colors every experience I’ve had since. It was at a manufacturing company that I worked at from 2009-2013. My last two years there were spent with a small team on an ERP system overhaul that changed the face of how the 200+ person company functioned operationally. We were given carte blanche to change whatever we felt was appropriate, which, for a business running on 30 year old technology, meant we changed everything. Every single process got torn up and rebuilt. Large pieces of the business got automated. We had to retrain most of the employees on how to do their jobs. Some of those employees had been doing the same thing for 20 years and broke down in tears. It was the biggest initiative the company had ever taken on, and the hardest I had ever worked. I clocked over 40 hours in a single weekend as we were preparing for launch, and still went in at 8am that Monday.
When shit went wrong (and boy, did it), there were only a handful of us who knew the new way of operating well enough to fix it – and I was on the short list.
I was taking a laptop home with me every night and sending emails at 3am because that’s usually when I woke up with stomach-churning anxiety that would prevent me from sleeping. And by stomach-churning anxiety, I mean I was throwing up. Every night. For weeks.
In retrospect, I can’t believe I let that go on longer than a few days. But I couldn’t even slow down enough to think about how crazy it was. It sounds ridiculous, and it is, but I felt important, and that was intoxicating.
I can’t remember the details of the seemingly important work that I did. But years later, I can still remember in crystal clear detail how it impacted my relationships with friends and family. I missed out on a weekend trip to a cabin in the Adirondacks with the people I love most. I passed up a joint birthday wine tour for my friends Kate and Megan. I wasted a steak dinner with my dad by sitting in the restaurant bathroom for close to half an hour because my anxiety/nausea was so overwhelming.
It took me going to see a doctor who, after negative tests for various food intolerances and other gastrointestinal disorders, finally told me I could either go on anti-anxiety medication or find a new job. So, I left – the job and the state. But I still didn’t learn my lesson.
Chicago provided a chance for a fresh start in my career, but I couldn’t drop the path-to-success baggage from my last gig, so I made the same mistakes all over again. I took on a mountain of work. On top of that, I did additional projects pro-bono to get more experience. I eventually layered on teaching – both during the day and at night. A couple days a week, I was in an office from 8am to 10pm.
During this time, I had started a new job in a hot space just as the thing we were selling became a thing that everyone was looking for. It raised my profile even more. I didn’t love what I was doing, but I got caught up in the startup hamster wheel and stuck with it for years. I was “on” all the time. I had my work email and chat apps on every device pushing me notifications at all times. I would stage newsletters in the middle of the night because I had spent all day pinch hitting for a product manager that we desperately needed but didn’t have. I was burnt out, but was convinced that this was the life I had signed up for. This was what success felt like, and I was lucky to be living it.
So I climbed the ladder to a bigger, better-funded startup, and did it all over again. I was so overwhelmed in the first few weeks there, that all through a pre-planned weekend visit from my dad (who lives 600 miles away), I had my phone out to answer the barrage of messages on Slack, and opened my laptop to work after he and my sister went to bed.
It wasn’t long before I felt that all too familiar pit in my stomach again. I wasn’t doing anything except work. I’d come home, eat dinner, skip the gym and sit on the couch with my laptop until midnight. Get up at 6 and start all over again. I couldn’t sleep for more than a couple hours without waking up in a panic over something at work. And it wasn’t just the demands of the job, but a cutthroat culture that always had me fearing someone would take me down if I wasn’t watching behind my back at all times.
No one turned off. Ever. I didn’t even think twice about calling a colleague and interrupting his family vacation, because it was the M.O. I took one Friday afternoon off for a Cubs game and spent the entire time editing a Google doc (on my phone) for another coworker who all of a sudden had a need that couldn’t wait.
There are plenty of people who would proudly call that “hustle.” I call it insane. I told myself I’d never let work stress make me sick again, but here I was.
Luckily, a business shift allowed me to walk away from that job amicably, but I was a shell of myself when I left the office for the final time. It had been so long since I had gotten joy out of my work that I didn’t even remember what I was good at or if I loved it anymore.
I took a couple weeks to decompress, during which I scheduled coffee and lunch dates with people I care about, hoping that someone else would help me figure out who I was.
They showered me with compliments on my reputation, work ethic and success. Dangled other startup opportunities in front of me with loftier titles and bigger teams. Offered me introductions to whatever powerful people I wanted to meet. Each successive conversation pushed me farther from the center.
I even went out to dinner with a bunch of other startup marketers, thinking being around a table of peers would make me want to do it again. I felt like I was watching a conversation about growth hacks, influencers and funding unfold from a distance. The only thing I remember from that dinner was when the host pulled me aside afterward and said something to the likes of, “This industry is all about appearances, and it’s wrong. Just go do what makes you happy. Who cares what everyone else thinks.”
So, I did. Or, rather, I am.
I’m working less hours, but doing more. I only take on projects that I like, and I put more into them. I make sure I hit the gym for 4-5 classes a week. I see the people I love, and can be present. I have the flexibility to donate some of my time to companies like mRelief who are doing great work and deserve more attention. I have actual white space in my day. And I feel creative again.
Sometimes, I look at my friends still on the grind with envy. I wonder if I should go back. Maybe I will someday. Maybe I’ll find that social impact hidden gem and go do that. Maybe I’ll dig back into my journalism roots and apply for a fellowship with City Bureau (which I’m seriously considering). But for now, blazing my own path and making room for the stuff that actually matters feels good, and right.