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When your job is your identity, what's left when you leave it?
It's taken me ten years to find the answer
The other day somebody pointed out that it’s almost ten years since I left my “dream job”. I had fought and struggled and slogged my way to the so-called top (ish) of the magazine industry. (Remember that?) And then for various reasons, some of which I’ve written about before, I looked around and felt… nothing.
Well, to be frank, what I mainly felt was knackered, jaded, and not a little disaffected. I was 46 when I walked into my boss’s office and told her (yes, her, I know, a rarity!) I was done. I was so much my job that she said she didn’t believe me and continued to hold that view until the letter confirming it appeared on her desk a couple of days later.
If that sounds insulting, it really wasn’t, because I was my job and my job was me. If you’d cut off my head I’m pretty sure you would have seen Red magazine running around my neck like a stick of rock. For five, six years, I loved that job, that magazine, those readers, more than life itself. (To my shame, I put it ahead of everything else. I’m lucky I’m still married.) It was the apex of a 20+ year career in magazines. Until it wasn’t. It (the resignation) wasn’t a choice, so much as an imperative. After a long period of attrition I woke up and just knew I was done.
I can rationalise it til the cows come home: the dark pit that I found myself in that I didn’t yet know was a pretty unpleasant case of perimenopause (if you can call it that); the slow painful death knells of the magazine industry that I could see looming on the horizon (they actually came far more quickly than I could ever have imagined); the fact I was 46 and didn’t want to wake up ten – or even five – years later and find myself being walked from the office with the contents of my desk in a box as I had seen happen to so many magazine editors in the generation above me. As it turned out, a variation on that happened to many of my contemporaries much sooner than that, when the money men decided they couldn’t see the point of expensive “name” editors and set about doing away with them.
Anyway, that’s the rationalising. The simple truth is, I felt compelled to leave. It wasn’t rational, it wasn’t even really reckless. It just was.
The day, six months later, I finally left Red (yes, with my belongings in several boxes, mainly insanely impractical shoes, see above. And no, I couldn’t walk in them.) I received a text asking if I regretted the decision. I’d barely been out of the office an hour. I sat on the train, stunned. Did I regret it? Right then? Of course I did! I’d just walked out of what should have been one of the nicest media jobs in the country for no good reason other than I just knew I was done here. Think of it like getting divorced from someone you still love. You know it’s the right thing to do but, wow, is it painful. That’s the general vibe.
Anyway, this is not about that. It’s about what happened next. It’s about the fact that when I woke up in the cold, grey, not-really-light of January 2014 and was no longer editor of Red (Cosmo, Company, Just 17, whatever), I didn’t know who I was any more. My identity was so wrapped up in the persona I’d created that, without it, I truly didn’t have one.
For a while – an indecently long while – I tried to replace like with like. I didn’t do the smart thing and set about establishing who I was without the moniker. Without the job title, the business cards (I hear people still have them), the expense account, the salary (let’s be honest, when you have a large salary, walking away from it is a biggie) and the 250,000 people every month hanging on my every word. Or at least a decent proportion of them. That would have been much too sensible. That would have been admitting that I needed to take a step back and – brace yourselves – “do the work”. (I know, don’t hate me).
I have always been easily suckered by comparison culture, and social media didn’t help that. Instead of stepping right away and working out who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do with the second part of my life (if I’m lucky), I spent the first few months watching the Instagram feeds of the peers I’d left behind, dwelling on where I’d be now if I hadn’t done the thing. I’d like to say I did that for six months and then gave myself a good talking to and moved on, but that would be a big fat fib.
Instead, I spent a large part of the intervening years hiding the fact that I didn’t know what the point of me was any more (not least from myself). I took a job consulting for a high street retailer and, whilst I learnt a huge amount in the year I worked for them, the truth is a little bit of me died every time I walked through the door. I didn’t know who I was, but what it did teach me was who I wasn’t. I left the glossy magazine industry in part because I wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror each morning and I couldn’t always. Working in retail didn’t improve that.
Then, I threw myself whole – body, heart, head and soul – into co-founding The Pool, a mobile platform for women stuffed with talent and ideas of which I was immensely proud. I almost killed myself making it happen, then nearly finished the job trying and failing to keep it alive.
It wasn’t until I finally came up for air, a year or so after The Pool went down, that the truth dawned on me. Far from spending the previous seven years building a new identity, or even attempting to unearth the one long buried under designer bags and performance reviews, I’d been trying to resurrect the old one. Rebuilding a life that was all about meetings and spreadsheets and four hour daily commutes and endlessly worrying about other people’s expectations. Ironically, all things I’d been trying to escape when I’d left magazines. I’d just gone right ahead and recreated them. Every last one. But without the cushion of a massive corporation. Even when It was staring me in the face, I couldn’t or wouldn’t see it.
What do you do? We ask when we meet someone for the first time. What do you want to be when you grow up? We ask children almost as soon as they can talk. Note the what… not who. Never who.
Where was the creativity, the communication, the ideas, I’d so craved? They’d been there at some point. At the start. And then they were lost. Or worse. I let them go.
I’d failed to understand something so startlingly basic that your average toddler could explain it, probably with an eye-roll: there’s a difference between who and what you are. I’m not sure when I’d lost sight of that but it was a pretty long time ago. I’m very much not alone in that. It’s capitalism innit. And as a society we’re hooked on it. Success! Achievement! Followers! Blah! What do you do? We ask when we meet someone for the first time. What do you want to be when you grow up? We ask children almost as soon as they can talk. Note the what… not who. Never who.
And so we - some of us, many of us - become the ‘what’. The ‘who’ so often lost under job titles and pay slips and to-do lists. And as long as the ‘what’ persists, it’s possible to keep going, sometimes for decades, without paying attention to the fact that the ‘what’ is built on hollow foundations without the cement of ‘who’.
It was only when I realised that (yes, yes, thanks therapy) that I stepped back and asked myself precisely what I’d hoped for when I left Red. What I’d hoped for, all those years ago as a gobby 21-year-old, with more front than self-belief, starting out as a temp on Chat magazine who was overjoyed to get the opportunity to write a 150-word piece for the shopping page. What drove me and inspired me and got me out of bed every morning (rent and bills aside, of course)? I wanted to learn, to discover stuff, to talk to people, to tell everyone about it in whatever way worked best. I wanted to communicate and then see the impact of it resonating. It was talking to people and communicating ideas and emotions that I cared about, that was who I was. That was why I had found my way into journalism and magazines in the first place.
Which brings me full circle. Because going back to the beginning made me realise that what I’d wanted way back then was still what I wanted now. Going back to the beginning, looking for the girl who wanted to be a journalist in the first place, is what planted the seed for The Shift, first as a podcast and now here on this flourishing Substack. It reminded me what mattered and showed me I could use the skills I’d learnt in my pursuit of the ‘what’ and turn them into ‘who’. Community, creativity, sharing ideas and information, coming together to support and look out for each other.
It’s ten years next month since I left my corporate job. A whole decade. And, in all honestly, I’m only just starting to feel truly comfortable in my own skin. I’ve stopped running, or even walking away from anything. I’ve finally learnt that it’s what you’re walking towards that matters.
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