As I sat down to write this week’s post, I felt that anything less than a fully vulnerable post just wasn’t worth the reader’s time. I’ve been through a lot of loss recently, and I didn’t want to cover up my process with a placating post about how you can make it through anything. I wanted to tell you the truth, to help you understand what my resilience and encouragement is based on. This however, was followed by the realization, “You are crazy to be vulnerable!” What the world wants to hear is that you have figured everything out, that you are comfortable, always happy, always positive, never sad, and have an answer to everything.
That just isn’t my story.
Allow me to take you on a journey to about 16 months ago. I had been working in consulting for just over a year. During that time, I was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease, showed up in the ER with a blood clot during the first week at a client, and went through a period of disability where I basically lost my shoulder function. It was not my best year. On the outside, I was successful, I had a doctorate and a great job–on the partner track, no less. Inside, I was shattered. I was constantly stressed at work because I seemed to not be performing at the level I had always been able to achieve.
I had recently entered remission, so I figured everything was okay physically. I kept working out 5-7 days per week, dropped nearly 40 pounds with a diet that became more and more strict over time, to the point where I was fearful of eating anything not on my plan. I kept putting stress on myself to produce at the client, with variable results. I felt my worth becoming increasingly attached to my performance evaluations. The tension between who I knew myself to be as a successful researcher and graduate of a doctoral program, and the experience I had struggling to get to the top in my new field–known as cognitive dissonance–was surreal. Outside: Successful. Inside: Hot Mess.
I tried googling “life after consulting” to figure out what people did in my situation. I didn’t find much.
Everyone I knew was determined to stick around long enough to become a senior consultant, then manager. I knew the partner path would kill me–literally. Every time I visited my doctors, they urged me to leave my job. They reminded me that nothing threatened my remission as much as stress. Stress had become my life.
I soon spiraled into an episode of depression and anxiety. Only, I didn’t know it was an episode. I thought it was my new life. I broke down in tears while talking to my mother, while having dinner with friends. I became increasingly isolated. No more Saturdays watching football with fellow Stanford alumni, as misery became my company.
I thought for sure no one else would understand what I was going through.
I had started working on a new federal project where I was increasingly recognized for my successful efforts. Because the role was remote, I only needed to travel periodically. I was able to balance better and take care of my health. I was leveraging my public health expertise and building strong relationships with the client. I even started seeing a therapist who helped me understand what I was going through. I thought for sure things would get better, but the stress did not completely subside.
During this time, I interviewed with an organization whose purpose and mission I truly believed in. I eventually was selected for the role. When I was in my early twenties, I had two goals: to work for the CDC (which I did from 2004-2006), and to eventually become a CEO. I couldn’t believe that the latter was actually becoming a reality.
What came next was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I took a walk on the beach, and realized that the center of God’s will for my life, and the center of God’s will for that organization might not be the same thing. I loved their mission. I wanted to give myself over to it fully. However, I reflected on the short and long-term implications. If I gave the position my all (as I knew I would), would it trigger more health problems? I also had received notification that my current project was being extended. I genuinely loved working with my client and didn’t want to leave prematurely.
I had to let the position go, and trust that it would work out.
The day I planned to inform them, I was on vacation in Hawaii with friends. We had taken an early morning trip to the top of Mount Haleakala in Maui, where we planned to see the sun rise at 10,000 feet, then bike down from 6,500 feet. On the last mile of the trip, I flew over my handlebars and bruised much of my body in the fall–stopping just feet in front of a horrified, but thankfully careful, driver.
I was told that I was lucky–not everyone survives.
I returned to the cruise ship in tears, shaken and in shock. I had to make the most difficult call of my life to an organization I had grown to love while literally feeling bruised and broken in my body. Afterwards, I felt a mixture of sadness and relief. I didn’t know what was next.
I returned to my project and kept pushing forward. As the work responsibilities grew, the stress became more somatic. Over the years, I had pushed myself through an honors thesis and a dissertation, but that push wasn’t working anymore. Even though I loved my work, my body started breaking down. I had a major episode of fatigue that hit me so hard I would feel the urge to go back to bed for the day by 9am. I struggled to write a three sentence email. I had no resilience left. It was time to let go.
Let go? But how?
A part of me wanted to hold on and continue proving myself. However, there was another part of me waiting for me to stand up. To recognize that taking care of myself was MORE important than the worth I derived from professional success. Letting go, making a conscious choice for health instead of “doing what it takes to make it to the next level” is something I try to teach my clients. But I realize now that I have to be honest with them, to let them know I’ve been where they are.
I’ve stared the same choices down, and made a sacrifice to preserve myself.
I made choices to work on projects at my firm that helped me stabilize my health as long as possible, knowing that it meant risking my promotion. And, I knew that not getting my promotion meant leaving the firm. I am grateful to my colleagues who helped ease my transition by helping me brainstorm new roles. However, I knew that another stressful role would have the same end result. In the end, I was let go, and had to figure out the next step. You would think this would be the scariest moment of my life, but it wasn’t.
What brought me clarity was my disease.
When I was first diagnosed, it was a wake-up call to make sure I did what I loved with my life. I will be having quarterly remission checks for the rest of my life (I promise, it’s not as scary as it sounds). However, it is what I do NOW, while I am healthy, that matters to me in the end. I knew when I was first diagnosed that I had to get back to my passion, empowering others through speaking and coaching. Now, the opportunity was staring me in the face.
Overnight success? Only if it’s a long night!
I hoped for an easy transition. I had been speaking for 10 years, and coaching since 2010, so I was hopeful that things would pick up now that I had the time to focus on my dream business. I’m here to tell you that it is not that easy. I had promising conversations early on that helped me have a “pie in the sky” mentality. But fortunately, I also saved like mad the entire time I was working, just in case I ever had to take an unplanned sabbatical. This was the best thing I had ever done.
I soon learned in building my business that even if you are credentialed and have amazing life experiences to share, you still need grit, fantastic marketing, and more than one human’s share of patience. The constant blur of people claiming to make $5,000 or $10,000 per month with little to no time investment became overwhelming. I had enough life experience to know that there are no guarantees, and that everything that glitters is not gold. I had to ask myself what I really wanted out of this. If it was really to help people, I had to get over the discouragement and stay the course. If it was to solely to make money, I could surely think of easier ways.
I decided to do it the hard way. I decided to find the path that worked for me.
Rather than hop into monetizing, I took time to really learn my business. I drowned myself in information. I spent hours writing blog posts and weekly newsletters, while drowning out the banter in my head that wanted to measure my success by who was signing up my services. I focused on giving, because it is an important value for me. I started a Facebook group for women figuring out what they wanted to do, and made it a space where they could be vulnerable and ask for help without fear of receiving unsolicited sales pitches. However, because I have student loans and health insurance to pay, I soon learned a technique that I pass on to other entrepreneurs and small business owners.
Learn how to leverage your existing skill sets while you are building your dreams.
I thought about the skill sets that would make me an even better coach and speaker. I looked for opportunities that would allow me to utilize my strengths and develop new skills. I soon found myself consulting in the public health arena, and using my doctorate to teach at the undergraduate level. I never imagined when I graduated that I would become a public health entrepreneur, blending my love for my public health with the pursuit of other passions.
I had overcome the intense pressure from the outside world and made the choice to do what I loved. Then, came the hard work.
It literally gives me goosebumps to realize I’m doing something that I had never seen anyone else do. I can’t believe I have the honor of creating my own agenda, my own life. Its an overwhelming responsibility at times, but I knew that it would not be easy. I just hoped perhaps it wouldn’t be so hard. I had to overcome the fear of rejection and make pitches, create opportunities, and build income streams to overcome dependence on a paycheck.
I write about balance and self-care because I have to practice it in my own life.
I have to set boundaries around my work so that I don’t go back to practices that threatened my health. I conduct strategic life design workshops because I have had to cultivate my own life around my needs. I talk about the importance of accountability and support because my feet have been held to the fire every step of the way by people who believed in me. They encouraged me to make my website public, to publish my blog, and to start the ebooks and courses I have in the pipeline.
I’m writing this post to let you know that every talk I give, every post I write, every project I take on and complete is a reflection of my own journey. I take on each task with intention, and a great sense of responsibility and purpose. I reevaluate my networks and commitments constantly to make sure they are in line with my goals. I want to be sure I am in the position not just to take care of myself, but to give as much as I can to as many people as possible.
I don’t just talk the talk.
When I go through periods that are tough for me, I talk about them openly. How can I challenge you to lead with authenticity in your personal and professional life if I don’t do the same? Last week, I did not send out a newsletter because I was gathering with my family to pay tribute to my uncle’s life. I came home from the funeral to find out close friends were involved in a fatal accident. I was crushed.
I decided to be transparent on social media about my pain, because we hide so much to our own… Click To Tweet
I talked about how I felt and what was helping me to heal. I do this to remind you that no one’s life is perfect. When times are challenging, I want you to know that we all face an uphill battle, and have to make difficult choices. Your life is important. Your needs and values are important.
I write my thoughts in a public arena because I know these are things I once was afraid to share out loud. That secrecy can be punishing. Is vulnerability scary? Sure. But it is also liberating, and can help move you closer to your purpose and your authentic self.