Towards the end of last year, I cleared my laptop history of feminist film blogs, deleted 418 screenshots of client competitors doing clever things from my phone and handed in the security pass I had almost managed to lose – for the first time since being given it four years earlier, when we moved to that building – at my leaving drinks. I put my mug in kitchen, tucked in my chair and headed out into a cold, November night. And with that, I no longer worked for an agency.
I didn’t take any time off between that and the next thing. I’m prone to catastrophising, and I didn’t need any excuse to build up my fears about that next thing. Besides, I’d already called in a favour that the agency kindly agreed to and cut short my notice period because the next place wanted someone sooner rather than later. A busy, blossoming start up on the brink of ever more marvellous things, I’d be joining at a pivotal, transitional time. Also, I was going to have three weeks off over Christmas with friends from Australia, so the sooner I bedded in, the better.
That was then. I’m past the six month point as I write this. Even now I still catch a whiff of new job queasiness. On the one hand I will never understand relentless job-hoppers because why would you want to feel this unstable all the time? On the other I wonder if that’s how you eventually kill off imposter syndrome for good – by never being anywhere long enough to develop a comfort zone. I doubt I’ll ever find out, since I like getting cosy, but it’s something to think about. One day. Maybe.
I’ve had five jobs in a row where I feel like I’ve been very, very lucky with the people. I’ve heard enough office politics horror stories to know that it’s not the case with every workplace. With this last move I had to practically tear my roots out with my fists because it felt like home; yes, with some of the grumbles and gripes that come from being too close to people, but with the guarantee of friends for life and deep personal and professional trust. These were – are – Good People. I left because it was time – because I was rooted so deeply, so comfortably, I knew I’d started burrowing down instead of straining for the skies. In stunting my growth, I’d be doing those who gave me opportunities as much of as a disservice as I’d be doing myself and my family. And in the end, there were two things at interview that gave me reassurance that I might be able to find that level of trust again. The first was the person I’d be reporting to being disarmingly honest about both the strengths and weaknesses of the current setup, and where I could be instrumental in supporting one and transforming the other. The other, frankly, was one of the team that would be reporting to me making it sound like The West Wing: “I can honestly say I’m surrounded by the smartest people, having the smartest conversations,” she said. “Even just sitting here at lunchtime – I learn so much every day.”
The joy of being around very clever people every day – she was right, which was no surprise as she’s one of them – is that you constantly fill yourself up with things that you didn’t know the day before. The sorrow of being around very clever people every day – this she didn’t mention – is that you’re constantly reminded of things that you don’t know. My nature is to second-guess myself. My refrain, which should be why not? is, much more frequently than it should be, why me? With my 40th birthday virtually around the corner, my ability to give a damn radically reduces; my sack of cares has split a seam and is emptying behind me, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. But still, a radical shock to the system like starting a new job in a role that’s familiar but an industry that isn’t – and without the cushioning effect of people who have known me for a long time, know what I’m capable of and understand what I need to get the job done – does do a temporary job of topping it up again. To make things more complicated, there have been a number of familial stresses, the worst of which was a close relative, already navigating substantial disabilities, suffering a life-threatening infection on the day I started (I, oblivious, locating the loo and marvelling at the snack cupboard only to discover later that a bowel-clenchingly awful domestic disaster had been unfolding just out of my field of vision). I take it as a sign of a new job well chosen that when I felt I should disclose that things were a bit less than perfect at home – just in case I leapt up for a phone call – I was greeted with deep, affectionate concern and offers of time off to deal with things.
Anyway, that story is not by any means entirely mine to tell, and I mention it mostly to give myself permission to not have been my absolute best and most determined self. To recognise that I might be giving myself more of a kicking than I actually deserve, for reasons that are actually out of my control.
Recently I visited my old workplace for the first time since I left – for some leaving drinks, funnily enough. I felt weird enough about it that another former colleague and I co-ordinated and arrived and left together; of course we got a warm welcome and it felt simply lovely to hug my way around the room. Of course, it was a bit like returning from holiday – only instead of telling everyone the same stories about amazing meals and hilarious mixups I was filling them in on how-the-new-job-is. And because I’m very British but not very English, I actually gave honest answers. About how it took me a while to find my feet, and if they’d asked me in December I’d have looked scared but when they ask me now I answer with a genuine, broad smile. As with every job move I’ve ever made I spent the first three months desperately insecure and occasionally wondering if I’d done the wrong thing and when they’d find me out. And I’ve come to the conclusion that even if I won the damn lottery I’d feel the same. Any change, no matter how good for me, will feel deeply unsettling for a few months – and then one day, without my having really noticed, I’ll look up and I’ll be right at home.
What’s really revealed that to me this time was getting the opportunity to recruit a member of my team myself; it took months to find and secure the right person, wait through their notice and welcome them – and in settling them in, I found that I had sprung a few new roots myself. I started to get the shape of the space I have made for myself; what I’m getting known for, what I still need to carve out. It’s a very small, narrow and personal thing; my world and the wider world are full of huge, difficult, painful, confusing things and I cannot find the words for those so I build a small outpost in myself instead, from which to try to view things with more fortitude and raise my child to be a helper. This choice I made on what the flavour of my next great mouthful of life would be means nothing to the whole. But what we take is also a taste of what we give, so I am taking the precious fortune of time that I’ve been granted to reflect on where it can take me (and therefore where I can take us).
And that, with absolutely no detail at all – but every detail that matters – is what has happened since I changed jobs. Which means there’s only one question left, now that I’ve settled in enough to really start getting the job done.
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