His surfboard danced with the waves and as I watched him I started remembering how blissfully simple life can be out here in New Zealand – especially when you’re in rural pockets like Raglan, a surf town about an hour’s drive from Auckland.
Here, there’s sunshine and ocean and you. There’s no boss who needs this on their desk by 5PM. There’s no commute. There’s no stress.
While I was there last week, I thought about all the burned-out corporate professionals who had confided in me over the years in London; how the dance in big cities often involves schmoozing, boozing, and winning.
Through working with Escape the City, I’ve had a front-row seat to what can happen when you get tired of the dance of the rat race – when you’re going through the motions without being sure that you’re heading somewhere that you’ll actually want to be.
Being from a place like New Zealand, where work-life balance is embedded into the culture, I always noticed with fascination that workaholism is somewhat glorified among young professionals in cities like London.
The scary truth is that this collective workaholism was one of the things that drew me to London – it’s still one of the things that I most love about the place – the opportunity to stretch your limits on intense projects, where the output expectation is so high and intense that sometimes you have to spend the weekends at the office, or wake up at 5am, or stay past midnight, just to keep up with what is expected of you.
My role at Escape the City has always been pretty balanced so it’s been awhile since I’ve felt that pressure. But like any junkie, I remember the glorious adrenalin that comes with the high.
Whenever I’ve been on a project that requires me to work overtime, I’ve felt more important. Walking through fancy offices and shaking hands with fancy people can make you feel fancy by association. I’m still a sucker for that rush of working against the clock, but I’ve learned to tame it over the past few years, as I’ve seen how too much fanciness can be blinding.
Suddenly, because your mind has been glued to your inbox, it’s been a month since you’ve had quality time with your significant other or you’ve put on five kilos or you’ve been having the same argument with people around you. Your work self is in focus but everything else blurs and you stop being able to see what (and who) actually matters.
As a result of having been that work junkie myself, there’s a type that I can quickly spot, whose evenings Alain de Botton describes in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.
“The challenge lies in knowing how to bring this sort of day to a close. His mind has been wound to a pitch of concentration by the interactions of the office. Now there are only silence and the flashing of the unset clock on the microwave. He feels as if he had been playing a computer game which remorselessly tested his reflexes, only to have its plug suddenly pulled from the wall. He is impatient and restless, but simultaneously exhausted and fragile. He is in no state to engage with anything significant.”
When Escape members tell me that they feel busy but not important, present but not there – I totally get it. When they tell me that the way they’re operating is not healthy or sustainable – I know what they mean.
Deep down, we all have a radar for when we’re not being true to ourselves. We all have a compass that tells us when we’re heading in the wrong direction. A lot of the time, it’s just easier to ignore that compass.
Many Escape members reach a point when they become sick of the person that their ambition has turned them into. The advice I give is usually regurgitated from various psychology resources.
Maybe, I realized last week, I should have been suggesting that more members head across the world to Raglan, where the sweet, easy rhythm makes you feel like you’re stoned on life 24/7.
Then I recall my own attempts to run away to the beach over the past decade and how it consistently hasn’t worked out and how it has taught me that running away is never an effective long-term solution.
When you feel like you might be going down the wrong road, a common instinct is to U-turn – for example, there have been countless members who chuck in their high-flying jobs really thinking about what comes next.
What typically happens once the pressure has been lifted – once the job has been quit – there is a vast emptiness. Suddenly, they don’t have to be anywhere. Their schedules are empty. That can be terrifying.
So, more often than not, they travel. They go absorb beautiful parts of our planet and they feel their spirits lift and they connect with whatever they felt disconnected from before – that sense of wonder and beauty, that reminder of a universe beyond their former daily routine.
Once the high of the travel ends, there’s a comedown, because now they have to deal with all the things that they never had to previously deal with. Before, they were too busy working. Then they were too busy traveling. Now… there’s nothing to distract them from themselves.
This is the point at which I often recommend members speak to a coach, therapist, or some other trained professional who is skilled at helping to reflect back what might really be going on. Sometimes group sessions like the one we ran in New York with Priya Parker can be much more welcoming than individual sessions.
The thing about seeing a professional is that they can help you to recognize that you’re not alone in whatever you’re going through. They see your story a hundred times a month. You are not the first, nor will you be the last, confused ambitious person at a crossroads.
Like any industry, there are charlatans and frauds, but there are also excellent practitioners. The excellent ones (like Charly Cox) can help you cross the chasm from feeling unstructured and shapeless into feeling strong and purposeful again, when that purpose suddenly has to come from within you instead of from an external influence like a boss or organization.
While a holiday or sabbatical can be a powerful catalyst in kick-starting the career change process, the long-term solution is not about relying on rest, relaxation, and getting back in tune with nature.
When I was watching the surfers last week, I thought – sure, we could all move to Raglan and be full-time beach bums. But what would we be chasing? What would we be improving or creating? The ideal, I suspect, is not to pursue endless pleasure but is to experience this:
So many Escape members seem to be heading towards this ideal. Yet it is an ideal – by definition, something that can never be reached. Obviously, some people do get paid well to do what they love, but it seems like the journey is inevitably going to be a zigzag.
We live in a much more complex, global world than our parents (and their parents) did – in this day and age, our careers are ours to construct. We can’t just escape from the challenges of this construction. Effective long-term solutions involve reorienting ourselves by re-educating ourselves.
This can be done through creating a network of like-minded peers like Matt suggests doing via a book club; or re-training or attending courses and events that teach us everything we didn’t learn in school.
It can also involve creating space in our lives to experiment, so that we can find out what makes us feel what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’ – a state of complete absorption with the activity at hand. Members often think they need to ‘find their passion’ in order to be happy but often what they’re actually looking for is flow.
Turning flow into a well-paid career is rarely an easy process. Sometimes that journey has to involve doing the wrong thing first so that we know how to spot the right thing later, as author and careers thinker Daniel Pink says:
“One source of frustration in the workplace is the frequent mismatch between what people must do and what people can do. When what they must do exceeds their capabilities, the result is anxiety. When what they must do falls short of their capabilities, the result is boredom. But when the match is just right, the results can be glorious. This is the essence of flow.”
In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink talks about the three things we need in order to find that match that’s ‘just right’.
Firstly, we need autonomy, or the desire to have control over ourselves and our days.
Many Escape members seem convinced that if they just had more pleasure in their life, they’d be happy. They think that they’ve chosen the wrong job, and that’s what’s making them unhappy. However, they have often chosen a perfectly suitable sector and role. What they’re actually hungry for is more control over their time.
Joanna Tall is a solicitor with over 20 years’ experience. Once she had kids, she found it frustrating having to justify wanting to spend time with them. But as it turns out, she didn’t need to stop being a lawyer – instead, she crafted a path with more autonomy. (You can read her full story here.)
Secondly, we need mastery, or to keep getting better at something that’s meaningful to us.
Mastery is the eternal challenge; the ongoing competition with ourselves. Maybe it starts with flow – when you enjoy what you’re doing, you have the patience required to develop competence. Competence breeds confidence: knowing that you’re good at something makes you want to do it more.
The thing is, many members are either competent at skills that don’t give them ‘flow’ or aren’t willing to start at the bottom again in order to retrain and find that ‘flow’ in other areas. So to achieve mastery, they either need to make peace with having the skills they already have, or become willing to endure beginner’s pain again.
Thirdly, Pink talks about purpose: the sense that what we do helps to serve something important beyond than ourselves.
The questions of mastery and purpose were running through my mind as I watched the surfers in Raglan.
Few things make me feel better than ocean swims. But I know that if I swam in the ocean all day long, the very thing that once relaxed me would soon become a prison in itself. I need ways to escape from frustration, but I need a challenge to escape from and to throw myself back into, to feel satisfied with life in general.
Purpose is a big question. Umair Haque writes great pieces for the Harvard Business Review and there are countless books around the topic; a great place to start is Escape the City’s own book (in my biased opinion). Maybe finding purpose is a lifelong journey as opposed to a destination.
Being in Raglan reminded me that while running away off the grid can give renewed energy to begin career construction, escapism will never be a construction in itself.
Instead, effective long-term solutions often involve:
- Learning to be really honest with yourself about what actually matters to you;
- Educating yourself on the new career territory you’re trying to explore, whether it’s through books, events, or courses;
- Reaching out for opportunities to reflect on your blind spots, whether it’s with a coach, psychologist, or someone else;
- Building supportive peer networks that help ease the transition;
- Cultivating new habits by mapping a new blueprint – figuring out your dreams, what it takes to make them into reality, then shaping the parts of the puzzle that you can control into what you envision.
Powering The 21st Century Career
5 years ago we escaped our jobs. Now we are on a mission to help 1,000,000 professionals do something different.