Un Año

Celebration cupcake with sparkler

Today – October 10th, 2017 – marks exactly one year since my departure from the corporate world.

A lot – too much to detail – has happened since that fateful day, both in terms of progress on my new career path and, more personally, in terms of my own development. (Atop the list of things I’ve learned most about is, of course, myself.)

I figured I should commemorate the occasion with some sort of retrospective, even if a thorough retelling of events is too big a task to take on. For my own re-reading someday, I think it’s worthwhile to check in and note – today – what I feel are the biggest lessons I’ve learned since changing course. What follows is nowhere near exhaustive… It’s simply a look back, from a decidedly different vantage point than I had one year ago today.

Without further ado, a randomly selected handful of thoughts about my first year ex purgatori

1. The significance of the ‘plunge’ isn’t what I initially understood it to be.

In marching defiantly out of the Palace of Powerpoint, I was singularly focused on my pursuit of a more meaningful livelihood, with all the trappings of fulfillment and legacy that I imagined would come with it. As it turns out, that was only part of the story that was unfolding.

I’m not sure I had the wherewithal or even the vocabulary to understand it as such but, from where I sit now, the significance of my leaving the corporate world was that it marked the moment at which I committed to refocusing my life around something it had been lacking to that point: intention.

It’s a lack of intention (over a long period of time) that had led me to shuffling to and from white-collar purgatory, variously suppressing deep or surfacing unease over a recognition that the whole deal didn’t really sit well with me. It’s the application of intention that now – and permanently, I expect – allows me to be certain of and at total peace with the ‘why’ of my professional efforts.

It’s a lack of intention that led me to the symbolic experience of buying a fancy car and immediately finding myself talking about that car in guilty, embarrassed tones. It’s the application of intention that now allows me to evaluate my own consumption with clarity, finding peace in a very deliberate balance between the elegance of ‘enough’ and the indulgence of ‘more’.

Really, it’s a lack of intention that lay at the root of so many of the major/minor frustrations that I would encounter in various parts of my day-to-day experience. Even garden-variety bouts of annoyance or perceived persecution were, I’ve come to understand, manifestations of a basic lack of intention in how I invest my mental energy.

(That last one is vague and broad, but consider this example to make the point: recently, a stranger began parking their car in a spot that belongs to me. A ‘pre-intention’ version of me would have been immediately angry at the transgression – certain that this wayward parker was out to personally offend me. Today’s me wondered instead if they had simply made a mistake or were misinformed as to which spot was theirs. The primary benefit of not immediately assuming ill intent? Not that I end up being more patient with others (desirable in itself), but that my own experience with the situation was so much more pleasant. The world is constantly presenting us with opportunities to practise this sort of applied intention; I’ve learned and continue to discover the wonders of doing so.)

So in the past year, I’ve come to understand that the decision to leave the large corporation and start my own small one – albeit with different motives – was only emblematic of a broader shift. Beginning with the application of my professional efforts, I’ve come to take an active role in evaluating the things that are (truly) important to me – in all facets of life – and governing my actions accordingly.

2. I need to get better at rooting for – instead of against – myself.

This is a really big, really personal one.

I never would have bargained for how much the job of forging your own path really boils down to just managing your state of mind. Why? Because, at least for me, it’s the only one of the basic ingredients to success on this path that’s really intimidating…

Ingredient one: business concept… check. If anything, my belief in the idea that I’m pursuing has only become stronger over the past year. The more that I ponder the forces that shape our world, the more I see poor distribution of economic resources as being the underlying cause of virtually every problem that faces the world today. The more that I ponder the existence of absolutes in human fulfillment, the more I see contribution and other manifestations of egalitarianism as being hardwired in our social makeup. So to be out to build a force for redistribution of economic resources (by way of contribution to a more egalitarian landscape) is – to me – the single most impactful and fulfilling thing to which I can devote my life’s energy. Zero doubt here.

Ingredient two: business model… check. Without turning this into show-&-tell about the services my business offers, suffice it to say that there’s no question in my mind as to whether we can be of value to people, and/or as to whether the model is economically viable. Sure, there will always be opportunities to better execute on the business model (i.e. do a better job in delivering our service and/or growing the business), but that doesn’t worry me. Equipped with a basic desire to learn, I’m not daunted by the prospect of doing the work to improve and have full confidence that I/we will be capable of doing so.

Admittedly, I’m glossing over plenty of details in the above, but the punchline is this: I’ve found the biggest threat to my ability to do what I want to do is my own belief in myself – not in the concept or execution of my venture, but in myself.

I’ve written and rewritten this paragraph a few times, struggling to describe the nature and reasons for the doubt that I’m alluding to. The following observation might be the best I can do: it strikes me that if I were to trade places with someone else, such that this other person were building exactly what I’m currently building – same concept, same model, same intentions – I would be their biggest believer. And yet, there’s something about the fact that I’m the one in the driver’s seat that routinely gives me pause. Not that I lack for confidence in my abilities, but there’s a certain who-do-you-think-you-are self talk that seems to accompany my desire to challenge the status quo…

This tendency toward self criticism is confounding, irrational and ever present (if not of constant intensity). Some days, it makes me want to shrink from the ‘spotlight’ and disappear, even as the voice in my head – as I write this – is telling me that there is in fact no spotlight and that my grand ambition is insignificant. This is the sort of problem I face.

It’s fascinating and maddening to simultaneously hold the conscious belief that I can affect positive change in the world (really, I do believe that) and the subconscious doubt that I can actually pull it off, and yet I can’t seem to make the negative part go away.

I’m working at it, though. The good news is that I recognize the problem and am getting better at navigating it: my own belief in myself is fundamentally a prerequisite, if I’m to have a fighting chance at making this venture into anything special. Without it, I will lack the outward strength of character that’s necessary to disrupt people (clients, supporters, detractors and everyone in between) into taking notice of the movement I’m trying to start – a word that I think fits the bill, but that my inner monologue doesn’t want me to use.

3. Success is neither absolute nor symmetrical.

In the early days of the last year, I wrote in these pages that I figured I had about a year to make a go of this venture. In retrospect, that was a comically misguided approach to things.

The underlying assumption in that approach was, of course, that if I did everything right for a year, that would be enough for me to achieve some binary measure of “success”. Admittedly, my effort in this venture (in volume and substance) is an important variable, but the idea of imposing some sort of arbitrary deadline on the venture misses the fact that there are external factors over which I have less control. To make the point: what if I had set out to build and launch a space shuttle, and had given myself a year to do it? Would the fact of my having set a deadline had any bearing on my ability to achieve the goal? Not likely.

Sure, there’s arguably a binary sort of quality to the goal of having an enterprise be financially stable and/or provide me with a means of paying the bills, but even that’s not so black-&-white. The reality for many businesses is that, for a material length of time, their owners may scrape by in much more constrained fashion than they would otherwise prefer. Only later – after getting over the start-up hump – are many business owners able to pay themselves more comfortably. So what’s the correct standard of financial stability? Warding off bankruptcy? Something more?

I think the answer – which doubles as the more reasonable perspective I ought to have taken on the start-up period of my business – is to think in terms of choosing from among the available options. Two business owners may each aspire to pay themselves $100 per year; the first may shut down shop if he finds himself only able to take home $90, while the second may persist in only making $80 per year – committed to finding other ways to make ends meet while working to grow her business.

My point is: I see now that much of the ‘success’ of my venture comes down to what choices I’m willing to make to keep it going. If I needed a six-figure income today, the easiest (only) way for me to achieve that would be to return to the corporate world. But that six-figure income would come at the expense of all the things I’m currently pursuing: positives for which I’m willing to make all sorts of personal and financial sacrifices.

As I write this, I’m soon to be taking on part-time work as an instructor for a couple of courses at the local university. My business is growing and I’m optimistic that everything is headed in the right direction, but I’ve come to understand that it’s possible to both play your cards right and still find yourself in a position of having to “figure things out” and/or cobble together a living for a period of time.

The other related revelation is that in the world of commerce, entertainment, etc., significant achievement is rarely instantaneous – or even linear. I’ve come to recognize that for every overnight sensation in business, music or other, there are countless other success stories that involve sustained effort over a long period of time. For someone who is otherwise a complete stranger from some other part of the world to come across your/my radar tends to require that they have been working at their craft for years – often spending much of that in complete obscurity. How many singer/songwriters played in coffee shops for years before you ever heard their name?

I find this to be a comforting realization, not because I expect my sustained effort to eventually translate into global notoriety, but because it provides reassurance that even the most sterling of success stories often have humble beginnings.

Whatever lies ahead for me, I need not worry that I’m doing anything wrong at this stage, nor should I expect all the spoils of success to fall in my lap immediately. The only certainty about a path like this one is that in order to get anywhere, I need to stay on it. This one-year mark, then, is much closer to being a start line than any sort of finish…

If you’re listening, one-year-ago Me, take notes.

4. To “do your best” is actually kind of a profound thing.

At the root of it, my big problem with the corporate merry-go-round was with myself: I didn’t feel like I was doing my best to apply my efforts to the things that I value. I struggled with knowing – and finding it impossible to ‘un-know’ – that while I made an extremely comfortable living attending cake days and meetings about meetings, an enormous number of people in the world work harder and experience more hardship than I do. And to have almost no part of my life’s energy devoted to remedying that problem made it feel really disingenuous to just continue plodding along as I was.

Now, while I still live at a much higher standard than most people in the world, I can at least feel assured that I’m doing my best to contribute to a more egalitarian world. The significance of my efforts is decidedly more symbolic than absolute – far be it from me to expect to singlehandedly solve the world’s ills – but it still aligns my actions with the things I value, which is one of the hallmarks of contentedness.

(To flesh out the bit about my work being ‘symbolic’, consider that my nascent financial-services businesses is unlikely to ever make a huge dent on inequality for several reasons. One, sheer scale. Two, part of what we do is connect clients with financial products… products manufactured by, and/or invested in, many of the very same corporate entities to which I’m trying to offer an alternative. I’m more sensitive to this than anyone… Still, my chosen venture remains the best option I have available to me, complete with constraints and limitations that I will work to address throughout its future.)

There’s an adage that says “we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions.” The basic alignment of my actions and values – by intention – constitutes my aiming to do the opposite, and allows me to feel (to reasonable degree) that I’m legitimately doing my best in the world. I’m not wishing in favour of egalitarian ideals while rationalizing my own taste for extravagance. I’m not spending large portions of my week playing the zero-sum game of corporate politics while thinking of myself as not particularly self interested. In so many obvious ways, I didn’t previously live up to the standard I held for myself in my own thoughts and beliefs. To have corrected that is a sort-of profound thing – not for any reason other than that I can now rest easy, for myself.

An unforeseen consequence of this doing-my-best peace/contentment is that I find myself much more easily able to take bad news in stride. Whereas my younger, conflicted self would feel a frustrated powerlessness to right the wrongs of the world (think: every bad-news headline you read every day), I’m now comforted by the fact of doing all that I can in the name of good. From where I sit now, I see frustration as symptomatic of a lack of agency, which I think is itself rooted in a lack of action… In other words, with action comes agency, which assuages frustration. If the literature says something different, then I’m happy to chalk my own experience up to coincidence.

5. No list ends at four points.

It’s gotta be three or five, right? So while I think points one through four cover the biggest the lessons learned over the past year, I’ll take this fifth one as an opportunity to highlight the overall clarity of purpose and direction that I think best characterizes not the past year, but this current moment in time.

I say “direction” because “path” would imply a certainty that would be misplaced on my part – I’ve now learned enough to know that the details of what lies ahead are impossible to predict. But at this stage I do know where I’m headed, generally, and feel very comfortably resolved in the certainty that no matter where my travels take me, they will never require me to compromise my values.

How do I know that? Because adhering to my values – those foundational priorities in life – is a matter of choice. The past year, at its essence, has been about recognizing that choice and forming the habit of consistently exercising it.

Cheers to year two.

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