The alternate title for this blog post might be, “Why I Bailed On Corporate America” or “The Day I Threw Caution To The Wind And Decided To Dismantle My Life With No Game Plan Whatsoever, And Still Miraculously Landed On My Feet”… But both of those titles seemed a bit long, and maybe a tad overly dramatic? … ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
In any case, let us harken back to my days working for Ogilvy & Mather.
For the most part, I loved my years with Ogilvy. I had the opportunity to work with a great team, several awesome clients, and I learned an immeasurable number of things, personally as well as professionally. But like many things in life, my experience was a mixed bag, and about halfway through my time there, I began to entertain a few doubts – little whispers at first, which slowly grew louder over time.
These were the three main sources of my concern –
The first, and the hardest to talk about, was the way in which I realized my professional opportunities were being limited by subtle gender bias. Although on a person-to-person level, I loved and appreciated each individual coworker and felt I had the best supervisor a person could ask for, nonetheless I was still experiencing the daily micro-aggressions that I’m sure will sound familiar to many women – for example, sharing my thoughts and ideas in company meetings, only to have my words repeated verbatim by a louder male colleague sitting next to me, and watching him receive the praise.
But because I liked everyone so much individually, and because I saw other women around me who appeared to be happy and thriving in their positions, it was difficult for me to acknowledge to myself that bias was at play and shaping my opportunities.
In my last year with Ogilvy, I personally pitched, closed, and account managed more business than anyone else in my division, yet I watched as my male colleagues received more recognition. There was a defining moment for me when, on the basis of the value I knew I’d already brought to the table, I put myself forward for a new role that was opening up in London, and the response I received was, “What would you even do there?”
I was so surprised by this response that my only answer was to blink several times and walk out of the office. If that question didn’t smack of condescension, I’m not sure what does. It was the defining, eye-opening moment when I realized my value and potential wasn’t being evaluated on the basis of objective, measurable performance.
The second concern that began to weigh on me was simply that my values were not in alignment with many of the clients whose accounts I supported – for example, Nestlé or Procter & Gamble. When I first started at Ogilvy, I was much more focused on the fact that I liked and enjoyed the individual people with whom I interacted. However, over time, my personal respect and enjoyment of these clients began to be outweighed by the problems I had with the brands and parent companies they represented. I couldn’t justify to myself that I was providing strategy or work product that would benefit companies whose business practices contradicted my personal ethics.
Lastly, the most basic and probably most compelling reason for me to leave was that, on a deep level, I knew that the lifestyle I was leading was utterly out of alignment with the life my soul was yearning to live. When I say “nine to five”, I’m using the term emblematically to represent a structured, mainstream office job – but in reality, I was working far more than a classic 40-hour work week. Days that started at 7:00 or 8:00 am, and continued until 6:00, 7:00, 8:00 pm were far more typical for me, and putting in hours over the weekend was not an unknown event for me, either.
I was investing too much of my time into work, and not enough time into caring for my physical health, my social or romantic life, or my spiritual and creative needs. I had deliberately chosen to over-invest myself in my career, telling myself that “hard work now will pay off later” – but as it became increasingly clear that my investment was not going to pay the dividends I’d imagined, I began to grow dissatisfied with the imbalance.
I also knew that there was something far too wild and bohemian inside me to be truly happy coming to work, day after day, to the same desk in the same building in the same town.
Some people can tolerate or even thrive with this lifestyle, but I wanted to be traveling, experiencing, creating. I wanted to make my own schedule, more in tune with the rhythms of my creative energy and inspiration than with standard business operating hours.
Gunning for that third week of vacation a year was just not going to cut it.
With all these concerns weighing on my heart, you might wonder why I stayed at Ogilvy for several years. It may look like wasted time from the outside, but while I was living the experience, my reservations about leaving seemed legitimate, and there were crucial lessons I needed to learn.
I’d accepted a position with Ogilvy shortly before the housing market collapsed, and it wasn’t long until the economy started circling the drain with it. With unemployment spiking into double digits, I felt incredibly blessed to have any job at all, let alone a well paying job in an industry I generally enjoyed. I assumed any other job I could find would come with all the same drawbacks, or else a major pay cut – I couldn’t imagine a pathway to creating the life I wanted while maintaining the income I needed.
In my darkest moments, I imagined the price of my freedom would be sleeping on a park bench, or furtively darting down alleyways as debt collectors chased me with a crowbar. My voices of fear and doubt kept me pushing forward, even as I knew the path I was walking was just not the right one for me.
However, everything reached a tipping point for me in the Summer of 2010. A certain offshore oil rig had exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, causing one of the biggest oil spills in US history. The company operating this rig had been a longtime client of Ogilvy PR, and a few months after the disaster, I was assigned to be the account manager for the digital arm of Ogilvy’s crisis response efforts.
Anyone who knows me, knows the ocean is my lifeblood. I spent three horrible days trying to wrap my hands around the project during the day, and scrolling through photos of oiled birds and suffocating sea animals while crying my eyes out all night. Red eyed and exhausted, I stood up from my desk on the fourth morning, walked out to my car, and called my friend from the parking lot.
“I’m done,” I said into the phone. “I’m just done.”
My friend absolutely encouraged me to honor this truth, and after our call, I walked into my boss’s office and gave my notice. I was dropping the petroleum company’s account, effective immediately, I said, and I’d stay on for another two weeks to help transition the rest of my accounts. I asked to be allowed to keep my favorite client, and to be allowed to manage the account as a contractor, working remotely.
To my surreal surprise and delight, my boss agreed to all of this, negotiated a reasonable hourly contract rate with me, and voilà! I was on my way.
With no game plan, I’d just bailed on my life, and I felt a bit like I’d jumped out of an airplane without a parachute. I’d love to say that making this transition was “a brave choice” but in reality, I’d ignored my truth so long that I’d reached the point where leaving was no longer optional – being the person that I am, I simply couldn’t go on.
This story has a happy ending, however – one that definitely doesn’t include crowbars and park benches. I might not have had a map to the future in my hands when I jumped, but my cosmic parachute did engage, and by the end of 2010, I was not only living life on my own terms, but I was making twice the income I’d had when I left Ogilvy.
Looking back on the wild, unexpected journey of that year, I made a commitment to myself that I would only ever support clients whose mission and business practices were in alignment with my personal beliefs.
I also recognized that there’s nothing to be gained by ignoring the voice of truth when I hear it speaking inside me. If something is meant to change, it’s simply going to change. The only choice I have in the matter is whether I want to face those changes intentionally and with a plan, or if I’m going to plod forward with my eyes closed, resisting the change until something breaks and redirects on its own.
Although I can’t say that life has been a path of roses since leaving Ogilvy, I can say that I’ve learned innumerable life lessons, improved my physical health, deepened my commitment to my creative process, and made several trips abroad. I’m also breathless with gratitude when I think about the process of building Bijou, and the amazing people and organizations we’ve been able to support.
Have you ever faced a major life choice like this? How did you navigate the process, and where have you ended up? If you have a story to tell, please share your experiences in the comments or join me on on Facebook … And if you’re still struggling with your own dilemma and unsure of your path, let me know that, too – I want to help!
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