A while ago, I encountered someone who will forever be called “Middle Aged Me”.
He was close to broken, drowning in a culture that was eroding him to the core. His honest awareness about his situation and where it was headed blew me away but he hadn’t reached his tipping point yet. He needed a big sign. A giant sign that kicked him into take action.
Sadly the sign came. Happily, he was well enough to react.
Here’re what he learned on his mid-life career change journey. If haven’t read his first article - you might like to start here.
A quick recap
This is a follow-up to “Reclaiming Middle Aged Me” which Lucia published in March 2018.
As a quick reminder, my company had been taken over by new investors and I found myself in a culture which conflicted with my personal values and work practices. This in turn had a detrimental impact on my health, welfare and overall life in general.
Nonetheless, it still took me a number of years before I did anything about it.
Ultimately, a serious health scare forced the issued and I resigned without a job to go to.
When Lucia published my article she depicted me as a drowning man. It still resonates with me today as it captured the totality of my situation and how I felt at the time.
A number of months have now passed and this follow-up tells the story of what I have experienced and learned since making that momentous decision to leave. Some things I had predicted, whereas others came as a surprise.
Hopefully sharing these experiences will provide some insight into what may be expected after leaving the workplace and possibly help others to formulate their own thinking when contemplating the same. Everyone may of course react differently, but this is my story.
The initial stages
The most immediate feeling was that of enormous relief. I had escaped and an overpowering weight was lifted.
I no longer had to dread the arrival of Monday which so often surfaced as soon as I woke on a Sunday.
Despite the relief, I wasn’t able to throw myself into lots of new exciting activities to fill my new found freedom. It was very clear that my energy levels had been sapped from years of pushing myself too hard in a toxic environment and my body simply needed a rest. There really was nothing left in the tank and I sat for long periods of time just watching the television or doing absolutely nothing.
To be fair, I thoroughly enjoyed this time of relaxation. It’s amazing how many re-runs of “The Professionals” and “Tales of the Unexpected” you can get through when you put your mind to it. I wasn’t allowed to watch these when I was growing up in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s (apparently I was too young), but at least they now serve to demonstrate my true middle aged credentials!
Days continued to come and go and I also soon learned that the time taken to do things expands with the time available. Breakfast for example can take up to an hour.
Now, I’ve just said that I wasn’t able to throw myself into lots of new exciting activities. Well, that wasn’t only because of the lack of energy. It was also because I didn’t really have any hobbies, passions or leisure pastimes in my old life. This was quite an enlightening (and in hindsight worrying) revelation.
I now realised that work had become so all-encompassing and time consuming that my personal life had fallen by the wayside at the expense of the corporate world. Put simply, there had been no work-life balance for many years. The lesson here is to take a step back now and make sure there are things in your life outside of work. Don’t let work become the sole purpose of your existence.
Having discovered that I didn’t have any real hobbies, I then set about trying to find some.
Many years ago I was a keen football player and also enjoyed running to keep fit. I ruled out a return to football quite quickly (I’m middle aged remember), but running to regain my fitness definitely appealed. Over the years, my ratio of cake intake to energy burned had become slightly imbalanced and I definitely needed to lose a few pounds.
However, another lesson was about to land.
Namely, do give some thought as to what time of year you leave the workplace. I didn’t really have much choice due to my health scare, but many people won’t have that catalyst and can plan a bit more effectively. I’m a big fan of hot weather and the sun (especially when it involves sitting in the garden with a beer), but I left work at the beginning of winter. It was cold, wet and generally miserable for many months.
My rekindled desire to run again was put on hold as I looked out of the window on many occasions and the little willpower I had simply evaporated. I know I could have joined a gym, but running on a treadmill was never something I enjoyed. Another excuse of course, but keep in mind the mental state I had been reduced to. Things needed to be easy and “right” for me.
It also goes without saying that sitting in the garden in the rain with a beer is not quite so appealing.
One thing I did find very rewarding in the early days was the additional time I was able to spend with my family. My wife and I had more lunches out in the space of a few weeks than we had done for years!
I went to every school event on the calendar and also spent a lot of time with my Mum. She lives a long way away, but I was no longer constrained by weekends and could visit her for several days at a time in the week. These visits to my Mum highlighted another important lesson. She’s elderly and I would spend my time with her doing lots of jobs around the house and garden that she wasn’t able to do herself.
This added something incredibly important to my life. I had a purpose again.
Think about it. We spend decades in the workplace and then (for any number of reasons) we no longer go to work. It might be short term or it might be permanent. Either way, my experience is that I began to question my purpose in life.
When I was at work, I was a senior finance professional doing a responsible job for a large company. I had “status” (whatever that is) and the respect of my colleagues. I was also the “provider” for my family. People relied on me, both at work and at home.
My exit from the workplace took these roles (which had been in place for decades) away from me.
The lesson here is to not underestimate the potential to feel a little lost at times following the decision (and ultimate action) to leave. Try to have something in mind to focus on and give you a purpose to replace that which is left behind. Better to be prepared than to have a surprise as it was for me.
This rather helpfully leads me on to another surprise to share, albeit the surprise wasn’t mine alone. It was also for my wife, who is a “stay at home Mum”. All of a sudden, her daily environment was impacted by another person (middle aged me) with helpful views on what needed doing, how it should be done, who should do it (and most importantly) how quickly it should be done. Yes, well, that took a little bit of adjusting to for both of us.
Nothing more to say, it’s all about “give and take” in the end, but just have it on your radar if you have a similar scenario!
As time progressed
Over time, my mental and physical strength began to return and I felt ready to explore the “what next?” question. I spent many hours and days looking at new possibilities for the future.
One avenue involved a complete break from my financial background by dipping my big toe into the world of writing. I met with various people already established in this world and discovered a number of important things.
First, while my writing is OK, it’s not quite up to the standard to be a professional (although I could have trained to achieve this).
Second, it takes a long time to become established and earn a living.
Third (and most important for me), you spend most of your time on your own in front of a computer.
This set alarms bells ringing as it correlated with another learning I had already experienced. It’s something quite fundamental, but it hadn’t appeared on my radar before I left work.
Very simply (and from a very early stage), I experienced social isolation.
Despite the fact my work environment had become aggressive and unpleasant; I still had friends and colleagues to talk to every day, to discuss the ways of the world and to generally banter with. This was now gone and at times I felt lonely. A writing career was not for me.
At the same time as I was having my Shakespearian potential dispelled, I also started to pursue a long held interest in a particular volunteering position. It’s something that requires a lot of dedication and the various interview processes are both lengthy and rigorous.
That goes a long way to explain why I hadn’t been able to pursue it when I was in a corporate environment which seemed to absorb all my time. I refer back to an earlier comment.
I should have made time for it.
Suffice to say, I was successful in my pursuit of the role and I now have something in my “non-paid” work life which provides personal reward and enjoyment.
In terms of pursuing some paid work activities (it seemed prudent), I took it upon myself to drive around the local area and make notes of all the companies that were close by. I was adamant that whatever I did next, it wouldn’t involve a long commute like I’d had in the past.
I researched the companies to see whether the industry was of interest to me and whether I thought my natural skills (or “superpowers” to use Lucia’s terminology) could be utilised by them. I also deliberately focussed on smaller companies and was able to narrow my initial list of around 50, down to a potential of 10.
My career has been spent in large multi-nationals with a heavy demand for the type of work I do. In contrast, smaller companies don’t tend to have my role as a dedicated resource, but they would benefit from a “short blast” of expertise in my area which could then be taken forward by their incumbent finance teams.
So, the potential to set up my own company was formed in my mind. In essence, I would act as a “trouble shooter” who parachutes in for a short period of time, assesses their capabilities, recommends a course of action for improvement and then either departs at that point (letting the incumbents implement the recommendations) or stays to help with the implementation.
I think it might work as a USP, but I won’t get the chance to find out (at least for a while). I’ll explain.
As I sit here today
I’m healthy again, both mentally and physically.
When spring finally arrived I started running properly and have lost much of the weight I’d gained over the years. There’s still some way to go, largely because (and just to recap), I’m middle aged and it takes longer to shift these days. It’s a great excuse and one to be fully exploited. Also, for those who remember my first article, I’ve come off much of the prescribed medication I talked about at the time.
My new company idea is on hold at the moment because of an exciting development in the last couple of months.
In my original article I talked about the possibility of returning to do what I do in another company, but in an environment which aligned with my values and work practices. Well, I kept an eye on the market and I will shortly go back to work in an exciting industry which is located very close to home. The culture is friendly and welcoming and I’ve been given a free reign to shape the future in my area of finance.
My bounce is back (not that middle aged accountants are renowned for their bounciness), but I am genuinely excited by what lies ahead.
A final comment
I made the right decision to leave.
A year ago I was in a bad way, both mentally and physically.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I genuinely believe I was close to “going under” or worse. My mind and body were compromised and at the edge of their tolerance levels. A serious health scare provided the catalyst for me to leave, but I still needed the willpower and strength to make that final decision.
My counsel is simple to say, but harder to enact. Nonetheless, it’s maybe something to contemplate and reflect on.
It’s only seven words.
“Jump while you still have the strength.”
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