The letter arrived in June of 2018, and the minute I read it, I knew what my decision would be. After 32 years with a Fortune 100 company, I’d been hearing rumors about a buyout, or early retirement. As I read the letter, I was struck by the fact that it now felt more like a polite invitation to leave and the next round of letters, if there was another round, would not be as polite or generous.
It’s funny, the writing was on the wall, but when it came to the official announcement, it felt more sudden and much larger than I’d imagined. I’d been telling myself for years that I was ready to leap, but things looked different on this ledge between the known and the unknown. I thought about what I was leaving behind and what I was leaving it for.
Along with obvious questions around financial implications, timelines, and future plans, I now felt the weight of subjective, personal concerns and motivations.
Do I really want more than a corporate job can offer? Or do I just want out?
Is telling myself I want more a way of justifying me wanting out?
Am I romanticizing the idea of “life after corporate?”
“Someday maybe” had become here and now, and though I knew what my decision would be (leaping), there was much I didn’t know. It wasn’t just about this decision, but all the decisions that would follow. The real decision, the real question was not whether or not I was ready, but whether I was willing to submit to the change without knowing exactly what that change would be.
The “off-boarding agreement” (I didn’t know that was a thing) was at the bottom of the stack of paperwork. At the end of all the detailed instructions and stipulations, was the dotted line. I was beginning to feel the weight of the decision, and part of me panicked, wondering if leaving would be a huge mistake. I’d be 58 years old and off-boarded, and companies aren’t lining up to onboard the off-boarded, from what I could tell. This was compounded by the realization that my services to the organization were apparently no longer vital to its ongoing success.
I was reminded of the story about the little boy, afraid to climb the tall fence, who takes off his cap and tosses it over in order to force himself to climb. I exhaled, signed, dated, and mailed the packet to corporate, then inhaled a new set of concerns, problems, and opportunities. The cap was tossed.
Over the next six months, I launched into a flurry of busy-ness: workshops, a writing community, courses, sprints, masterminds, projects. I developed products, did podcast interviews, designed a workshop, met with trusted advisors, mentors, and friends. Read incessantly. All within the purview of “What’s next?” At the end of six months I was better informed, armed with new knowledge and a possibility mindset, and hopeful. I’d inhaled the learning opportunities, but I was “waiting to exhale.” It was at this pivotal point that I received some sage advice from an acquaintance:
“Too many choices and too little structure is not freedom. You can’t have freedom without a plan and some structure.” In other words, it was time to change “What’s next?” from a question to be considered to a statement of intent and begin the process of iterating instead of speculating.
Here’s What’s Always Next
It’s been a year since the off-boarding, and “what’s next?” has become clearer. In general, what’s next is always the same — problems and possibilities. I can make my plans and clarify my intent, but there will always be setbacks.
Trouble guards the treasure, and sometimes it’s more like a siege than a search.
There’s a process of coming to terms with the fact that it’s going to take longer than expected. Along with the experiments and missteps, there’s the matter of settling in to the process. I’ve come to the realization that I’m tired of wanting to be somewhere, elsewhere, and I’m not going to live like a child in the back seat on a long road trip who keeps asking, “Are we there yet?”
There’s also the fact that work is work. For example, one of my goals was to write professionally, and I’ve learned that, writing words people want to read can be soul-crushingly difficult, and the only cure I’ve found is to keep writing and learning. If I’m going to make some kind of dent in the universe with my remaining time, it’s going to take lots of work.
The siege is ongoing, but here are some things I’m grateful that I did prior to leaving the corporate job. I can’t say they were all deliberate actions I took with the foresight that they’d be helpful, but they are certainly worth doing intentionally if you plan to make your own leap. This is my way of repurposing my experience.
Build a network inside and outside of work.
People have been my ultimate resource for working through what’s next. My network of trusted friends and mentors was and is invaluable. Whether you plan to stay or leave, start building relationships now. It doesn’t happen by accident. I know of too many people my age whose only significant relationships are work related. Aside from the benefit of the relationships themselves and the support and encouragement they can provide, I needed the wider perspective of those outside my work. So do you.
Today you can begin paying attention to the people you encounter and look for opportunities to connect. The strategy is to be interested, not interesting. To become an expert question asker. One who asks questions that people naturally want to answer. It’s an art.
Develop the skill of determining what motivates and inspires others and find a way to tap into that. I’ve been continually surprised by the serendipitous benefits of starting conversations with strangers and having them become friends.
I found a mentor I could confide in about personal and professional life. He’s someone older and wiser with a similar life philosophy. I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s helped me think through a problem or decision.
I thought of where I had struggled 15 or 20 years earlier in my career and sought others that age, who might be struggling with the same issues. I then asked them if it would be helpful for them to hear how it played out for me.
I thought about the challenges I was facing and where I hoped to be in 15 or 20 years, then looked for others who”d accomplished such milestones. I told them I was interested in their story, then politely ask them to share. Mentoring and being mentored has been an incredibly powerful knowledge transfer.
Over time I developed a handful of trusted friendships with people who know me and my strengths and weaknesses. We make time for each other to talk about life, and family and money. These folks are my sounding boards. They are willing to hold up a mirror to my assertions and activities. Those friends have been a rock solid support in my transition away from corporate life.
Raise your hand!
I began to volunteer to do new unfamiliar stuff. Stuff that made me nervous. Stuff I wasn’t sure I was capable of, stuff I didn’t know how to do. You don’t have to look far in an organization to find something that can be done better. Find it and find a way to make it better. Find others who are smarter about it. Learn how to enroll others in a cause. When you see gaps in your knowledge, think who, not what or how.
I volunteered to contribute to the company blog, developed an idea and a prototype for an app, joined ad hoc project teams to improve culture and processes.
Why do this? It will be harder for you to take on this additional work and it may even mean could you don’t perform as well in your daily priorities and responsibilities. But it’s worth it. You will gain skills that will be invaluable to you whether you stay or go. It’s also more exciting.
In general, focus on the trouble. Yours. Theirs. The Organization’s. What’s harder or more tedious than it has to be? What’s out of whack? What kind of change would make things a little more pleasant for others in the organization? This kind of work — people who do this kind of work — is immensely valuable, and will serve you well when it’s time for you to off-board.
Whether you’re staying or leaving, you can start working on those things now.
There is life after corporate!
You’re probably going to survive this. I’m pushing six decades on the planet, and have never been homeless, fasted involuntarily, or had people betray me in disastrous ways. It could still happen, but worrying is ineffective. Head off whatever disasters you can, but why bother inventing scary scenarios?
Fear thrives on knowing very little about the thing you’re afraid of. The opposite of fear is not just courage, but a willingness to go even though you don’t know what will happen. To operate without a predictable level of control. And don’t tell me people don’t change. They have no choice but to change. The choice is whether or not to grab the wheel, or just gaze at the passing scenery.
What do we really know? Whether we think in bets, or storyboard the perfect future tale, it’s beyond us changelings to predict or have complete control over the change switch.
We wander, dream, hit bottom, and rise up. The world is in flux and so are we. Get used to it, and get used to leaping!