Taking my foot off the pedal (for now)
I’ve been really conflicted about posting this publicly. It’s scary to put this out there, for a number of reasons. Will future employers or clients read this and think that I’m a loser or not strong enough to work with them? Will my trusted colleagues and peers see me in a lesser way because I’ve admitted these weaknesses? But I do think that if I’m feeling this way, I can’t possibly be the only one. So here we go.
Working in NYC
Moving to New York in 2006, I worked at an art gallery in Chelsea that was owned by a former friend. I had no salary and no hope for commission since I wasn't a salesperson, but I wanted to move to NYC so badly. After about a year, I found a new freelance "job" (again, no salary—ad sales commissions were promised but never realized) writing for an art blog, which I quit when I got a full-time, salaried job with insurance and benefits at an ad agency as an assistant to the EVP, executive creative director. I picked up design work while working, worked on pitches, stayed late, took classes after work and on weekends, and met incredible mentors who taught me the little things they never teach you in school.
My sister called me a workaholic, but I saw it as creating my future. And my dream had been to live and work in NYC, so I had to find a way to make it work. I had a brief stint at another agency before I ended up as the digital creative lead for a French luxury brand and stayed there for a little over five years. I thought I had made it—why would I ever leave? But then when the company I work for now offered me a role, it felt like an offer that my husband and I couldn’t refuse. Let’s be honest—it’s insanely flattering (and looks great on your resume) to tell your future employers that a company globally relocated you to their HQ.
In 2010-ish, I saw Sheryl Sandberg speak at an advertising women’s breakfast about how we have too many few women leaders and what she said really resonated with a career-driven mid-20s me. It was based on a TED talk she had given that eventually became the outline for “Lean In”. “Women systematically underestimate their own abilities”, “Keep your foot on the gas pedal”, “Claim your seat at the table”, “Ask for more”, “Don’t ease up on your career just because you want to get pregnant” (okay fine, not totally verbatim on the last point but basically). But yeah, totally—I shouldn’t ever take my foot off the gas pedal! I always have to have my foot on the gas pedal!
I had a relentless attack and approach to my career, thinking of how do I get ahead, what is the forward momentum I need to feel valued, what’s the next step?—I thought about this constantly.
Then I came to Korea.
Working in Korea
In my previous role, I was responsible for a team and projects that involved other members of the larger group who weren’t necessarily my direct reports. But the team chemistry we were able to develop through trust, honesty and transparency was really rewarding and fun. I had a passion for the work that we did, and a drive to want to show what we could accomplish. It was also a really interesting period of self-discovery, as a creative and as a leader, and I’m thankful for the close friendships and mentors I met there who gave me honest feedback that made me reflect, grow and change for the better.
Living and working here in Korea though, I almost feel like I’m here on an exchange program or a really long business trip. Due to a combination of internal organization, processes and roles, I don’t have the same responsibilities that I had in the States. The first few months were tough—I was tried to see how I could contribute, carve my path and establish myself. I had done it before at other places, I could definitely do it here… or so I thought.
A couple of months ago, we had some shifts and I suddenly found myself with my third VP in six months, and again unsure of what my projects were going to be. After month or so of really intense stress right before I moved departments, I began to doubt if I wanted to keep following this same career path. ‘Maybe I’m not the type who fits in at big companies. Maybe I just do better at smaller companies where everyone knows each other. Maybe I should do something else. Maybe I can’t hack it at a large corporation.’ You know when your brain starts going down that path of self-deprecation and then lands in a puddle of self-doubt bullshit? Yeah, that. I dreaded coming to work. I had to drag myself out of bed every morning at 6am and didn’t even bother putting makeup on at work. What was the point? Why should I look decent when I feel awful?
Ultimately, once I moved to this new department, everything started to get back on track. My new VP is great to work with and she’s very clear, organized and helps us drive our projects forward without changing her mind in the middle. I started wearing makeup again (I found it’s easier to keep some in my desk drawer and just do it after I eat breakfast at work, but more on that in another post), and I’m finding different ways to be productive and contribute.
Seeing (and Thinking) Clearly
Recently, I had one of those moments recently where the fog lifts from your brain and you suddenly understand where you are. I was submitting all this insane paperwork to finance and procurement for a project that will inevitably end up being late—and I realized that I wasn’t freaking out. Like, what? Who am I?
The old me would have complained to my husband and my mom and anyone else around me who was willing to listen about how ridiculous these internal processes are and how it’s going to slow down how fast I need to go for my project and how can this company work this way, this is outrageous! But instead, I just sat there and I could see everything outlined point by point in my mind:
- This is the company process, and I can’t go around it.
- I did everything I can to alert those who need to know the deliverables might be late.
- I pushed this project along the best I could on my own and worked with the team members I needed to push on their sides as well.
- There’s nothing else I can do.
- I did my best.
- That’s it.
If you know me (also if you don’t know me), this is a huge change in attitude for me. I have in the past, tried to speed up processes by breaking the unofficial process lines, and sometimes it paid off, sometimes I got my hand slapped, and I always took pride in doing everything I could to get it done. But I knew there was no way to break protocol here. And I accepted it.
That put me into another mini-mental tailspin: am I going soft? Have I lost my edge? Am I becoming resigned to my fate? Why don’t I want to push forward?
Then, calm set in. No, I’m not going soft. I haven’t lost my edge. Of course I want to push forward.
But I’m a human being with limits. I have mental, emotional and physical limits. Living in Korea, I feel like I’m constantly at about 85-95% of my capacity, mentally, emotionally and physically. I have to translate English and Korean and sometimes I have to process both languages simultaneously. I miss my parents and friends in the US. I get about 5-6 hours of sleep on average and am at work for a minimum of 12 hours a day, including the commute. I reach my thresholds very quickly. These are not excuses, these are facts. So I have to decide where I want to place my priorities.
Ch-ch-ch-chaaanges (or, How To Live Life and Enjoy It)
After I had this revelation, things started to slowly change. I stopped stressing out so much about work. I began to leave anytime between 5-6pm so I can get home early enough to go to pilates and enjoy dinner with my husband. I don’t check my work cell after hours or on the weekends. I’ve become intensely protective my private time.
In the States, in my Western career-oriented mindset, I might have considered this to be apathetic or I’m not dedicated enough. But here, it's just really not worth getting stressed out over work when it’s at a stage I cannot control or influence. So I’ve got to let go of the things that I cannot control.
It’s made me more open and curious to pursue new things, like pasta-making and learning how to make videos. I have some other projects that take some time, but it’s creative work that I find to be personally fulfilling and rewarding. We adopted a dog a couple weekends ago and he’s a nut. A precious nut. And honestly, I feel like for the first time ever, I understand what it really means to enjoy and live my life without thinking about other things that I'm "supposed" to control.
Am I Alone?
One of the reasons I decided to write all this out is because I think we’re all tired. I’m really lucky and thankful to know so many incredibly talented, smart, passionate women who care so much about their careers and the impact they want to make. We’ve gone full-speed (and more) for the past 10+ years, in pursuit of progress and kept our foot on that supposed gas pedal because to do otherwise would be to set a bad example for women.
But I’ve also seen us all make a lot of sacrifices in different ways: friends who want to have children but keep putting it off until they give the new job another year, friends who want to have children but work-related stress keeps their bodies from responding, friends who don’t get enough sleep because they have to work so late every night, friends who have amazing ideas and dreams for side projects but are too emotionally and mentally wiped out from workplace dynamics to want to pursue them when they come home.
We deserve better, ladies. We deserve to treat ourselves better. We deserve to spend time with our loved ones without worrying or thinking about the office. We deserve to cherish our own time as our own time. We deserve to pursue our passions with unapologetic fervor. We deserve time to do whatever relaxes, refreshes and re-energizes us, whether that’s cooking, baking, pilates, yoga, running, sitting on the couch eating popcorn and binging on Netflix, whatever we individually need. To each her own!
I lifted my foot off the pedal a little bit, and it. feels. awesome. And guess what? I can always press it back down because I’m adaptable (according to every work-related psycho test I’ve taken). And because I truly do love working—it's just that right now, I love living my life a little more.
P.S. I know this was really long, so if you made it all the way down here and read everything, THANK YOU. Love you.