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Where You Stand Depends On Where You Sit

NB: This is part of a series of entries regarding lessons learned in the years since I quit my job in search of a life more intentional. These are also being posted at LinkedIn. This particular entry can be found here.

I still remember my boss’ reaction when I told her I was quitting: “Oh (expletive) me! Are you serious?” Her candidness was only one of many reasons why she was so great to work for, which made my decision that much more difficult. Still, I knew I needed a shake-up to begin looking for a life more intentional. Social media has allowed for some measure of “being in touch” and around the time I began jotting down lessons learned in the years following my decision, she wrote me asking if I could advise her college-bound son who was interested in international studies. With the obvious “of course!” out of the way, we had a brief back-and-forth in which she wrote of my decision to quit, “From where you were at, you truly had little to lose.”

Some people see a young woman. Others see an old woman. Both are right.

What? Was she joking? I had everything to lose. Everything was at risk. Everything. That decision and its attendant outcome would determine the rest of my life. It was binary: all or nothing, the right move or wrong move, no middle ground or room for interpretation. At least that’s how it looked to me. Her view, however, was quite different. I was not even in my thirties. I had years and miles ahead of me to explore, and nobody expected me to put food on the table. By stark contrast, she was (at the time) slightly younger than I am now, married, and the mother of three.

As I wrote in my last installment, I turned to my network of family and friends for support and a listening ear. Many of them played various roles: supporters, challengers, and cheerleaders. But none of them play the role of devil’s advocate. None tried to talk me off the ledge of my anxiety with a “different take” largely because I never asked them to. I assumed they saw the same ledge I did. If my former boss’ point of view is any indicator, some of the more seasoned members in my support network might have pointed out the grayer aspects of a situation I saw as black and white. And while I enjoyed the adventure that followed my decision, I spent much of that time anxiously critiquing everything I did because I believed so much hung in the balance. Had I the kind of understanding that comes with context (i.e. someone else’s perspective), I might have enjoyed (at least a little bit) the lightness of a position more forgiving of the challenges associated with such an experiment.

Passing It On

Is the sun atop Washington's chair rising or setting? It depends.

Fast forward a few years from that eye opener to the present COVID pandemic. In the last nine months, two friends separately contacted me for advice navigating the great unknown of sudden unemployment. Speaking with them during their overlapping windows of unexpected change, they each shared with me feelings that reminded me of my window of anxiety, though mine was admittedly wholly self-imposed. Still, I understood their restful nights replaced with a sudden waking, racing thoughts, and a pervasive and suffocating fear. Their days were not much different. Heightened tension and desperation to determine the way forward spilled into every spare thought, like a sudden downpour oozing over a sidewalk, filling every crack and divot until it is swamped. Each friend expressed feeling like they were going through something no one else could understand, and that successful (or failed) navigation of this time would be the singular determining factor in their long-term survival.

Cautious of possibly dismissing their experience, I tried as best I could to offer a different take on their respective situations. One is married with children, the other is single. Both had received modest severance packages but finding a new job ASAP was still paramount to each. Still, I tried to convey to them how different their respective situations looked to those of us outside their immediate radius. Here was a chance to take a breath, to reconnect with family. “Someday” – that mythical time in which we will all do those things that truly interest us – was staring them in the face. Of course, they did not see it that way initially. Like me fifteen years ago, they were huddled around the dim lamp of their own take on their respective situations. I was trying to do for them what I failed to seek for myself: someone else’s perspective; that additional lamp to help me see the wider landscape.

So What?

I’ve come to love a particular aphorism over the years: where you stand depends on where you sit. That is to say, your point of view depends on your experience. Recall in my first installment in this series I wrote that I went around giving awful advice. I told anyone who would listen to follow my example and quit their job in search of a more fulfilling life. Of course I said that. My gamble had paid off. Further, I was still free of dependents and major obligations so that point of view still made sense. Today, I counsel quite differently, and my altered stance is informed by myriad factors that have led me to sit in a much different chair.

And that’s the point. When going through significant change in your life – whether unexpected or self-initiated – seek input from people sitting in life’s various “chairs.” Ask them how they see the landscape. It can help you see options you might not have known were there. This may sound like common sense, but, as the saying goes, common sense is not always common practice.

There is, however, one caveat. Do not let the other’s perspectives lead you off course. Self-doubt and second-guessing are pervasive pitfalls in this process. While gathering others’ takes on your situation, always trust that gut instinct pulling you toward your authentic journey. It’s one thing to listen to someone’s input as you try to decode the map, it’s quite another to assume their input is the map.

So, figure out where you sit and why you sit there. Think about what comprises a different “seat” and then get the take of someone who occupies it. Rinse, repeat. Use that illumination to understand your surroundings and find openings and insights you did not know were there. Line up your next steps and get after it!



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