In this post I will talk about the fears that prevent us from chasing our dreams, and the path I took to win a bronze medal in the Cycllng Road Race at the World Masters Games in Torino, Italy.
In my last blogpost I talked about how status anxiety drives far too many of us to over-commit financially, thereby locking us into jobs that we hate. We then feel trapped and unable to pursue a different and more fulfilling lifework path, especially if that new path involves financial unknowns.
As a non-linear career progression, anyone who pursues the path of lifework needs to acknowledge that certain givens are no longer valid. Most of us expect that our income will increase year by year throughout our career, and that our reputation, professional status and social standing will steadily grow. Indeed, if this is not the case then most people feel insecurity and fear.
Embarking on a non-linear career adventure often requires an investment in time and money as one builds new skills, explores new contacts and networks, and creates the platform for lifework. In turn, this sometimes require a ‘downgrading’ of one’s lifestyle and expenses, and even some changes to the social circles in which we move if those interactions involve expenses we can no longer afford.
The further away from one’s core expertise that lifeworking entails, the greater the re-adjustment of living expenses that is needed. For some people this can be a difficult realisation – for others it can be terrifying.
It is not only financial insecurity that prevents us from pursuing a wider definition of success, and a happier and more purposeful life. The people around us can also have a powerful and negative effect upon our choices in life – even those who love us the most.
Besides financial worries, the next most significant set of fears that I faced when my wife Anne-Mie and I decided to embark upon our lifework project related to my social and professional environment. I lost many hours of sleep thinking about the likely reactions of bosses, peers and colleagues and it took a lot of courage to tell these people about my decision to change my life.
I had been mentored throughout my career by colleagues who had chosen to follow linear career paths. They had worked hard to pass the gruelling and competitive process of promotion from Assistant to Associate to Full Professor, and in some cases to departmental or even institutional leadership.
The reaction from some of these people was shock and disbelief at my decision to step of the track, and in one case my decision was met by anger. I was told that I was “throwing away my talent” – that I was going from being a somebody to being a nobody. I was also criticised for “betraying the investment” that the institution had made in me, and exposed to hurtful gossip.
To an extent I felt that the investment story was true – the institution had paid for my doctoral studies, and provided me an incredible developmental opportunity – and I experienced a real sense of guilt. I had been promoted and rewarded handsomely, but the reality was that these promotions and rewards involved me spending a lot of my time doing things that I really did not enjoy. I found academic research for peer-reviewed publication to be tedious, and the organizational politics, committee meetings, recruitment interviews, budgeting and grading sucked the life out of me.
What I really loved was interacting with real people – the managers with whom I shared the classroom as part of my teaching on executive education programs. But as is the case with most Business Schools, mid-career faculty were discouraged from taking on too much teaching as the real focus should be on research and publication.
So I found myself in the situation that 80% of my energy was going into tasks that I hated – and I thought to myself that life is too short to continue doing that. But of course, and what I have realised since, many people in organizations spend an awful lot of their lives being promoted into jobs just like the one I had – the job with the big title and big salary that involves you letting go of what it is that you really love to do.
But of course, many of the people with whom I worked could not and would not understand my selfishness in wanting to do stuff that made me happy. I was even called to a meeting with senior management after resigning my position and offered a significant increase in salary to get back on to the organizational track. I politely declined – they just didn’t get it.
What I appreciated was the wisdom of several of the senior people with whom I worked to respect my decision, and to offer me an on going relationship with the institution as a free agent. I feel a very strong loyalty to those people, and especially a guy by the name of Olaf. I do everything that I can to support him and his team, and I really hope to continue our collaboration until I am old and grey.
In the end I realised (and as I have discovered through conversations with countless other professionals who are pursuing a lifework agenda), one needs to accept that not everyone in a given professional circle will understand the decision of a non-linear career path choice. The people who matter the most are your partner, your family and your friends. They are the ones who will live with the consequences of lifeworking, and they need to have their own fears addressed.
One important piece of advice is not to expect full understanding from parents, especially parents from the post-war generation that only ever experienced the industrial-age work model. You can only communicate to Mum and Dad that you will not become bankrupt and homeless – this is what I did for my parents-in-law in Belgium, and although they were not exactly delighted by our lifework choice they understood that their grandchildren would not go hungry.
This area of parental or wider family pressure also overlaps with the status obsession that I discussed in my previous post – many parents feel ashamed if they think that their children will not be able to move in the social circles that are their ‘birth right’ and to which they themselves have often worked very hard to ascend.
My Mum in Australia was wonderful when I told her that I was leaving my job to go independent. She provided nothing but encouragement, and has been one of my proudest supporters over the past few years. She has attended some of my talks, and carries my book around in her handbag to show to complete strangers at every opportunity. The reaction of my siblings was also great, with my big brother Rob declaring: “We always wondered when you were going to get a real job.”
Of course, your life partner is the one who matters most in this story. As I have described in my previous posts, my wife Anne-Mie and I jointly developed our lifework picture. I am the first to admit that it has not all been plain sailing in achieving our dreams, but we have never lost sight of the overall purpose that we set-out for ourselves back in 2009. We have tried to support each other, especially when we have faced setbacks.
On my path to compete in the World Masters Games in Torino I had several race crashes, two of which sent me to hospital. In the past five years I have shattered my collarbone, broken 10 of my ribs, cracked my pelvis, punctured a lung, dislocated a shoulder and lost a lot of skin as a comeback cyclist. All of that stuff hurt.
But never once has Anne-Mie suggested that I should give-up, and when I stepped on to the podium to collect my bronze medal in Italy it was not me who had won. We had won. Because the medal was just one part of the story – almost everything that we had dreamed together when starting our worklife project four years earlier had come to fruition. In many ways Torino was not about a cycling road race – it was about who we had become as a couple and as a family in getting there.
In my previous post “Confessions of a Fiat Driver” I described the story of Luiz, his unhappiness and his desire to take a different path. He had told me about how he and his wife’s dreams for the future had started to painfully diverge.
I sometimes find myself thinking about what Luiz is doing now. If you read this mate, please drop me a line.