I’m the kind of person that wants improvements in my life without having to change anything I do. I want to lose weight without having to give up french fries. I want to get fit by reading a book about it. I want to be less stressed out at work without giving up any interesting projects. I want magic to be real.
But I know it doesn’t work that way. When I went to talk with the chief program officer (CPO) at the non-profit where I work this summer and said, “I don’t want to quit this job, but this isn’t working for me. I need a leave of absence, and I need a more sustainable work life when I come back,” I knew I was taking a risk. I told myself that I was willing to accept the consequences because I could not continue the way I was going.
On Sunday I met with the CPO for the first time since my leave started on October 1, to have our initial conversation about what my job might look like when I return on January 4. She had asked me before to imagine my current work was all taken away, and I had a clean plate: what would I want to be on that plate? So I talked about the type of tasks I like the best and the content areas that awaken the most passion for me. It was clear from the direction of the conversation that she was thinking I should move away from a senior management role to something else we have yet to define. probably something like senior researcher. And while we talked, I started thinking about all the things I liked about being a director. I started playing with the idea that maybe I could keep all those things in there. She said we would both think more and talk when I return from my upcoming trip, but she thought I should start to adjust to the idea of not being a director. This felt really uncomfortable. I identify now with the director role. I like the authority and legitimacy it gives me inside and outside our organization. I like making decisions about budgets and hiring and developing junior staff (I like being the boss). Also, the idea of leaving that leadership role but staying on in the organization was provoking a sense that I had failed.
I left her house and started to drive home, feeling kind of sad and kind of mad at myself for messing up my career. The drive is not that far, maybe 15 minutes. And in that time, I felt a shift in me. I remembered that what was killing me at work was the huge load of management tasks and meetings that often took most of the day, meaning I had to come home in the evening and do project work. Imagine if I only spent my time on project work. I’m good at it. It’s satisfying. I can still mentor junior staff through project teams. I can work more directly with clients.
If I’m not trying to do everything, as I was for most of this year and a good part of last, I’ll be able to do a better job with the research projects. I’ll get my evenings back again, and my weekends. I will have time and space to take care of myself. I will be able to do the healthy things (therapy, yoga, walks with the dogs, reading, resting) that just may keep me out of the deepest depressive pit.
Earlier I told myself I would accept the consequences. Though I still don’t know exactly what those consequences are, it’s clear there will be some big ones. I need to be brave enough to accept the changes so I can move from insanity to sustainability. It’s a bit scary. I’ll have to give some things up, but I can let myself mourn the loss of those things. I want to recognize though that change does not have to mean failure. Acknowledging my limits and arranging my life to honor them can be, on the contrary, an achievement.