"We don’t have to glorify work. We don’t need a side hustle, or to go in for the next rung on the ladder or call ourselves ambitious. We don’t need to strive for anything other than career middle-ground."
This quote from Laura Jane William's article for Red Magazine about the death of the hustle (you can read it here) really resonated with me yesterday.
The concept that my career didn't have to be my everything was completely groundbreaking 8 months ago when I passed through the security gates of the glass-fronted office for the last time aged 29. At that moment, when I heard the swoosh of the gate close behind me, I had no idea that would be the last time I carried out my daily work routine.
I slowly stepped through the shiny corporate doors and across the City of London street; I was surrounded by suits during the rush hour. Despite being caught up in the race of City workers running in all directions to make their trains home, I had little awareness of anything. I walked forward into the haze, my vision swaying as though I had just sunk 5 G&Ts in the space of 20 minutes.
On that average Tuesday, life handed me a lemon.
I engaged my inner-auto pilot and floated down to the tunnels of the tube as if I had been carried down to my usual carriage by my fellow commuters. I sat on a well-worn seat in the Waterloo and City Line carriage as I get hit by a heavy thought - my face reacts as if I am physically hurt, manifesting a deep set frown. The painful thought was a cloud of reflection, as I analysed the narrative I realised I had unconsciously made the decision to devote myself to my career.
I jump back to my early 20s, the age the chaos ensued. At the age of 24 with a few years experience, I had moved to London with my banking job and threw myself, whole-heartedly, into the deep. I didn't think there was any other choice, naively thinking the options were career or children and nothing in between.
From that point onwards, my career was muddled with brilliant highs and too many stomach wrenching lows. Throughout my 20s I rode the wave, I had chosen this path and, during my younger years, I truly thought it would be my path for life.
I can picture the wide-eyed 23-year-old walking into her first banking interview, attempting to mask a flustered look and sweaty-palms. This young woman could not foresee the excessive amounts of stress and exhaustion to come.
The burnout hit me on a number of occasions but I would dig deep to find the scarce extra energy I desperately needed to keep forcing forwards. It was at my dizzying breaking point when I realised there was, and is an alternative.
I am in the midst of exploring the alternative now. I'm learning to unapologetically paddle in a different ocean and not completely immerse myself to partake in another competitive swimming-sprint.
Exploration has been a murky process of mixed emotions, especially at the beginning. I have had to deal with observing the feeling of failure - I initially thought there was something wrong with me. It seemed that I couldn't handle the corporate job and be content with what the 9-5 slog had to offer me.
I assumed this societal pressure - whether it was present or not - that I should be immediately jumping to the next career. I sensed this expectation that I should be bouncing with enthusiasm to pursue a side hustle that I've been secretly working on in the background for the last 8 years, or, at least find another desk job for the steady paycheque and accept being miserable.
I felt the career void, I felt the judgements, and I felt the unemployed and lazy jokes; I even made them myself so I could beat people to the punchline. I wanted to, somehow, make the joke undertones less painful by owning them.
The fact of the matter is I had the 'Fund Off Fund' and that gave me the freedom to cross the security gate and not look back. I owed it to myself to take time off, even if I wasn't hustling. The experience taught me that I should be kind to myself, which can involve having a break. I have been empowered by the realisation that even if I've been laid on the sofa chucking Maltesers in the direction of my mouth in pyjamas for the last 8 months (which I haven't been... well, not the whole time) then that is completely fine.
I am allowed.
I am also allowed to seek a job rather than a life-dedicating career, packaged with status and power. I am allowed to enjoy the mundane pleasures of family dinners, yoga, reading a book and lighting a new candle.
Now, I no longer freak out when someone asks me what I do for work, I ignore the pressure to pitch any ambitious plans. I can now say that I'm working on something new - no more explanation required. No justification for the size and aspiration of the project. This is good enough for me right now.
In all honesty, there is a part of me that still cringes but I no longer cringe as much as I used to. I no longer justify my decisions to anyone, which is wholly liberating and, most of all is immeasurable progress.
So when life gives you lemons, don't feel like you have to make lemonade; make whatever the fuck you want. I will be.