We all know that someone who dropped everything and moved to the mountains to herd lamas. If you don’t, feel free to use me as an example, sans lamas or mountains. I recently left my job without a plan for what to do next. It was a long way coming, and I was prepared. Or so I thought.
If you have ever considered a similar move (and honestly, who hasn’t), read on. I have gathered excellent material from the last couple of months.
What to expect when you leave your job and become just a person?
- You will stop drinking alcohol, because the invitations stop coming.
There is no transition period into “being out“. The very moment I stopped being someone in an official capacity, it was as if some manic mailing list fairy had overnight gone through every single distribution list with my name on it and gone “DELETE!!! ”
This is understandable. Any expat knows there are two cities where people openly place more value on a person’s connections than on the person: Brussels and Washington D.C. You have exactly one attempt to explain what you do for living. If you fail to sell yourself as being in a position of power/influence in the first sentence, sorry chickens, but no invitation.
The pleasure of my company was never going to be requested just because of my sparkling personality and my penchant for free champagne, I get that.
Just as there’s no free lunch, there’s no free salmon blini, either.
But it’s a change, all the same. For years my life has been meticulously punctuated by work events that would make up a certain circle of professional life. Now the only notification I get is a note to self to switch to a fresh pair of contact lenses.
- You will be having lots of coffees and lunches in the beginning.
I realised there was a short period when I was exiting my job that sparked interest. People were curious to hear what I was going to be doing next, what my plan was. For this purpose I was awarded an opportunity to explain myself.
There is a concept I call one-shot lunch or a coffee. Whether it’s lunch or coffee, of course, depends on whether the other person is “super busy” or “Haven’t had time to pee for two weeks” – busy.
In such a situation, I would advise you to really take in the person eating their pasta opposite you; maybe take a picture or record a little voice memory. Because unless you have something interesting to present about your future career-moves during that lunch, there will be no follow-up and the two of you shall not break bread again.
In the end of the rendezvous you are delivered the following line:
“OK, so keep me posted when you know where you’ll land”.
There is no exception to this rule.
So you better start running and looking for a landing if you want to see anyone ever again.
- You will realise where Karma lives: in your inbox.
My outgoing email messages these days technically qualify as spam: I have a private email address and my email signature is my name, without any trimmings such as titles and corporate logos. Every message leaving my inbox is accompanied with a quiet wish for it not to be automatically directed to the recipient’s junk mail folder.
To think that for the past years one of my most frequently composed message was forwarding incoming emails to my assistant, advising her to “pls send regrets”.
To think that there was a time when I pretended to be too fucking busy to type a couple of vowels.
- You will reclaim your right hand.
It took me about two months to wean myself off obsessively checking my phone.
During a recent lunch with a former colleague I watched with some nostalgia the familiar choreography I still had left in my muscle memory:
I, too, had stormed into restaurants for lunch dates and proceeded to set up my wireless situation- and control centre on the table, while nervously checking for all nearby charging points – all before first exchanging basic greetings.
I, too, had frantically kept glancing at the 6 inch screen for every notification like a lunatic who believes the survival of humankind to hinge on their preparedness to react to incoming alerts – including newsletters that have to be immediately deleted or apocalypse.
I don’t judge. As I said, I was like that, too. And sometimes it was urgent.
Now my right hand just sort of hangs there, at the end of the right arm, fingers slowly relaxing from the ossified mobile-claw.
- You will learn about humility.
Leaving office on the last day, having handed in my armour of laissez passer, phone and access badge together with title, affiliation and salary was a thorough ego-check.
I was not sure whether it was the unbearable lightness of being, or my having parted with the accoutrements of status that made me feel like I’d left part of me in the bureau of departures.
What was I anymore?
(This is not to be taken at face value, by the way, and we have to be honest here: I still have my network and contacts. It’s not like I haven’t done anything in the past 20 years. It’s not like there’s nowhere to go.)
But all the same, it has been a useful, humbling experience. It has greatly helped with the necessary self-reflection. When shit got real, I was finally snapped out of my funk.
- You will become the one with the 1st world problems.
I have checked my privilege. I am a white, educated, fully vaccinated EU-passport holder, insured up to my eyeballs for sickness and accidents. I only need to keep myself alive. I will not starve.
The question of privilege was a regular part of the menu whenever my not having a plan –situation was discussed. I often found myself on the defence: I became the one whose issues were labelled such first world problems.
(The irony is not lost – most people making these comments come from the exact same objective privilege as me: we hardly struggle with access to clean drinking water or basic healthcare. We are considered expats, not immigrants – a huge status symbol we rarely think about.)
But I get that. Change is always disruptive, even if it is someone else’s life. Most people I know mull over their career and life choices. Many would like their lives to change, but without them having to change anything.
This is how our brains are wired: to shield us from uncertainty and inconvenience.
- You will gain a new perspective to everything.
I was leaving a world of “yes”. There has been no saying “no” in my thus far professional life. (They don’t call us civil servants for nothing!)
Saying “yes” to as much as possible is the expectation also outside the office cubicles. We are expected to hustle, mingle and to network and to ensure that we are, at all times, seen and heard on all forums, online or off.
Stepping off this gangplank has been a difficult exercise. Old habits die hard.
I am the first to admit that the nagging voice “you might never get asked again” is hard to shake.
Being in charge of how I wish to engage with the world is the ultimate luxury. It goes against the playbook of the Attention Economy, though, which wants our availability all the time, because everything about us needs external validation to truly exist.
Your personal brand is not yours alone to build, you see.
But my time – like everybody else’s – is precious and limited. I might not know yet what I am going to be doing, but I might already have a clearer idea of what I will not want to spend my time on in the future.
My motivation was not to eat, pray & love around the world and find myself in the process.
I figured I still have more than two decades left in active employment, wouldn’t I want to do something different?
Could I do something different?
Could I exist outside the bubble?
Would I dare?
- Final point: you will be very trendy.
Two words: Meghan Markle.