If you haven’t already read my introduction on what these Hat-Stories & Resources are about… read this first!
For everyone else – this FIRST Hat-Story (& resource) post is about un-jobbing.
Here’s what this post will cover:
- How I ended up in a career that I hated (and the toll it took on my life)
- The final straw that broke the camel’s back and cemented my decision to change direction
- A couple of photos of me taken during *those* years…
- A couple of quotes, links & useful resources for those feel trapped in a job they hate.
For those of you who have followed my blog for a while, you might recognise the story I’m about to share from a blog post that I wrote on the 1st January, 2014. Please bare with me (if you’ve read this before). I have added extra goodies (and new photos) – and there’s stuff in here that wasn’t included in that post from a few years ago.
“The most dangerous risk of all: the risk of spending your life not doing what you want… on the bet that you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later”
– Unknown –
I call it my Bathtub Moment. The moment I knew… with utmost clarity and certainty… that my life had to change.
My life didn’t need slight tweaks and adjustments. It needed to change. As in: completely. As in: irrevocably. The entire trajectory of my existence needed to shift onto a very different course. And I knew, with certainty, that I could never go back.
It was mid-2007. At the time, I owned a graphic design and below-the-line ad agency called COPS Creative Corporation. I’m not sure how I ended up with that company. It certainly wasn’t on my list of Life’s Big Dreams. I probably ended up in that position for the same reason that (most?) people end up doing the stuff they do: I kinda drifted there. It just… sorta… happened.
It went something like this:
- I’m a creative creature
- I needed to make money, so I started doing some freelance design work for a few friends
- Word spread
- Other folk approached me and asked me to design some stuff for them too
- Eventually, there was too much work for me to manage on my own so I hired another designer to help me – and voila! a business was born.
By 2007, the business had tripled in size. I employed 9 people (excluding myself). Six were employed by COPS and, on the home-front, I employed another three – including a full-time nanny (who cared for 2-year-old Morgan) and a housekeeper.
In 2007, my life was… kinda like a runaway train. It surged ahead, full-speed – and although I knew that I should have been up in the front of the cab, powering the train and tooting the whistle… it felt as though the train was driving itself and I was limping on the train tracks – far behind the train – frantically trying to catch up.
This is not a fun feeling.
Anyone who has chased feebly after their runaway lives will understand how un-fun it is to live like that.
WHAT LIFE WAS LIKE DURING THAT TIME
In 2007, Nick and I lived in a large suburban home which we had purchased, shortly after we had married in February 2005 (as one does). Morgan arrived in November 2005 (and Joah followed in March 2008).
The house (and attached cottage) was our home… but it also served as a studio for Nick (a filmmaker) – and the headquarters of COPS.
My company created advertising and promotional campaigns for a number of clients.
I was once told, by the owner of a large, wealthy advertising agency… that his job (and mine) was simply this:
“To manipulate people into using money they don’t have… to buy things they don’t need”.
Somebody else (I think it was a copywriter) referred to our kind of work as: “Rolling other people’s turds in glitter”.
Here’s a nice pic of a glitter-turd (that Ranty made with polymer clay):
And yes – sometimes, that’s exactly what it felt like. Sometimes, I not only disliked my clients… but I extra-disliked their products and services. Sometimes, I thought that their products were overpriced and badly made… or that their services were unethically ripping people off.
And yet – I’d don my polite-and-enthusiastic smile… and invent creative ways to promote said turd’ish product… to glitterize it… to make it more palatable to the general public and thus generate sales for my client.
Obviously, this wasn’t true of all of my clients. I had some lovely clients too. But it felt as though most of them (and certainly the over-sized, arrogant corporations) required me to do lots of turd-rolling.
My biggest client was a company that owned hotels.
Lots of hotels.
They were a large, hotel-owning company and (like all colossal corporations), they were concerned about one thing: The Bottom Line.
I did lots and lots of turd-rolling for this company. And I did lots of corporate brown-nosing in their bling-encrusted boardrooms (while sipping their shitty coffee). I’d talk the talk and dazzle them with designer jargon and assurances of how gush-gush amazing their next campaign would be.
Then, I’d go home… and my designers and I would burn the midnight oil in order to meet the demands and expectations of the CEO and his minions.
My Bathtub Moment was, in a sense, the fruit of this particular hotel-owning client. And I remember it as though it were yesterday.
When it (the Bathtub Moment) happened, my husband was away on an international shoot. Nick was usually my reliable buffer during times of stress. If I had crazy deadlines, he’d ease the load and make sure that Morgan was taken care of during evenings or over weekends and holidays (when the nanny wasn’t there).
But, on this occasion, Nick was away. For 3 long weeks.
And during those 3 weeks, my hotel-owning client suddenly decided (at the last possible moment) that they wanted to exhibit at Indaba (an international travel & hospitality expo, held in Durban every year).
Not only were they going to exhibit at Indaba, but they needed thousands of printed fact sheets, posters, brochures (and all sorts of other bits and pieces) for ALL of their hotels.
All of these items needed to be designed, printed and delivered to their flashy double-storey exhibit by 7am on the first morning of Indaba.
We had two weeks to pull it off.
Usually, a job of this size would take the printing company – alone – two weeks to produce (at a push). And we needed to first design and typeset the whole lot… and have it checked, proofed and signed-off before I could forward a single item to the printer.
To cut a long story short; I worked like a rabid insomniac for those two weeks. I existed on a diet of coffee and Red Bull. I slept in short spurts. I paid the nanny overtime to help me with Morgan in the evenings (she bathed her, fed her and put her to bed).
At one stage, I humiliated myself when I begged Piet, my printer… (like a dog)… I literally begged him… with genuine tears stinging the corners of my eyes to: “Please, please, please, please… make it happen, please!” when he expressed his doubts as to whether we’d make deadline.
“It has to be ready…”, I begged him, “Please, it has to!”…
I was worried that I wouldn’t have everything at the Indaba exhibit by 7am on launch day – as expected. I fretted about what might happen if I didn’t meet that deadline. What if I lost the client? And how would we pay all the bills and salaries without the income that the rich, hotel-owning company generated?
The day before the deadline, I was pacing my studio like a restless, caged animal.
I’d phone Piet-the-Printer (a remarkably patient man).
“Hi Piet. It’s Heather from COPS. Is the job ready yet? Can I collect?”
“No”, said Piet, “It’s not ready yet”.
The hotel-owning CEO’s secretary was also phoning me regularly;
“Are you on your way to Indaba?”, she’d ask.
“No. I’m still in Joburg. I’m waiting for the printing to come off the press”
“What!!? WHY isn’t it ready yet??” she demanded, seemingly oblivious of how much of my life I had given up and how much turd-rolling I had taken on for her company. No, wait. I wasn’t turd-rolling. For this particular job, it felt as though I had submerged myself in an Olympic-sized swimming pool of corporate poo!
By 5pm, I was starting to get desperate. I dialled Piet again.
“Please… please tell me it’s ready”
“It’s off the press. We’re just waiting for the ink to dry. Then we’ll score, fold and send it through the guillotine”
“It’s not cut yet?”, I asked, feeling the desperation and panic beginning to rise like bile in my throat…
“We’re doing the best that we can, Heather”, snapped Piet, sounding distinctly unfriendly. He had a bite to his voice that suggested that he was rapidly running out of his usual supply of patience.
By 8:15pm, the last of the printed material was ready.
I had packed an overnight bag, dropped Morgan off at my mom’s and had driven my Renault Modus to the printing factory. Piet’s night staff had helped me to load 10 000 copies of fact sheets, brochures and posters into my small car.
The printed material engulfed the Modus. It filled the boot, the back seat (I couldn’t even see out of my rearview mirror)… and it towered precariously on the passenger seat next to me. I was worried that if I made an abrupt turn in my car, the mountain of printing would topple over and crush me like an insect.
The weight was clearly too much for the Modus. The axles groaned… the tyres looked as though they would burst under the strain – but I didn’t care. I had possession of the completed material.
Now, I just needed to drive it all to Durban – 700 kilometres / 435 miles away.
With my overnight bag, 8 tins of Red Bull and a tiny car, overloaded with printed promo-material… I drove through the night from Johannesburg to Durban.
Oh – and did I mention? I was pregnant with Joah at the time.
Stressed and exhausted, I drove with the windows down so that the cool night air would (hopefully) keep me awake and I would (hopefully) not plunge myself off a ravine… or something.
About an hour in to my drive, I received a phone call. It was from the hotel-owning client (the CEO himself).
“Where the fuck are you?”, he shrieked in my ear.
Just as I was about to explain… in my most polite, most professional glitter-coated, brown-nosing voice… and tell him that I was on the road and that the job would, indeed, be delivered on time… the battery on my phone went flat.
I drove the rest of the way to Durban with the knowledge that the CEO was foaming-at-the-mouth-mad at me… expecting me not to show up on time (if at all).
Just the knowledge of this filled me with dread.
I arrived at my hotel at three in the morning. It was a beautiful 5-Star establishment and I was shown to my lavish suite by a polite porter (I had tried to book a cheaper hotel, but with Indaba on the go, every reasonably-priced hotel room in the whole of Durban was booked up. Only super-expensive places were available).
I slept for two hours… woke at 5am… showered, dressed, swallowed some breakfast… and returned to my loaded Modus – only to discover: a flat tyre!
The Modus was going nowhere.
Again, that familiar feeling of panic began to rise; “Oh crap! Oh crap! Oh crap! I have to get all this stuff to the hotel exhibit… at Indaba… in the centre of town… by 7am! It’s now 6am… and I have a flat tyre!!”
Thankfully… mercifully… my cousin was also exhibiting at Indaba that year (she and her husband own a lodge in Limpopo). I phoned Clare, explained my predicament… and her husband, Michel, drove to my hotel, helped me to re-load all the shrink-wrapped parcels into his van… and helped me to deliver the whole lot – ON TIME – to the hotel-owning client’s flashy double-storey exhibit.
After off-loading the trolley, I sank down on to the floor in a daze.
It was at that moment that the hotel-owning CEO arrived on the scene (the one who had cursed me on the phone the night before and who had since left a number of ominous threats on my voicemail).
He was striding, red-faced, down the expo aisle… followed by a small cluster of worried-looking, note-taking minions. Upon reaching his exhibit, he stopped abruptly… glared darkly at me… and turned his attention to the mountain of neatly-stacked printed material that I had delivered.
Realising that everything was there – on time – he glanced back at me, delivered a curt nod, spun on his heel… and left.
No “hello”… no “thank-you”… nothing.
I was simply the hired help – and I was expected to do whatever it took to deliver the goods.
If I had plunged the Modus off a cliff in the middle of the night… and died… his biggest concern would have been whether there were enough salvageable pamphlets for Indaba.
This… by the way… was one of those slap-through-the-face catch-a-WAKE-UP moments (which cemented my decision to change things): the realisation that I did NOT matter to those people. That I was just another cog-in-the-wheel. Dispensable. Replaceable. Because what really mattered was money and profit.
And I didn’t like that feeling.
I didn’t like feeling like a cheap, replaceable cog.
I didn’t like feeling as though the primary purpose of my career (and the purpose of my creative gifts)… was to make money for other people… to help rich corporations get even richer.
It sounded like a pretty shitty and meaningless investment of my one, short, precious life.
“The price of anything is the amount of LIFE you exchange for it”
– Henry David Thoreau –
Michel dropped me back at the hotel. I went to my suite, put on some music and sunk into a very hot bath.
I so desperately wanted Nick and Morgan with me. I wanted them in that hotel room with me. I wanted to lean against my husband and feel the reassurance of his warm hugs. I wanted to scoop up my baby girl and just BE with her. I wanted to see her beautiful little face. I wanted to listen to her happy giggles.
But I was alone in that tub… in that big, 5-star-suite.
Exhausted… stressed… and alone (well, not entirely alone – I had a baby boy growing inside of me at the time).
And that was when my Bathtub Moment happened.
I started to cry… as in howl-cry. Big salty tears plopped into the steaming bath water and I howled some more.
(and this is important)…
I started to QUESTION!
Here are the uncomfortable questions that I asked myself in the bathtub that night:
- Why am I here?
- What am I doing?
- Why am I doing this work?
- Why am I putting up with these turd’ish clients?
- Why am I running this business?
- Is it worth it? Is it worth the humiliation, the stress, the time spent away from my loved ones?
- Was this my dream?
- Did I even want this?
- If I didn’t want it – then why am I doing it?
- Is this all there is to look forward to?
- Is this what life is supposed to be like? An endless cycle of working, eating, sleeping, stressing and bill-paying?
- Is it possible to escape this?
- Is it possible to change this?
- Is it possible to dig myself out of this hole?
- Is it possible to redesign my entire life?
- Is it possibly to live differently?
- Is it possible to be happy?
What are YOUR uncomfortable questions?
Deep down, I already knew all the answers to the questions I was spewing out. I already knew what needed to be done. The Bathtub Moment was simply the first time I had articulated it to myself… the first time I had given myself permission to feel… and dream… and to decide that I wanted something else for my life. Something… different.
And so, right there… right then… I decided.
Just like that.
The decision was made.
After I had returned to Joburg and after Nick had returned from his shoot, I sat down with him and told him what I wanted to do.
“I want to shut down COPS. It’s killing me slowly. It’s robbing our family. And the stress is not worth the money I make. In fact, I suspect we’d be better-off financially without all the debt, salaries and extra expenses”.
Nick agreed. And that was the end of that. We closed the business. Shut it all down. My staff found other work. I phoned all of my clients and told them they’d have to find a new design agency. We sold the computers. Shut down the shop. Paid the last of the bills. And just like that… it was gone.
COPS Creative Corporation was no more.
And just like that… I had the freedom to decide: “What do I actually want to DO with my life?”
“Normal is getting dressed in clothes you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car you are still paying for… in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it”
– Ellen Goodman –
BOOKS I found useful (whilst trying to answer the question: “What do I really want to do with my life?”)
- The Element – how finding your passion changes everything (by Ken Robinson). He also has a book called “Finding your Element” – which is a much more practical guide (but I think I prefer the first book).
- The Four Hour Work Week (by Tim Ferris)
- Eat, Pray, Love (by Elizabeth Gilbert)
I also recently came across a book called “Roadmap – the get-it-together guide for figuring out what you want to do with your life”. Although the book mainly seems to be targeting younger folk (perhaps high-schoolers and university students) – they DO have some fabulous thought-provoking, practical exercises in there that, I think, could spark a few ideas (for those who feel *stuck*).
“If you like conformity, competition or pretense… then ordinary reality is a great place to be. If you’re interested in personal growth, however, you’ll need to go through the cracks in ordinary reality and find out what’s on the other side”
– Troy Dayton –
BLOG POSTS about asking ourselves those big, deep, scary questions about whether we’re surviving, getting by, making-do… or are we LIVING…?
- Our time is running out (my blog post)
- The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying (my blog post about the palliative care nurse who asked dying patients about their deepest regrets. Of course – nobody said: “I wish I had chosen a different retirement annuity” or “I wish I had purchased a larger home”)
- What death taught me about life (1 Dad, 1 Kid)
PONDERTUNITY (a pondertunity is an opportunity to ponder, think, dream, deconstruct old ideas and re-imagine new ones)…
Ask yourself some of these questions (I found the questions uncomfortable – but my responses to the questions were telling):
- How do you feel about where your life is at… at the moment? Are you happy? Are you content? Are you miserable or frustrated?
- What is the biggest cause of frustration in your life right now?
- How did you end up with the job you now have?
- Was it your plan (to work where you’re working now) – or did you just kinda end up there?
- Do you enjoy your job?
- If the answer is no… do you have an idea of the job you’d like to have?
- Have you ever thought of changing the direction of your life?
- If the answer is yes… what would you like to be doing?
- What holds you back?
- If you never, ever had to worry about money (ever again)… what would you DO with your life?
And finally – to end this post on a positive note… I need you to know (and especially those of you who are reading this post without any knowledge of my back-story)… that my story DOES have a happy ending insert whoop of glee here!
Here’s a recent photo of the current “me” (compare to the misery-me photos above – and you’ll see that a LOT has changed):
I LOVE my current life-work (to coin a phrase used by the folk who wrote the Roadmap book)… everything has changed.
It wasn’t a quick-fix. It didn’t happen in an instant. It was (and continues to be) a journey. A journey of baby-steps… a series of teensy-tiny-daily CHOICES… a continued, every-day effort to question…. re-define… re-align… and live deliberately.
“Tapping into your purpose takes a great deal of discipline, because you have to ask yourself the question every day when you open your eyes: ‘Who am I?'”
– Penny Brown Reynolds (quote taken from the Roadmap book) –
It’s a journey.
I have definitely not arrived… (any regular reader of this blog will know that!)…
I don’t think anybody arrives. I think there are folk who camp on the side of the road, indefinitely. Preferring not to move. Preferring not to change.
But for those of us who choose to move… and change… and grow… and explore… I don’t think the journey ever ends. There’s a new lesson around every bend (and that’s what excites me!)… I like not knowing what-comes-next.
I embrace the beautiful unpredictability of life… it’s what makes me feel truly-alive! 🙂
Anyhoo… so that’s Hat’s Story (and pile of resources) #2….
I know it was pretty long-winded… but the truth is, I’ve only TOUCHED on this topic. I have so much more to say and share about escaping a nasty, life-sucking career and doing what you LOVE… (but this post would turn into a book!)…
So – moving on…
The NEXT post in this Hat’s Story series will be about what happened after I had shut down the business and stopped doing the only thing (graphic design) that I thought I was good at…
Lots of love to you all! Hat x