Reflections on a Career Break


For a while I believed I was exempt. I had already survived several mergers and acquisitions over the years but then it happened. Where and why doesn’t matter here. This is about the process that followed. Some career breaks are planned. This one was not.

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
– Epictetus

First, there’s the shock. For some it’s expected, but as I mentioned, I thought I was immune.  Like falling off a ladder, it hurt. My ego was bruised.

“The fall from low to lower hardly hurts; the fall from middle to low is devastating.”
– Adam Grant, Originals (p.83)

Insecurity set in. Questions about the future felt overwhelming. Looking back, how I decided to respond made the difference. I put my psychology studies into use and self-administered some therapy…

Get Over It

Easier said than done, I know. My first reaction was to immediately get back in the game and lock in the next gig quickly. I decided to be methodical in my approach. To measure my efforts, I kept a log of everything related to the job search and the results of every interaction. Every call with recruiters, every interview, every resume submission…all of it. Months of calculated effort were only leading to wrong turns and dead ends.

Depression eventually caught up with me. Anxiety prevented any restful sleep, no matter how exhausted I felt. I was spiraling downward and couldn’t break the funk. Then I made a concerted effort to slow down and pause.

What you choose to pay attention to can dramatically alter your experience (the whole “perception is reality” thing), so I chose to focus on right now instead of dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. Some days were easier than others, but I kept exercising a skill that had atrophied in recent years – my ability to choose rather than fly on autopilot. It wasn’t long before I crawled out of my hole.

Time heals all wounds. I just didn’t want it to take too long. Sitting around feeling sorry for myself wasn’t doing anybody any good. It was time to move on, ready or not.

Look in the Mirror and Then Out the Window

Looking in the rearview mirror, I took a good chunk of time to reassess how far I’ve come and the road that got me here. Then looking at myself, I was no longer sure that I was happy with what I saw in the mirror. Who had I become? What would I have done differently? How could I correct course? Where am I headed now? Is it time to go in a different direction?

At least, I felt I was asking the right questions.

I had become a workaholic. Developing the discipline to work long and hard hours was a badge of honor for me. Getting up every morning at 4:30am, working 12-14 hour days, and not sleeping until after midnight eventually led to burnout. Promotions and financial rewards fueled that fire for many years but towards the end, I burned up any remaining mojo and was only running on fumes. All the while, I failed to realize―or maybe I was denying that―I was trading off important things for all those work hours…time with my family and time for myself.

Now was my chance to slow down before I ran myself off a cliff. To find balance instead of working all the time. To remember what was really important to me. As I looked ahead, the fog began to clear and I hit a fork in the road.

To the right, was the continuation of the road I had already been traveling. I could get back into life as a corporate executive and continue my climb up the proverbial ladder. It was a toll road, and at what cost, I could only imagine. To the left, looked like it might take me back home but I could see the route might be a bit bumpy.

I reviewed my career to date (see blog post on “Excuse or Motivation: I Don’t Have a Degree“). And Robert Frost spoke to me once again…

…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

If you’ve already read the post about my colorful career path, you know I chose the road less traveled. Once I made that conscious decision, I simply started by making a few promises to myself:

  1. Remain true to who you are
  2. Live in the present and use good judgment
  3. Leave it better than you found it

 

To thine own self be true.

Over the past few years, I got a little lost and lost myself in the process. I became increasingly insecure about who I was and found myself trying too hard to be what others wanted me to be. For example, although I’m an introvert, I pretended to be an extrovert. I thought that was the only way you could be successful as an executive. I do believe it’s possible to “fake it until you become it.” That said, I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t me. I wanted to be myself. Being myself also meant doing things at my own pace. As an executive, I often felt rushed and pressured to deliver results quickly. In most cases I was able to adjust as needed, but lately I saw more and more that quality was being sacrificed for the sake of speed.

After reading Quiet by Susan Cain, I began looking at introversion in a new light. I became comfortable in my own skin again. Another book, In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honoré, helped me slow down and appreciate ‘tempo giusto’ – what musicians use to refer to the “right speed.” (Used in reference to living life with balance…fast when needed and slow when called for.) Moreover, this respect for time translated to better appreciation for the present. The gift of now.

“If you presence doesn’t make an impact, your absence won’t make a difference.”

Ever since childhood, I’ve found it difficult to live in the moment. The exceptions were times when I was absorbed in activities such as blending vinyl music with 2 turntables, choreographing a hip-hop dance routine, or pushing out one more rep in the gym. My usual MO was to dream about the future or worry about the past. I found it hard to enjoy the present because my mind was always elsewhere. If there were only one important change I could make to my approach from here on out, it would be to live in the here and now.

(This usually requires an inside-out approach which begins with yourself. To some, this is misconstrued as selfish behavior. Important to get past that stage. I’ve learned that living in the present is much easier when what you focus on is self-less rather than self-centered.)

Here’s how I see it: The past is past so no sense lingering there. No one knows what the future holds and life is rarely linear. The best way to set yourself up for a good future is to do the best you can with what you’ve got today. You don’t have to be perfect. You just need to use good judgment and make every effort to leave everything better than before you found it. That includes every action and every word spoken (or unspoken). At the end of the day, you’d be surprised how big of a difference you made to the people and world around you. All those thoughtful actions, no matter how small, add up.

Oh, I promised myself one more thing. Never take for granted the blessings you already have.

Be Grateful

There’s really not much more to say about this. I just realized that more is not necessarily better. By appreciating all the good things already in my life, I’m learning to be happy with less. I drive a Prius and I’m cool with that. I live in a modest home, have great neighbors and live comfortably. It’s almost 20 years later and I think my wife still loves me ;). Honey, I’m good. Three beautiful children to kiss goodnight. I am blessed.

I believe that everything happens for a reason. In the moment, it may not make sense, but it often does in retrospect. What felt like an imposition turned out to be a blessing. I was forced to reassess my life to date and what was truly important to me. This was what I needed. I was so obsessed with achievement and accomplishment that I was taking for granted my family and losing myself in the process. The break in my career gave me time to realize that, before it was too late.

“Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast―you also miss the sense of where you are going and why”
– Eddie Cantor

 

-Donn


Recommended Reading:

  • In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed  by Carl Honoré
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  • Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • Choose Yourself by James Altucher

* All available at the public library.


The 3 A’s of Awesome:

 

Pick-Me-Up Music Playlist:


Inspiring Quotes Compiled by Theme:

 


Reposted on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/reflections-career-break-donn-durante
#QuietLeadership #goodslow  #Essentialism

Featured Photo Credit: © Alphaspirit | Dreamstime.com – Career Break Photo