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Friday, 10 October 2014

What should I do with my life?

Last week I was so happy to see this essay of mine published on The Escape School blog, and also sent out to 170,000 members of Escape the City community around the world. It's extremely rare that I feel pride in my work but on this occasion I really felt good about my accomplishment. I'm keen to share the essay on my blog for my own readers. It's much longer than my usual blog posts so well done if you make it to the end! 


This is the big one.

The universal question which unites us all.  

We can spend our entire lives striving to understand our purpose, our reason for being, our place in the world. Seeking to discover our unique talents and how we can best use these to serve others and feel fulfilled.  Most of all, we just want to live a life worth living!

Whether it comes from the media, your parents, your faith or your career counsellor, from a young age we given the message loud and clear that life is a precious gift not to be wasted.

Some fortunate people manage to calmly take this philosophy on board and transform it into meaningful action. Often these lucky ones are confident in what they want to do in life or have an innate gift to share with the world. However, for the vast majority of us, life is a perplexing series of happy accidents and lessons learned the hard way - through trial and error.

According to renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs pyramid, our basic needs include food, water, shelter and security.  Once these needs are met our minds are free to pursue the more lofty goal of self-actualisation.  This includes things like building self-esteem, exploring your creativity, achieving goals and being respected by others.

In the privileged developed world most of us are blessed to have all our basic needs met and don’t have to worry about clean drinking water or whether we can feed our families.  Our minds are free to ponder the meaning of life and daydream about all the amazing experiences and achievements we’re sure are in store for us.

But first we must decide what we actually want to pursue in our lives.  Which career should you focus on, which job is the best one to take?  And what are your dreams anyway?!  What are your big life goals?

These questions are terrifying and most often result in a bad case of analysis-paralysis which gets you exactly nowhere.  So, the key to uncovering the answer to the BIG question must surely be to understand how to get unstuck and to start taking steps, however small, to move closer to your dreams.

To illustrate this I’d like to tell you my story...

Uni Daze

Right now I’m in a good place.  I’m working for Escape the City after being a long time fan and avid follower of this amazing organisation.  I’m loving it and I’m learning so much.  

But it wasn’t always this way.

When I graduated from Newcastle University 10 years ago I hadn't a clue in the world what I wanted to do with my life.  I came away from an incredible three years with a fairly useless BA in Sociology and a massive hangover. Whether you think I spent my time at university constructively, or mis-spent my years there, will entirely depend on your outlook on life.  

I devoted many hours during my beloved uni days to getting really intimate with the nightlife scene in Newcastle, and to making new friends and falling in love with one of them (then married him!).  I spent almost zero time considering what I would do in the big wide world once all the fun was over.  So, inevitably, towards the end of my final year I started to panic about what would come next for me.

Part of me feels disappointed in myself - that it was a mistake to 'waste' my time socialising instead of studying. But another part of me (the more honest part) looks back on that happy time without one ounce of regret.

I'm lucky that when I went to university there wasn't the same intense pressure faced by today's post-recession graduates.  My friends and I didn't feel we had to do a summer internship or start applying for graduate schemes whilst polishing off our dissertations.  We floated blissfully through our university years spending our free time going to festivals, travelling around the world and having fun.

The major downside of all this is that when I was spat out of the other end of the education system I really lacked direction and was ill-prepared to start my career.

The ‘Real World’

I remember a magazine called ‘Real World’ which was given out free on campus.  I casually picked it up a few times and flicked through articles about how to transition smoothly from student life to your first proper job in financial services, consulting or engineering, and why joining a graduate scheme at a large corporate was a smart first career move.  

The whole thing really depressed me and I didn't feel any of it was speaking to me at all.  If that was the real world, I wanted no part in it!

I'll never forget going to the end of term careers fair right before we all graduated.  Rows of bland looking stalls were all manned by 'young professionals' and company executives wearing business suits.  I found it all incredibly intimidating and alienating.  I wandered from stand to stand trying to work out what each company did and whether I should approach their suited and booted reps to ask.  

Looking back, I can see this event wasn't aimed at people like me.  No wonder I felt so out of place there.  These recruiters were targeting the brightest and most ambitious young people.  Grads who had worked hard from day one of university, committed to getting onto the first rung of the corporate ladder as soon as possible.  I left the careers fair feeling lost and deflated and went home tearful and confused about what I was going to do.

I knew what I found fun and interesting but lacked the practical tools and confidence to translate my passions into a fulfilling job.  I wasn’t even sure what I would actually be good at.

Losing My Way

After being spat unceremoniously out the education system aged 22, I decided to take time out to do two of the best things I’ve ever done; a professional cookery course with Leith’s School of Food and Wine and a volunteer expedition to Costa Rica with Raleigh International.  

Despite having the time of my life with these experiences, when I returned home I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.  I suppose it’s unsurprising that I didn’t make a solid career plan whilst gallivanting around Central America with my backpack!  

So, like a lot of people, I stumbled into the first job that looked sensible and would pay me enough to maintain an active social life and allow me to escape on as many annual holidays as possible.  And so began my haphazard, and at times very unhappy, career in financial and professional services with some of the biggest corporate giants out there: Citigroup, Deloitte and RBS.

I don't want to be overly dramatic - they weren't all bad years.  I worked with some great people and some of my jobs were genuinely enjoyable.  I certainly learned a whole lot about working life and about myself.  The problem was, I knew from very early on in that first job in London’s Canary Wharf financial district that I was not in the right place for me.  

Yet, incredibly, I stayed stuck in the corporate world for eight years.

If Not This, Then What...?

Why did I stay for so long in a career that didn’t inspire me or make me feel good?  

Probably what kept me stuck was that it was easier to keep doing what felt comfortable.  It was less scary to just stay where I was rather than take a risk, face my fears and try something new and exciting.  

I was trapped by indecision, stuck in an emotional and mental struggle with myself.  I was afraid the unknown, of what lay ‘out there’ in the big wide world.  I felt unsure of myself and of my abilities.  I was overwhelmed by all the options available to me and I had no idea what I really wanted to do.  I was scared of making another mistake.   

I was also very attached to my reliable monthly salary and felt I needed it to fund my hedonistic lifestyle of partying, shopping and going on expensive holidays in an effort to distract myself from the fact my life wasn’t going quite the way I wanted.  

One of our mantras at Esc is that “comfort kills ambition” (coined by Dave Cornthwaite) and this was certainly true of me in that time in my life.  For a while it was easy to coast along:  I wasn’t happy but I wasn’t miserable either.  

Until eventually I was so bored and disengaged that it finally tipped the balance. As author Ana├»s Nin said, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

After quitting my job at RBS to go backpacking in South America, I once again returned to another corporate job, with a major insurance company.  After a year there I realised I couldn’t do it any more as I knew I wasn’t living a life true to myself.

“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life...
And, most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”
Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech

Fresh Start

Funnily enough, after taking so long to psych myself up to quit my corporate career, I actually really enjoyed it when the time came.  I knew in my heart that I had reached the end of the road and truly felt ready to try a completely new approach to my work life.

I'd go so far as to say that handing in my notice was actually fun and exciting.  I got a real kick from finally being honest with my manager and team about how I felt about my role and my future with the organisation (or lack thereof!).  

The night before my last day in that job I went to an Escape the City event to spend time in a nurturing environment with people I knew would understand exactly how I felt.  Rob, our Esc co-founder, was there - I mentioned to him that I had quit my job and he gave me a shout-out to the whole room of ‘escapees’.  Everyone clapped and cheered, and it felt amazing!  A wave of relief and hope washed over me.  

When I got home that night I started a blog to explore and share my feelings about the experience of making a fresh start in my life and career.  This blog has become my creative outlet as well as a place for me to ponder my past and consider my future.  I doubt I’d ever have started it if I was just doing the same-old thing in my previous job.  

Over the years I’ve come to understand that change breeds change.  Often you have to break out of old patterns to be brave enough to try the things that previously scared you.

That was back in May of this year and, reflecting on it all, I’d say that once you’ve made the brave decision to quit your job, actually handing in your notice is the easy part.  

It's everything that comes afterwards that really tests you as you try for the first time to navigate your way through the sea of opportunities and adventures that lies ahead of you.

Living Authentically, Finally

Now I know myself much better and can see clearly why it felt so wrong trying to force myself down the well trodden corporate career path so many of us are encouraged to follow.  

I get excited about exploring the world, spending time in the outdoors, being healthy.  I crave plenty of free time to spend with my family, see my friends, read novels, and create my blog.  I love cooking, dancing, taking photographs, listening to music, decorating my home.  

These things excite me.  But I didn't really know that back when I was a young student.  I’ve discovered these interests over the years and have come to realise that, for me, it's essential that my passions and values are at the core of everything I do.

In recent times I joined a group of people I’d never met before to travel around Peru for a month and undertake the challenging trek to Machu Picchu.  I took a fascinating 10 week Positive Psychology course at City University in London.  

I joined a military style boot camp in Dorset to shed some of the pounds I’d put on whilst comfort eating my way through the last few months of my job.  I learned about philosophy and came to better understand myself on the week-long School of Life summer school programme.

But the biggest, boldest, and by far the scariest, step I took was applying for a job at Escape the City.  I was so nervous about applying, and even more apprehensive on my first day exactly 3 months ago.  But in the spirit of facing my fears I went for it anyway.

Working with the team at Esc is something I never thought I’d have the chance to do and so far it’s been a wonderful, intense, fast-paced, and challenging learning experience.  I’m loving every day and feel so grateful to be here.

“It’s times like these you learn to live again.”
Foo Fighters

So, What Next?

I’d love to tie all this up really neatly for you and say that I have now found my career mojo and purpose in life. That I now know exactly who I am and what I want to be.  But it’s not the case, and I’ve decided life would be pretty dull if I had everything worked out at the age of 32 anyway.  

I’m still pondering the BIG question: what does the life of my dreams look like and how do I create it?  I still don’t know precisely ‘what I want to be when I grow up’ and for the first time ever I’m getting comfortable with the uncertainty of not having all the answers or a neat plan for the future.

What I do know is that I want to be inspired by my life, keep having fun, and work on projects that excite me with people whom I respect and can learn from.  I want to be me in all that I do.  I also know that money really doesn’t buy happiness.

Sometimes I worry that there is so much I want to experience in life that I’ll never be able to do it all.  My mother, who has achieved an incredible amount in her life and who is an inspiration to me, always told me, “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything”.  These wise words have really stayed with me over the years.  

So if, like me, you have so many ideas you just can’t decide which one to pick and you worry how you’ll ever manage to do it all - remember, none of us can do everything in the world.  Instead we just need to wisely use the time available to us in life and fill our days with activities that bring us joy and which add value to the lives of others.

Try to accept that living more bravely will be messy and scary and challenging.  Just believe in yourself a little bit more and have faith that everything will be ok.  Take care of yourself, surround yourself with people who love and believe in you.  

Be brave enough to go after your dreams and if you aren’t sure what your dreams are yet then don’t panic - just keep trying things you believe in and which excite you and you’ll get there in the end.  

“Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.  
You will never be able to escape from your heart.
So it's better to listen to what it has to say.”
The Alchemist

We all know that the path to happiness doesn’t lie in staying stuck where you are, not moving forward because you’re not sure exactly who you are or what you want to do for the rest of your life.  

Throw out that kind of thinking - you don’t need to decide right now what you want to do forever.  Just focus on the next positive step you can take towards something meaningful, whatever that might be for you.  

You will be much happier, much sooner, if you stop trying to be someone you aren’t and focus on just being yourself and living in a way that feels authentic for you.

After all, you have to ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen?


  1. Hi Celia, I just discovered your blog via Escape the City. This post could have been written by me, except it took me longer to escape! I worked as a finance professional for years and was miserable. I'm also trying to work out the next step. (I left my last finance job two years ago). Keep up the good work! I look forward to reading about what you do next. Lucy

    1. Hi Lucy - Thanks so much for your lovely comment! I am so pleased my post and story resonates with you. It's so tough to work out what first step to take when making a change in your career! My advice would be to take tiny, manageable steps by doing things that excite you and feel meaningful. You don't have to change everything all at once. Loads of luck to you. Glad to have you following along on my blog as I try to follow my own advice! x