Dave's escape story - Finding a new identity after leaving the corporate world

When people go through a career change, it is totally normal to ask questions around your identity, skillset, financial situation, and everything else imaginable.

Dave is currently on the Escape Career Change Accelerator and bravely shares with us his story as he figures out his new identity after quitting his corporate career from suffering serious burnout.

Who are you? Not such an easy question to answer is it?! It’s not the same as ‘What you do’ & it’s not ‘what is your name’, not ‘where are you from’.

What it is, is something which transcends barriers, rigid social structures about who you ‘should’ be and asks a more meaningful question of how YOU define yourself as a person.

I used to have a clear identity in my previous life — I was a successful professional, working for a company many would be envious of, a breadwinner and provider…or so I thought but that identity had been carved by happenstance more than anything else and now I am on journey to help me better understand if that is actually who I am, or just who I became.

Until recently, I’d never had anything like a career plan, a 5 or 10 year goal or any real idea what I wanted to become or do with my life.
The education system in the UK (from my experience) is awful in terms of career guidance so to me, it seemed like the logical thing to just do what I enjoyed.

After getting good grades at school, I took a joint honours degree in the two subjects I most enjoyed and studied Geography & Economics at a top 10 UK university but what I had failed to really consider (or be offered any material assistance in) throughout that journey was what comes next and what that meant.

Leaving University, I fell quickly into a job I hated but worked hard and my initially critical director became my biggest advocate. After an honest conversation about how much I loved the job (ahem), he created a new role for me, which after 18 months enabled me to land a job within McKinsey which is where I stayed for the next 5 years and really cemented my first identity.

Serving leading UK retail banks, I thrived and was promoted 4 times, becoming an Engagement Manager, leading teams to identify and solve for key strategic issues. I was fitting into a mold I had been prescribed but never really questioned — living the ‘professional life’ — commuting 2.5 hours a day, we had our own big apartment and I was working hard, earning good money and was seen as an emerging talent with a bright future in the business.

After 5 years though, I wanted a new challenge and moved to Toronto with my girlfriend (a Canadian dual citizen), landing a great job (at least on paper) within a newly formed enterprise strategy team at one of the big banks in Canada. Within the space of a year though I experienced total burnout which flipped my life upside down.

We had just presented to the board of the bank on a topic which would rewrite how the bank thinks about data which had been received very well. I had just got back to my office when I suddenly felt very strange, dizzy and light-headed. I went to the toilet to sit down for a few minutes away from prying eyes and wait for the feeling to pass…but it didn’t. It got worse and when I stood up I realised I had lost the vision in my right eye. I left the office immediately and went to A&E (the ER) where I was subjected to a battery of tests as the symptoms I was experiencing pointed towards a potential stroke.

After a few hours of tests and waiting, the consultant sat me down and told me I was in excellent physical condition and that the symptoms were likely a physical manifestation of mental stress and that it was a signal that my head wasn’t able to cope with the pressures I was experiencing.

I realised at that point I needed to make a change. The day after I went to the GP (funnily enough a lovely Brummie bloke who had come to Canada a few years prior to get away from the NHS) and talked about what had happened the day prior and in the run-up.

He promptly made it quite clear I needed to put distance between myself and the cause of the stress and I was signed off work sick for an initial period of 2 weeks.

My girlfriend was fantastic and supportive throughout but mentally, I’ve never struggled so much. The realisation that doctors thought I was having a stroke, at 29 when I am supposed to be in the peak of my life stripped me of all my confidence and recognition of who I was as a person.

I was a wreck and whilst I was no longer stressed by work, anxiety and uncertainty arose markedly in parts of my life it hadn’t before. Just getting out of the flat to get groceries was terrifying — what if I bumped into a colleague and had to explain I’d had a meltdown because I couldn’t do my job. Walking the dog and getting some air was a nice release — but what if someone caught me? Am I allowed to be out enjoying an afternoon walking the dog whilst on sick leave? I stopped going to the gym because it was located right next to the office and was paranoid about everything and everyone.

After a month of rest and medication, I thought I was feeling well enough to reach out to my manager and discuss putting a plan in place to come back. I sent an email and asked if we could go for a coffee to discuss the issues I was experiencing and what we could change to help solve the situation. He promptly accepted but suggested the main Starbucks which all our colleagues used which worried me but I agreed nonetheless.

A week later, we met and I stated that I didn’t think I could come back in the same capacity as before and expect there to be a different outcome to another breakdown later down the line— something needed to change. I tabled that in conjunction with HR, the management team could help me to find a role in the bank at a similar level which didn’t come with the same level of stress, hours or sacrifice that the strategy team did. After some niceties, he said he would take it to our VP to discuss before coming back with a response. I was relieved — I had been totally honest, open and vulnerable, hoping the same would be offered in return but I quickly realised that was naive.

The response I received was shocking. I was told that the He, nor our VPs wanted people in the team who either couldn’t do the job or didn’t want the job. They would offer me my role back (with the same responsibilities and expectations) for one month, during which I would need to find a new role in the bank on my own and if that didn’t materialise, I would be asked to resign my position — or I could resign immediately.

Wow, I thought to myself — were they being serious or was this a joke, a test? Instead of offering me support, empathy, understanding and flexibility to get back on my feet, I was given an ultimatum, told to do my job, on a deadline, whilst finding another job, without help and then maybe I’ll get fired.

This again knocked me for six and I spent another 2–3 weeks on sick leave reeling and trying to work out what I was going to do.

Six months after starting the role and with the full support of my girlfriend, I quit the job and we returned to Blighty almost exactly a year after we left.

My identity I’d spent the last 8 years building was in tatters. I was back living at my family home, with no job, no income, basically broke, no self-confidence or self-belief, depressed and anxious and I was totally lost.

My journey to re-find myself is still ongoing and since moving back, I’ve been on the Escape The City Career Change Accelerator and have been totally re-evaluating my life to date.

I remain unemployed but am taking charge of where I go next. I’ve learned I have skills I didn’t think I had before and made friends I would never have met otherwise. I am exploring avenues and opportunities I would have never thought possible and I am doing it with a smile.

Who I am is not what I do to earn a living. Who I am shouldn’t necessarily be defined by how much I make, whether I make more than my girlfriend or whether I am perceived by the outside world to be successful or not.

Who am I? I am still not yet sure, but I’ll be a damned site better than who I was before.

[Connect with Dave on LinkedIn and read the original post on Medium]

Doing something different with your life and career is hard… and Dave knew that he didn’t have to do it alone. 

If you need help with your Escape and are ready to re-take control over your life, consider joining the Career Change Accelerator like Dave did.


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