What I Learned During My Career Gap (the "Year of My Heart")
“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do” Rumi
For the past 20 years, I enjoyed a relatively safe and successful professional trajectory. I was an “executive woman,” as my grandmother used to say, with experience in the world’s leading companies in finance, media and entertainment, and technology. My diligently maintained record of accomplishments told a story of achievement and status. Yet with each new role, I willfully let my corporate identity own me and clinging to it sucked the joy out of my heart. But all that was about to change.
In the summer of 2018, I ventured into a career gap year that changed me in unexpected ways.
First, I unplugged from my daily routine, and lost all sense of who I was. It was as if my identity was driven by my relationship to work. Feeling a need to “do something,” soon into my break I spent two days building a “Life Plan” with leadership expert and dear friend, Zander Grashow. What I didn’t expect was an experience that would transformationally reveal who I am and what truly matters. With Zander’s guidance and care, I leaned into the uncomfortable truths of my childhood and the protectionist habits that got in my way. I saw clearly how my emotional struggles with abandonment had quieted my voice and tampered my courage early on and throughout my career. And how my constant desire to bridge-build was rooted in a lifetime of experiences being both an outsider and an insider at school, university and work.
Then, I spent a long and decadent summer traveling around the world with my husband and daughter, and reconnected with my childhood tribe. I began to piece together my past and present to define what was next for me. For the first time in my life, I tried to not let myself be defined by a job or company. At first, that was hard. I no longer had to suffer quietly (well, not always so) from empty promises, toxic managers and resistance to organizational change. I could seek out joy and fulfill my life’s aspirations.
In volunteering for social impact organizations that nourished my heart, I found the space and clarity to explore contributions I had not considered before. I also expanded my tribe and circles in exciting and energizing ways. But there were moments of doubt and retrenchment to my old ways - change is slow but certain. There were experiences that were taxing on my heart and mind. Professional connections who distanced themselves no longer seeing the transactional value of our relationship. Roles that seemed exciting and expansive but which did not come my way. I experienced letdowns and the little lies we tell ourselves to make it through a difficult day, week or month when we’re traveling through the unknown. All the while my fortitude and character were revealing to me in the purest and rawest way. In trying to focus on what I wanted and perhaps most importantly didn’t want going forward, I also realized just how boss and brave I am.
So what did I learn?
Life can be beautiful, messy and nuanced, all at once: friendships that span decades, continents and life experiences affirm, inspire, center and lift you. From an unexpected text of encouragement, to hosting my family in far away lands, to unsolicited introductions to thought leaders, to inviting me to be part of their new ventures, my tribe came through for me again and again.
Through travel we better understand our world - its vastness and interconnections: Our shared human need for belonging, to be seen and valued, are constantly reflected in familiar gestures and symbols. Coming together with loved ones and making new friends across the globe enables us to expand our knowledge, compassion and gratitude.
Whether it arises by circumstance, curiosity or necessity, being fluent in another language is both a superpower and a deep cultural connection to who you are, have been and want to be: In Spain, I was reminded that despite efforts to share my mother tongue - Spanish - with my daughter, my default has been the language of my formal education - English. In teaching my daughter the intricacies of translation, I rediscovered and reconnected to the language of my childhood (the language of my heart).
We are always where we are meant to be: When you’re on the road, it’s easy to constantly think about what’s next on the itinerary. Preparation is key but enjoying the moment, including feelings of uncertainty when navigating the unknown, can turn out to be the most satisfying part of the journey.
To travel meaningfully is to explore identity thoroughly: This requires an honest exploration of yourself in relation to others; how voice and identification is manifested around you; what gets normalized, hidden or shared across different corners of the world; what it means to feel safe in different spaces and at “home”; how language, accents and dialects are perceived, accepted or disparaged; and how your existence and that of others is represented and valued across the globe.
The only way forward to advance as multicultural societies is to lead multiculturally: The human condition is diverse, representative of a complex continuum of lived experiences, migrations, geopolitical and economic machinations. If you try, you can find and value common ground across difference.
Racism and systemic bias have many roots and ways of showing up in every corner of the world: Veils of racism and human subjugation are readily witnessed in cultural imperialism across the globe. To say that race matters in our societies and workplaces is an understatement.
Progress and change happen slowly: sometimes we need to excavate the past to heal and move forward. By exercising patience and embracing risks, we plant seeds of change.
As challenging as it felt, there was a great value in being forced out of the seeming comfort of a 9-5 job. It offered me the opportunity to experience myself untethered to institutions and expectations. Understanding what motivates you, what you’re set to do in this life and which levers to pull to make an impact at the right scale takes time and thought. I am now choosing to pour my time and passion into what brings me the most joy, and what allows me to explore and express the profound sense of empathy and belief in justice that has guided me until now.
I know it takes courage to transform workplaces. And because I’ve worked for leading companies trying to get this right, I know that I’m uniquely positioned to work with organizations at all stages of their diversity, equity, and inclusion journey to build more inclusive and more innovative workplaces. My intention going forward is to live more deliberately with courage, compassion and kindness; connect more deeply to my heart; and support, believe in and encourage others to build a better future where all workplaces work for everyone.