From the RAF to a portfolio careerby Vix Anderton
Vix Anderton is a multi-potentialite, building a portfolio career to change the lives of women and girls as individuals, in organisations, and in society.
She’s an independent inclusive leadership and gender specialist with expertise in women, peace and security. The founder and CEO of The Practical Balance, and she served in the Royal Air Force as an Intelligence officer for 10 years, then 3 years working in the international development sector before embarking on her portfolio career in 2017. Here she shares her Escape story…
I joined the RAF aged 22 (the day after my 22nd birthday to be precise). I didn’t have a burning desire to join the military growing up and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what else to do as graduation from university loomed. (That is slightly flippant – I had looked at other things too!). And once I got through officer training, I was having a blast. I even won a scholarship to study for my Masters’ degree full-time at King’s College London, writing my dissertation on how the British military was interacting with local women in Afghanistan, understanding their stories and how women’s rights are affected by conflict.
It was coming back to the RAF from that year in civvie street that I first thought that maybe the RAF wasn’t where I wanted to spend the rest of my career. Over the next few months, I slowly started to realise that I wasn’t comfortable in my life anymore. I mean, it was a good life. I had a job I generally enjoyed and that I was good at, I had great colleagues and was living with a friend in a gorgeous house that would have inevitably cost more than five times as much to rent in London. But something just wasn’t right.
Deciding to Leave
It took me more than a year to finally decide that the RAF wasn’t the right place for me anymore. I didn’t feel that it offered me the professional opportunities and satisfaction I was looking for. At the same time, I was making sacrifices in my personal life that I wasn’t prepared to continue making as I entered my thirties. It really wasn’t an easy decision to leave a secure career with good prospects and a lifestyle that was all I had known my entire life (I grew up in a military family too). All of this without knowing what I was jumping into.
I just knew that I felt trapped, kind of claustrophobic and scared. Not scared of the unknown but absolutely terrified that I would wake up in ten years’ time and regret staying. At the time, these feelings were difficult to reconcile; did feeling like this mean that I had made a terrible mistake at the tender age of twenty-one? Had I wasted the first decade of my working life? But I slowly came to terms with it all and realised that I had a wonderful career in the RAF. What was right for me in my twenties just wasn’t right for the next ten years of my life. And that’s okay. I know I’m not the same person that I was at twenty-one and that’s a good thing! It was time for something different. Time for me to feel like me, the whole multi-faceted, complex, contradictory me.
Having taken several months to decide to leave the RAF, I ended up leaving very quickly with very little concrete idea of what I wanted to do next. I mean, I had a few general ideas: I wanted to be in London (partly for the city’s energy, partly because I really wanted to find a good yoga studio again!); I wanted to help further women’s rights; and I wanted to have a ‘cool’ interesting life. Not much to go on, really! So, I did what anyone with a few months’ paid leave and a few thousand pounds in the bank: I packed my bags, jumped on a plane and spent a couple of months backpacking my way around south-east Asia.
Coming back to the UK, I moved back home with my parents. At the ripe old age of thirty-one, that wasn’t without its challenges but I really appreciated getting to know them as people and establishing a proper adult relationship with them, not to mention super-cheap rent for a few months! I did some work at the BBC and at a think tank. It was all enjoyable but just not quite what I was looking for. There were a couple of times when it seemed like everything was about to work out perfectly but then it would fall apart at the last minute. Add on a bit of heartache for good measure and by the end of the Autumn, I was feeling pretty despondent. Rock bottom (and I use that loosely – I know how good my life still was) came when I found myself applying for a job at Goldman Sachs; there’s obviously nothing wrong with working in finance but it was so far away from what I had set out to do. Unfortunately, at the time, I couldn’t really see that; I felt low and desperate. But as it so often does, life through me a lifeline – the chance to go and lead a team of young volunteers in Bangladesh for nearly five months. Looking back, I feel like I made that decision instantly but, thinking about it properly, I remember being really torn. For the first time in my working life, since joining the military, I had really choice and freedom about what I did but, man, was that terrifying! What if I got it wrong?! After consulting some very good friends and mentors, I called up the HR woman at Goldman and had a conversation that she mustn’t have all that often: thanks very much but no thanks, I’m off to volunteer in a developing country for a few months!
And that was that. One of the most fulfilling experiences of my life, living in a small rural community in the Bangladehsi countryside, learning to speak Bengali, living without any hot water, and making a difference to the lives of the women and girls in our community. There’s far too much to talk about here but you can read all about it over here!
Once again, I came home with lots of ideas and enthusiasm but no real plan. I decided that unemployment meant house purchase was out of the picture for a while so I gave myself six months and a chunk of my savings to see what I could make happen. And I just did stuff. I went to festivals and hung out in parks. I taught on Hostile Environment courses, helping NGO workers prepare for trips overseas. I wrote articles for journals and for VSO on youth volunteering and women’s rights. I had so many conversations, not knowing where they would lead. I became part of an amazing community, thanks to Escape the City And then, at the end of the summer, it kind of happened. I got offered a short-term consultancy gig in Beirut (the fourth country I would work in in eighteen months) with the possibility of a permanent job back in London. The same week I was due to sign the contract, I was contacted by someone on LinkedIn who had seen my profile – I had just updated my job title to Gender and Security Consultant – and invited me in to meet. Serendipity struck. They invited me in for an interview the following week for a post they just happened to be recruiting for and got offered the job!
Escaping is a Journey not an Event
Had you asked me 18 months ago, I would have told you that everything was great and I had managed to get pretty much everything I had set out to. I had a lovely lifestyle in London, working for an international development consultancy specialising in gender. I was part of the senior leadership team with lots of autonomy and challenge. As time went on, though, I began to realise that, as good as the new job was, perhaps it wasn’t quite the right thing for me. It was only getting signed off work with stress that made me realise I wasn’t quite in the right place and it was time to reassess my priorities. I went back to the drawing board – well, a blank piece of flipchart – and let myself dream with no limits about what I wanted to do. The list was rather extensive! It made me realise that one of the most important things for me is being able to work on all my interests so I handed in my resignation and embarked on a new portfolio career.
A year on and I’m loving this way of working. It’s taken me this long to build something that is starting to feel coherent and stable. I’ve even founded my own wellbeing startup, which is something I couldn’t have imagined a year ago, let alone when I first left the RAF. When I first started, I had 3 months’ of living costs saved and then I would have to go back to work. I actually made it through my first year without dipping into my savings – partly through getting work, partly through prudent spending.
It’s not always easy; in fact, I go through this up-and-down cycle at least once a day.
But I love the flexibility, variety and independence I now have. No two days look the same and I get to do work that really matters to me.
I still don’t have it all figured out (anyone who says they do is lying to you or themselves!) and that’s really okay. But, for what it’s worth, here a few key takeaways:
- You don’t need a detailed plan but you do need to have a sense of where you’re going and what’s important to you. Understand the why and the how will take care of itself.
- Connections and relationships are key. Tell people what you’re doing, ask for help, find a community of like-minded people (like Escape the City!). Everything I have done since leaving the RAF has come from a connection. Go to events. Update your LinkedIn profile with what you want to be doing so people can find you.
- It takes time. Don’t compare yourself to other people’s journeys. Do start where you are and before you’re ready. Keep persevering. It will be okay.
- Keep saying yes to things. You never know where opportunities will lead to. But at the same time, know what your red lines are. There is no point saying yes to things that will make you miserable.
- Finally, the journey never stops. There’s never just one answer and it changes over time anyway. You just keep taking one step a time through life. It’s an adventure and one you get to create so enjoy it.
To find out more about Vix’s work visit The Practical Balance. Based on the core principles of self-awareness, self-worth and self-leadership, The Practical Balance helps founders and freelancers manage their energy, rhythms and emotions. Through the platform, women will have access to a range of coaching services, a supportive community, and a variety of analogue and digital tools. She coaches lots of people making changes in their lives, including escaping. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.