When my high school counselor first told me “It’s not where you start, but where you finish,” I was disgruntled. He shared that dictum in response to where I wanted to go to college and, at the time, I expected more encouragement than pragmatism. Unfortunately for me (at the time), he was right. I didn’t get into Northwestern out of high school. Instead, I went to community college, applied again and was accepted as one of two transfers to the School of Communication at Northwestern.
His phrase, which may be a twisted epitaph, was likely born out of his role as the coach of the cross country team. As I mature and only run to catch trains, his advice has proven to be a life truth. But its utility is when looking in the past. In the moment it’s easy to lose sight of what could be.
It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.
There was a TED talk that explored how resilient we are when facing the extremes of life. People experience traumatic events and survive. They don’t return to life as they previously knew it, but they adapt, they grow, they persevere. It isn’t about where you start, but where you finish.
With a new year freshly in front of me, I set aside some time to reflect on 2016. It was a full year; full of challenges, new experiences, important life lessons. Let’s take a look back!
Enjoy the White Space
Two days after returning from holiday vacation I was informed that my position was eliminated. Not really the best way to start a year, especially in Chicago where the kindest descriptor of the weather is “face-numbing cold.” Five months prior to this news, I had purchased a home that significantly increased my living expenses. All the security I had was quickly disrupted.
I took a week to process what had happened, revamped my resume and started the blitz on applying for new jobs. At the time, I was oddly appreciative for being laid off. I was given a huge gift even though it looked nothing like a present anyone would ever desire. The gift was that of time. I purchased a house and was rarely home to enjoy it. I had friends, but seldom saw or spoke to them. Piles of unread magazines and no time to sponge up new knowledge. There were fitness goals, but few trips to the gym.
An alumna shared advice on how to handle the new found time: enjoy the white space.
When you’re unemployed you get asked a few questions nearly daily:
- What do you want to do?
- What’d you do?
- Have you found something yet?
- What about now?
I didn’t have an answer for the first and most frequent question. “Retiring” seemed like the wrong and right answer. Some interviewers were treated to that reply when they asked me what I was currently doing.
TED talks, podcasts, alumni webinars, books and Harvard Business Review replaced reading work emails. The library became my office. I was also given the gift of renewed friendship and new relationships. Caught in the 7AM-6PM work cycle, I lost sight of bonds with my friends. I didn’t make time to catch up with my closest friends. Now I had time to chat and reconnect.
With my new found white space I had time to figure out what it was I wanted to do next. Coach Darcy Eikenberg’s Red Cape Revolution proved helpful in establishing my answer. Also, thanks to Leslie who guided me to refine what it was I needed and encouraged me to brush up on Salesforce resources. Another big thank you to Kira who reached out with advice that sustained my sanity.
My expansive white space started to collect experiments and be full of activities I wanted to do.
Giving a creative extrovert unrestricted time will create interesting results. When you’re unemployed you find ways to pass time that don’t cost money. To connect with the world outside my house, I decided to commit to something for a month: Crow pose. Yoga has been a stress reliever for me, but practicing weekly wasn’t enough to improve my bakasana. So, I did what anyone would do. Start filming myself doing yoga.
The daily video evolved to include props, music, song requests and an array of outfits. Watch the progress and think about what you can do with consistent practice. I had been occasionally practicing yoga for a few years and I was never able to hold crow pose. Every day I saw progress. Yoga taught me to abandon notions of what is impossible.
Planting Seeds for the Future
How do you follow-up a daily yoga series? By starting a raised bed garden. Taking advantage of the rise of live video sharing and an audience hungry for a daily distraction, I began weekly garden updates. A few videos didn’t make their way to YouTube, but, like the daily crows, gardening reinforced the importance of patience and the unstoppable cycles of life. A strong, tall, fruitful tomatillo plant starts from a tiny seed. You can harvest leaves from the kale plant and it continues to produce new leaves. Beyond occupying some of my free time and supplying me with organic, fresh veggies, the videos created excitement about gardening and a few friends reached out for advice on how they can start their own garden. It also became a talking point during interviews.
A NEW CAREER
On July 25th, one of my career seeds sprouted! After a few exams and rounds of interviews, I started as Senior Customer Success Manager with G2 Crowd, the industry leader in B2B software reviews. My friend’s wife suggested I look into G2 Crowd and I will forever be in gratitude for that recommendation.
Perhaps it was all the silence on the yoga mat or reading the plants stories at sunset, but my appreciation and respect for my new work family is unending.
I have found a culture unlike any other I have ever worked in (and that includes that year I worked at Toys R Us). It is a culture where everyone’s work is valued. All contributions align with the company’s goals. It is an environment that challenges me each day to think how I can best help customers, my coworkers and my community.
Last year may be one of my busiest travel years, in spite being a gardener/yogi for 6 months. The trips included all new cities for me (and some repeats for Leann). It started with a road trip to Minnesota, spring in San Antonio for Leann’s sister’s wedding, a Megabus adventure to keep it weird in Austin, a weekend getaway to the Holland, Michigan area to celebrate my new job, and it wouldn’t be a year without an exploration of Europe. We added new stamps in our passports for Vienna, Salzburg and London. Naturally there are tons of stories to share from each of the cities and I hope to chronicle them in some way in the near future. Maybe when I start working on my man-oirs, I’ll pen some of these.
Advice from a yoga podcast stuck with me this year.
If you don’t do things to keep your cup full, you have nothing left to give or share with others.
I was incredibly fortunate to enjoy new places near my home and very far away. Travel is one of the many things that fills my cup, often with local wine or potentially tourist trap tap water in Vienna that was passed off as spring water for 6 euros (I said I was over it and would never speak of it, but here we are).
No. Thank YOU
Trying to convey how last year changed me is difficult. The white space allowed me to see and do so much. Not to go all George Bailey, but at a time when I was alone and could’ve thought less of myself, I was lifted up by the love of friends and family. While my paycheck shrunk, it was eclipsed by the richness of companionship. In 2016, I gained perspective and, like Stella, got my groove back.
A lifetime of thanks to one of my oldest and closest friends who was the first to call me to ask how he could help after I started my white space adventure. He has taught me more in my life than he’ll ever know.
The gift of travel and anticipation was largely thanks to Leann. She made a concerted effort to have something on the calendar every month for us to look forward to. Knowing that it would be easy to fall into a rut during the job hunt, she consistently found new places and things for us to see and to try. Without Leann and her adventurous spirit, I would be but a faint shadow of my best self.
“If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”
Thinking about my counselor’s advice 14 years later I realized he may not solely have been talking about events in the short term. He may have been sharing a lifelong philosophy. Some events, while appearing major at the time, are merely steps along the path toward your future goal or finish line. The important part, to continue the metaphor, is to keep moving.
Then again, maybe he was just talking about running.