Wednesday Wellbeing: What do you want? By Geoff

Guest post by Geoff Rimington

I’m an indecisive person at the best of times and this question encapsulates a conundrum that I have struggled with pretty much all of my working life. I didn’t become a solicitor because I felt a vocation or some burning desire to further the cause of justice. I did it because I needed a fairly well-paid job that satisfied my family’s expectation that I should “get a profession”; because I was too squeamish to be a doctor, dentist or vet; and ultimately because I couldn’t think of anything else. My decision had absolutely nothing to do with what I actually wanted to do, quite simply because I didn’t know. In retrospect, it was my first step towards falling into a trap I have already mentioned, which involves letting other people persuade you that what they want is what you want.

When you are young and being paid fairly well, the fact that you don’t know what you want to do career-wise isn’t much of an issue; after all there’s plenty of time to work it out. More often than not, however, you will already have fallen into the trap of letting others tell you what you want. Even worse, you might think that as long as you’re well paid it doesn’t really matter. In my case, I convinced myself that I wasn’t ambitious and I managed my lack of job satisfaction by reducing my expectations. As long as I had the money and time to do the things I enjoyed outside work, that was all that mattered. How wrong I was.

Doing something because you can’t think of anything else to do works in the short term, but causes problems later on. I remember reading one of those articles in the in-house magazine at my old firm, in which a partner generously shares the secrets of his success and, if you’re very lucky, gives you a glimpse of his glittering life and career. Asked what advice he would give to those aiming for partnership, the partner in question stated simply that you have to love what you do, and want to be a partner more than anything else. Underneath the satisfaction he clearly gained from being able to say with confidence that he knew what he wanted and had achieved things which lesser mortals could only dream of, he articulated a harsh reality. That when you’re stuck on your own working late in the office and feeling out of your depth, eating a pre-packed, slightly warm prawn sandwich from a vending machine, wearing yesterday’s underpants and socks because you haven’t got round to doing the washing and M&S wasn’t open yet when you went past earlier on the way to work, you can’t do it for very long without some sort of belief that this is a step towards achieving your ultimate goal. When the scales fall from your eyes and you realise what’s really been motivating you, reality bites to put it mildly.

In my case, I was motivated by fear: fear of failure, fear of disapproval and fear of the unknown. I was brought up to be a good boy, to do as I was told and to do my homework on time. Life as a practising solicitor was just an extension of that. I’m methodical, I have good attention to detail and I like to think that I am helpful. They sound like such positive attributes, until you realise that things have gone too far; when methodical becomes pedantic and resistant to change; when helpful becomes controlling; and when good attention to detail turns you into a perfectionist who checks and re-checks his work obsessively, beating himself up for making the slightest mistake. Add an unhealthy dose of status anxiety and you end up with a heady cocktail that causes you frantically to hold onto what you have, rather than face up to what you need to do to make things change. 

I worked hard because I was scared of what might happen if I didn’t. I kept doing it because my fear of the unknown persuaded me that much as I might want things to change, the risk of making an irreversible mistake in the process was too great. Better to choose stability and familiarity than risk losing everything in the pursuit of something better.

Fast forward a few years to when I handed in my notice without having another job to go to. Up until that point my career had been dictated by what I didn’t want; moving away, never towards. I knew that if I wanted to avoid repeating past mistakes there was no point looking for a job straight away. I needed to deal with quite a lot of other stuff first. In any event, resisting the urge to look for another job was part of the process of facing up to my fear of failure and the unknown.

After an initial honeymoon period lasting a couple of months, during which I felt a mixture of relief, euphoria, optimism and anger at all the time I had wasted, the irrational fears of being unemployable and ending up as a tramp kicked in. I knew I wasn’t ready to look for a full-time job, so I decided to buy myself some time and manage the anxiety of not working full-time by seeing if there was anything I could do freelance. I chatted to a few friends, thought about things I could do and lined up some freelance editing work for a legal publication. This helped considerably, but I still knew that I needed to start thinking about what I wanted to do long-term, even if I wasn’t actually going to start looking just yet.

Friends suggested I have “coffee” with a couple of their contacts. Apart from learning the hard way that having “coffee” means having a bizarre not-quite interview, during which you pretend you’re just having a coffee and a chat, but at the same time sell yourself without making it obvious that you’re selling yourself (or in my case, you don’t sell yourself and make it pretty obvious that you didn’t realise you were supposed to), this was a total waste of time. It also usually involved being asked at some point what I wanted (much more subtly of course), to which I didn’t have much of an answer beyond not knowing and trying to work it out. One particularly awkward “coffee” involved a very decent bloke telling me quite bluntly that he couldn’t help me if I didn’t know what to ask for, at which point the penny finally dropped and I went away licking my wounds. Looking back, it was a very well-intended kick up the backside, for which I will always be grateful, and a lesson learned: never go for “coffee” unless you know what you want from it.

Overall, despite a few hiccoughs and sleepless nights, I settled into life outside full-time employment surprisingly fast. The freelance work provided reassurance by confirming that I wasn’t unemployable and that there was an alternative, at least in the short term, to what I had previously been doing. It also provided enough cash to live on, albeit with a number of economies. The safety cushion in the bank, which had previously provided an immediate lifeline when I left my full-time job, became a more long-term source of reassurance, something to be drawn on in the future if things went wrong. Managing to live without dipping into it meant that the day when it would run out became less of an inevitability, stretching progressively further into the future as time passed. I started to become more comfortable with the uncertainty in my life resulting from no longer being in full-time employment. I started to relax, and worry less. The longer I managed to live life without my fears materialising, the more I came to terms with those fears, and the less fearful I became.

As for my fear of disapproval, well that bit the dust pretty much as soon as I resigned. My close friends and family, and most of all my lovely boyfriend Nick (aka the fella), were totally supportive. I also lost touch with anyone else who might look down on what I had done or dump their own status anxiety onto me.

Despite being more relaxed and less fearful about things generally, my efforts to work out what I wanted to do long-term, which involved thinking about what I might do that wasn’t related to law, weren’t bearing much fruit. All I could think of were impossible pipedreams or things that would take years to achieve. Before you ask, apart from a career in film or television, I quite fancy being a croupier, a tailor, a butler or an airline pilot. I also have a slight hankering to open a café or travel the world as a flight attendant (first class only, obvs). I was pretty much at a loss to come up with anything unrelated to law that would pay the bills within a reasonable period of time. I concluded that the most sensible thing after all would be to do something related to law.

I thought back to my career to date and realised that of the things that I had done, there was very little that I couldn’t bear to do; I just didn’t want to do any particular thing all the time, and I wanted a life outside work which didn’t involve worrying about work. It struck me that what I really wanted was variety, a healthy balance between the good and the bad work stuff, and the ability to be healthily in control of what I did. Because I was no longer so worried about what might happen unless I got a full-time job doing what I had been doing before with a particular level of income, I started to be less worried about the sort of job I might do long-term. I also found that the longer I managed to live life without being in full-time employment, the less I focused on making up for what I no longer had in terms of money and security by getting another full-time job. Instead I started to focus more on what I had gained in terms of time and freedom by leaving my job and, more importantly, what I would be sacrificing by going back into another full-time job. This was a bit of a turning point for me as a lightbulb came on and I realised that a long-term freelance career focusing on things I had enjoyed in the past might be the answer.

Three and a half years later, I am writing this blog post whilst sitting on my balcony in the sunshine on a weekday afternoon. I have a day off tomorrow, I’m teaching in the morning the day after tomorrow and for the rest of the week I’ll be writing the materials for a new session I’ll be delivering later in the year. I’m waiting to hear back from a law firm for whom I’ve been automating a large document which is currently being tested, and I recently spoke to someone about the possibility of helping them edit their online legal materials to reflect changes resulting from Brexit. The job might not materialise of course, but that’s ok as there are a couple of other things in the pipeline and I have the safety cushion if things really dry up. In any event, I still have quite a few unread books and I’m thinking about perhaps blogging a bit more, so I won’t be twiddling my thumbs. When I was going through particularly bad times at work, I fantasised about being offered a 50% pay cut in exchange for being happy. Of course I always concluded that I would do it in a heartbeat if only it were possible. Looking back, by resigning and doing my own thing, that’s effectively what’s happened.

I still don’t think I’ve quite worked out what I want. The essential difference, however, is that I don’t beat myself up about it anymore and I’m having a lot more fun along the way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a perfectionist and I still have moments when I lose my confidence and worry about where things are going. It happens less often than before, though, and as time passes I have an increasing bank of evidence that helps me to keep things in perspective. As for the partner whose glittering life I read about? I don’t believe he really knew what he wanted either. Looking back he strikes me as a scared little boy, just like me, the only difference being that his fear took him all the way to the top. I dread to think what motivates him, but I would pay handsomely to be a fly on the wall when the scales finally fall from his eyes.