The day the doctors told my father he could no longer work was the day he accepted his death sentence. He was only 59. He had gone deaf due to a growing brain tumor. Yet the doctors said the tumor was operable. There was even a possibility that he could hear again, but they insisted he stop working. No matter how I tried to convince him that he still had a good life left to live, I failed to convince him. Two weeks later, he passed away.
The crazy thing is that I missed the lesson in my father’s passing. My father could not free himself from the identity of being a successful businessman. When he could no longer hold on to that identity, he quit living. All he knew about life was working hard and being the best. He packed his free time with tasks. When he had to give up his addiction to achievement, he gave up his will to survive.
I didn’t see how much I was like him. The obsession I inherited helped me to be successful and almost killed me too. I worked the night after his funeral, thinking that was what he would have wanted me to do. He wanted me to thrive through my achievements at work. I proceeded to be successful partly for myself and partly in honor of his dreams for me.
Then one night 15 years after his passing, I was sitting in the dark of my living room. I didn’t have enough energy to turn on a light. I was 40 years old. I owned a beautiful home plus two cars in the garage. I had plaques and pictures demonstrating that I had achieved world-wide recognition. In the dark, none of that was visible. All I felt was tired, unhappy and hollow.
That night as I sat in the dark, I thought I was alone. I didn’t know there were a growing number of women just like me—confident, passionate, and successful yet disillusioned, exhausted, and empty. With the best of intentions, our parents raised us to excel and society persuaded us to achieve. Being ordinary was not an option.
Today, many women are defining their identities by their work achievements. Until recently, women were much better than men at leaving their work persona at the office. Now, we have graduated from seeing work as something that pays the bills to experiencing our careers as being an integral part of our identity. On the positive side, we are growing in strength and leadership. On the negative side, work has become all-consuming.
The change in behavior of women at work after mid-1980 is due to societal shifts for women that have enhanced both our confidence and our expectations of what we can achieve. For the first time in history, girls are being brought up to believe they can, and should, do something special.
Yet that special thing is not defined and with each achievement, our aspirations are pushed to a higher target. We confuse our life purpose with what gives us recognition and success. We grow increasingly restlessness. Then in our 40s, we begin to wonder if we will ever find our one life path, or at least, some peace of mind.
I came to understand my misguided motivation when I chose to research high-achieving women for my doctoral work, which led to me writing, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction. As they say, we teach what we most need to learn. The work has helped me to understand myself.
Although it took me a few years to clearly articulate what gave me a sense of purpose in my work, I knew that night when I sat in the dark that I needed to take a risk and start my own business. I chose to leave the corporate world and forego a half a million dollars in unvested stock to discover my purpose. Most people thought I was crazy but money had nothing to do with my choice. Upper management had changed the focus of my job. Not only did I lack passion for my new work objective, I had a dream of reaching a bigger audience than I could in one company. I wasn’t sure what companies and audiences would listen, but I felt if I worked hard at making myself visible by doing what I loved, I would find my way to my life purpose.
Every year since I took that leap of faith in 1996 has been wildly fun and mostly successful. As long as I stick with guiding lights of passion and the purpose of changing the conversations in the workplace to be more honoring of the human spirit, then I know I am making good choices.
Your passion can help you make the right choices if you ask and listen. To take the purposeful path, you have to feel what is right for you in your bones, your heart, and your gut. Then, when the world of short-lived rewards keeps calling you back, you have to hold on to your purpose as your anchor and guiding light for your decisions in order to stay on track.
Carl Jung said, “The afternoon of life is just as full of meaning as the morning; only its meaning and purpose are different.” You may have once loved your work but now it feels stale. If you let go of what is disappearing for you, a new life can emerge.
In order to get some control over my life, I had to explore the dark side of my father’s inheritance of excellence by asking myself some very difficult questions. Even today, when I find myself working too hard, I ask myself:
- Who would I be if I were to stop everything and give voice to my heart? What am I keeping in exile that needs to be free?
- Would I cease to exist if I did something “ordinary?” Would this feel like giving up?
- What is disappearing? What is calling me now?
These questions, and others like them, have initiated powerful discussions with my coaching clients as well as for me.
Today I realize that my father wasn’t trying to force me to be successful. He was doing his best to make sure I would lead a happy life where I could experience my full potential. It took me many years to reprogram my brain to consciously choose how I commit my time and energy. Today, I can be successful, busy and at peace.
Marcia Reynolds, PsyD, MCC, is a leadership coach and the author of Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women find Contentment and Direction and The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs. You can read more about Marcia’s work at www.outsmartyourbrain.com.