Today’s been quite special, as it’s exactly one year since I walked out of the permanent job I’d had for getting on for 15 years. And I’m surrounded by reminders of how right that decision was.
12 months ago to this minute I was in a bar in Canary Wharf surrounded by about 40 colleagues getting steadily rat-arsed, all at my expense. And like many people say in their leaving speeches, my main regret in leaving was that I would miss times like that where we could put aside work issues and just enjoy each others’ company. It’s always the people you miss the most, particularly when you’ve worked somewhere for so long. And I’d been lucky, having the same line manager for the last 10 years, rising through the organisation like a pair of alpine climbers roped together in a particularly dodgy couloir. That night, some clients even turned up, travelling out specially from the city to be there. That was special and also humbling.
But whilst it was a wrench to leave the people, we go to work for one reason – to earn the money we need to live on. And it was getting harder and harder to do that without risking my sanity. The stresses grew after my company’s recent merger with a competitor it had successfully fought off a hostile takeover from a decade previously. And as the other organisation’s culture asserted itself as the (real) victorious party in our merger of “equals”, so it became harder and harder to get anything done when there was a presumption that you weren’t up to the job from the “other” side, and against a background of increasing politics and empire building. The financial crisis didn’t help at all either, as there was often a lack of money to do any of the projects properly.
So it came to pass that one day I decided I’d had enough, a fact I’d known deep down for some months, but held fire until all hope of getting an enhanced post-merger redundancy package had disappeared. The decision to leave crystallised, fittingly, when I was on a few days leave in the Lake District. And this was hugely symbolic of the reasons why it had to be done.
For the 5 years leading up to the big decision, hill walking became my stress-relief. Each year I would disappear to the Lake District at least once, sometimes as many as 3 times, to get myself some space to chill out and reflect. It is no surprise that this period also saw me learn a lot of lessons about my walking, through getting lost, having to cope with adverse weather and the like.
I came back from that trip to Eskdale in 2010, with the decision made. It took a few months to form an escape committee, dig Tom, Dick and Harry and make the bid for the cover of the trees beyond the camp’s searchlights. And there were days spent, metaphorically, in the cooler too. But February 2011 saw my last day in the office. Being Canary Wharf, there’s no night life to speak of so it wasn’t an all-night bender. I left the bar and walked in a half-drunk, half-numb state to the station and freedom, nursing a bag of gifts, my desk contents and a Blacks voucher.
It wasn’t a huge surprise that I felt relatively little. I’m a bit of an emotional dalek anyway, but I’d also had a trial run 4 years previous when I went on a 3 month sabbatical from which, at the time, I wasn’t sure if I would return or not. In 2007 it had felt like leaving, but bizarrely now, when I actually was leaving, it didn’t. I took this as a sign that I’d made the right decision, and hand on heart can say that it has proved to be one of the best decisions I have ever made.
I took most of the rest of 2011 off, only returning to the world of work in November. But before then there was walking to be done and family to spend time with. I walked the Cumbria Way, spent a week in Snowdonia, did my annual chunk of the South West Coast Path, a 10 day trek around the Lake District, made inroads into completing the North Downs Way and took up orienteering. I finally got some art tuition too. In 2007 I felt I’d wasted some of my 3 months off, but last year with 8 months off, no such problem.
So what now ? Well, having engaged contract staff for some years on my projects on the Death Star, it was a natural move for me to make too. For some, this way of working would seem far too perilous, as every few months you have to go out and find work. So you need to get good at interviews and presenting yourself. Oh yes, and there is an admin overhead to running your own company, which scares a lot of people off – but I have no excuse as I originally trained as an accountant and my wife works for one too. It’s a strange situation where you have both 100% job security (well I do own the company that employs me and am unlikely to sack myself) and zero job security (through the need to find clients). But this is the cost of having the flexibility to choose to take time out and to pick and choose what projects you work on. And this is why I do it, and to be honest I don’t even see the downside as one really. Working this way means I can have about 4 months off every year to enjoy my walking and painting, and also spend time with the family for the whole school holidays. And be no worse off.
In order to achieve this incredible adjustment in my work-life balance, I had to give up the part of my permanent job I loved – being a line manager of people. As a freelancer my roles typically don’t include this, although it does for some. But that also means I can focus on my project and shut out at least a portion of the politics of the organisation I’m consulting with, and that ultimately means I can do a better job as well as be less stressed in doing it. Which is the whole point of this lifestyle, so it’s ultimately a small price to pay. True, it still keeps me from the hills for big chunks of time, but overall I’m spending more time up high than I did before, and because I’m not stressed when I arrive it’s better quality walking time.
I seem to have fallen on my feet in my first contract, although it is at the opposite end of the scale to my old job – a company with less than a dozen staff compared with over 40,000 before. But because it’s small, all of the projects have come to me which means I’m getting exposure to many more things than I would have done somewhere larger, which should be good in terms of the next contract…It turns out to be just what the doctor ordered. This lifestyle certainly isn’t about climbing a career ladder – been there, done that, got the corporate t-shirt. For me it’s about maintaining the same standard of living, but working a bit less to enable me to spend more time outdoors. So it’s fair to say that my walking has become the driving force behind how I have organised my professional life, and I know some of you reading this blog will be in the same boat too, and will understand. Some of you are also my ex-colleagues, and I think you’ll understand too, even if this lifestyle isn’t one you’d opt for. So I’m writing this realising I’ve been incredibly lucky in where I’ve ended up, and that I have found the work-life balance I so desperately needed.
Next month things go full circle when my old boss also leaves my ex-employer, and I will be returning for her drinks, where I will see all the people I left behind me last year. And I firmly believe I’ll have a massive grin on my face.