I read this article once, many years ago, about this woman who said she’d become unemployable. But she wasn’t talking about her skills or her relevancy, but rather that she had come to this realisation that if being employed meant meeting the prescribed conditions of the standard working world i.e.
…then she was unfortunately – without a shadow of a doubt – unemployable.
I must’ve been like 23 at the time when I read this, in my very first job, and I just had this overwhelming feeling of like “omg, totally! I get it”. But I was young, with zero experience and a mountain of external expectation from my parents and from society that I felt indebted to meet; and to be honest, I didn’t see how I could do anything other than be employed (in the traditional sense of the word). And so despite this alluring ideal of becoming “unemployable”, I stuck it out in employment until…
In my second year of employment, I had a health scare.
It still confuses me how we humans need something as drastic as our very existence to feel threatened for us to make the changes we need to make in order to be who we want or live how we want. But yup, that happened to me. I was diagnosed with a Deep Vein Thrombosis (also known as a blood clot). There was a risk that it would break apart and travel, cause a stroke or a heart attack or some other horrid eventuality, so I was put onto a treatment plan of observed bed rest and blood thinners. In between the “I could’ve died” narratives that flooded my thoughts at the time, I started to question what I really wanted out of my life. And spending (the majority of) my time “employed” was far from what I wanted.
That was the first time I chose to break-up with full-time employment.
In the years that followed my first break-up, I designed my life around:
I was for the most part living my version of a dream life. I had time and flexibility, I had enough money to get by, and I felt personally and professionally fulfilled. My clients were happy too. It was a win-win.
But then, two years later, I made the decision to return to full-time employment.
You may expect me to write about how following my passion wasn’t working out, but it was quite the opposite. My decision to return was at first, a strategic one. My career as a surf photographer was taking shape; many opportunities were happening for me; my work was in line with my soul and I was happy. I wanted to take it to the next level. To do that I needed to hit the international scene to expand my portfolio and my network. And to do that, I needed a lot more cash.
At the time I thought the quickest way to do that was to get a well-paying job, graft hard for a few months, save, resign and then travel. Short term pain for long term gain, really. Which is exactly what I did. I went and found a job in Marketing (what I’d studied) and I found myself battling traffic and once again working the 8-to-5, when much to my surprise, I ended up kind of falling in love with my full-time job. But not yet more in love than I was with my plan to travel and shoot surf all over the world.
And so, to cut a long story short, I ended up getting my cake and eating it: I took a 3-month sabbatical from work, travelled the world following my “passion”, and eventually came back to my full-time role. I subsequently remained in full-time employment, making the decision to abandon my surf photography life and invest in scaling my career in Marketing at this same company for a further 5 years before…
I once again chose to break-up with full-time employment.
The reasons this time were significantly different. I didn’t hate my job, I didn’t hate my company. I was actually just burnt out. I’d spent 6 years (over)invested in my high-powered marketing role, scaling a fast-growing start-up with insane growth targets. I was a shadow of my former self, I’d forgotten who I was outside of work, my confidence was shot, I had been living on caffeine, my physical health was deteriorating, and I was exhausted. But I’ll leave my burnout story for another time.
The point is, I took a long hard look at my life at that point and asked myself how I’d strayed so far from my first commitment to leave full-time employment, despite having had that epiphany early on in my career that it was never meant for me; that I was never meant to work this way. I asked myself how I’d allowed myself to sacrifice so much of myself to make a business I did not own, succeed. I had no balance, I had no time for anything other than work, and I asked myself: “was this the life I wanted to be living?”. The answer was a resounding no, and I set out to make some changes.
When I resigned I did not have a plan for what was next but all I knew was that I needed to regain control of my life, and take full responsibility for my health and happiness. To do that I decided to make a commitment to myself: become unemployable from full-time work, for good (at least from the bums-in-seats, 8-to-5, Monday-to-Friday, minimum-time-off,format). And it was through that lens that I started to make decisions about how to structure my time and my career. Once I’d made that commitment, options like “find another job” were off the table and I was forced to focus on structuring my career in a way that I knew would ultimately serve me best. I defined that as a career that was flexible, autonomous, mapped to my energy cycles, provided learning opportunities, challenged me, and was well paying. Oh, and my “leave balance” would be mine to define and take. And that’s what I have, gratefully, today.
But I need to clarify a few things…
I’m currently not not employed, and I’m not advocating for being ‘unemployed’ either.
I am ‘employed’, just differently – more so on my terms. Terms that I need to have in order to honour my commitment to my health, my passions, my multipotentialite tendencies, and to ensure I’m empowered to manage my energy cycles in the way they need me to. I now operate as an independent consultant and I’m contracted to a few clients who accept and appreciate that I choose to work this way, and I’d argue they still get as much, if not more impact out of me than they would if I sat unproductively in an office chair all day on the days my energy couldn’t be sustained for more than 2 hours.
I also want to be clear that this article is not about me not wanting to work.
I derive a huge sense of self-identity from my work, and my brain salivates when presented with a creative business challenge to solve, or when it’s asked to define a process in ambiguity. I love working. Which is exactly why I need to be more boundaried about how and when I work, otherwise I will probably land up burnt-out again. My decision to break-up with full-time work and be ‘unemployable’ is about knowing myself well enough to know that I don’t fit the mould of the traditional full-time employment model – this ‘system’ doesn’t get the best out of me. And the journey I’ve described in this piece is about having the courage to make the decisions I’ve needed to make to honour these things I know about myself, but forgotten at times along the way. Because when you make the (often tough) decisions to honour the things you know about yourself, you’re giving yourself permission to move towards your potential.
So who knows what the future might hold. What I do know though is that it’s full of potential because I’ve started to design a life and career more true to who I am. In many ways I see my current career as an intermediary space – a waiting area somewhere between full-time employment, and full self-employment. I’m not yet sure which will be my final destination, but what I do know is that whatever I choose it’ll be right for me because I know myself better now.
If you’re feeling a tension between where you’re at right now and who you really are/want to be, perhaps you’ll be interested in hearing about my latest business venture: The Potential Program. Check it out – it could help.
The full program will be launching in April, and if you sign up now, you’ll automatically get 40% off our early launch pricing.
If you’re wondering what happened to my surf photography career: at first I tried to do both. But a lesson I came to learn is best summed in the the saying “what you give energy to, lives”. I ended up finding that I couldn’t give enough energy to either of my passions to make either really live so I was forced to pick. I ultimately made the decision to invest whole-heartedly in my marketing career and gave up the surf photography. And that was okay. I came to realise that passion isn’t one thing, one place, or one person – it’s a feeling. And it’s possible to be passionate about lots of different things at once. Therefore, the age-old cliche advice of “follow your passion” is a pretty difficult thing to do, at least it was for me in this context because I had to decide which passion to follow.
GetSmarter ultimately became a South African start-up success story, with the founders exiting in one of the biggest international acquisitions ever achieved by a South African business. It was a privilege and an honour to be a part of that journey and to have played a part in that success. I wouldn’t take back being a part of that for the world, and I’m grateful for the opportunities the experience I had there has afforded me. I just wish I’d understood myself a bit better in the process of working there.
I’m fully aware that I made the choice to work like this. I have no one else to blame but myself for landing up in burnout, but I was young, naive and an over-achiever. Pair a fast-growing start-up with an unaware over-achiever and you’ve bought a one-way ticket to burnout. I learnt a valuable lesson in the importance of matching my high achiever nature with the right work conditions.