Day 2: What Next Syndrome

What Next?!?

I haven’t actually written the About page yet, but once I do it will say something like this: the point of this blog is to describe what it is like to leave a perfectly good but ill-fitting career to pursue more meaningful work and a more fulfilling way of life. For this blog to be of any use to anyone I have faced the uncomfortable fact that I will have to be open and honest with you. I don’t mean honest in an oversharing, gossipy, updates on my sex life way. I mean honest as in giving you the whole truth, not just the glamorous parts.

You may have noticed that the first couple of posts weren’t overflowing with excitement and effervescence. That’s because that’s not how it was during my last days of work and it would be misleading for me to have painted the picture any other way. I am as convinced as ever that this was the right move for me, and that it would also be the right move for many of those of you reading this post. But that don’t make it easy.

A bit more truth: Day 1 was awesome.

This blog isn’t meant to be a diary but people have expressed an interest in what I am actually doing with my free time now, that I actually have some. I think people want to daydream about what they could be doing if they didn’t have to go to work. So what did I do with that first precious day? I read the paper, slowly and with pleasure; I sold some stuff on eBay; I went shopping on Carnaby Street and saw all the Christmas lights along Oxford Street; I walked through central London and over the river; I checked out the amazing World Press Photo 2013 exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall; I treated myself to a crêpe from one of the pop-up Christmas vendors that have taken up residence on the South Bank; and I had dinner with friends in East London. And I loved every minute of it.

The best thing about having time is that you can live in the slow lane. I walked because I wasn’t in a hurry. I got the bus instead of the tube. Herds of commuters surged around me at Waterloo station with their eyes trained straight ahead or on the ground, and I was able to drift through the crowd at a relaxed pace, looking up at the lights and taking in the skyline.

All this slowness gave me time to think, which, it turns out, is a dangerous thing. You see one of the side-effects of being stuck in Professional Purgatory is that two casual, insidious and sneaky little words are never far from your mind: what next?

They can be so innocent-seeming, so optimistic. But they can also be sinister and panicky.

Of course, I’m an organised person — a planner at heart — so it’s not as if those words waited until my first days of freedom to rear their mischievous heads. Naturally, those words occupied my thoughts even before I handed in my notice, and my former colleagues, in their incredibly supportive way, hardly let me forget them. Once I posted the news of my exit from the legal world on Facebook – “8 years, 3 degrees, 6 jobs. Done with law” – those two words featured most prominently amongst the ensuing stream of comments.

It is asked with no malice, no pre-judgment, and no expectations, but it is asked nonetheless. What are you doing next?

I want to start a business. Oh? What kind? I’m trying to figure that out…

My answers seem evasive and secretive, but that’s because people can’t conceive that I would leave such a stable and prestigious career with nothing in the pipeline. Amusingly some of my colleagues appeared to be under the impression that I was unwilling to disclose my plans for fear of theft of my million-dollar idea. Yeah, that’s what it is.

I do have thoughts, ideas, dreams. But they’re fuzzy and out of focus. I can’t look right at them now, they are too bright and indistinct. More than a specific idea, I left because I had a feeling – a desire, a drive, a need to search for something else, something more. But that doesn’t make for a very satisfactory answer to polite inquiries during small talk.

I should have done what a lawyer friend reported his colleague as saying. When the colleague was leaving and people asked what he was doing next he said we was going to drum school. As my friend remarked, the questioners could hardly have said “I don’t think you’ll make a very good drummer”, so that was usually the end of the conversation.

Clearly it’s not just other people – I am also asking myself as well. But I am trying hard to resist the urge to tackle that question head on. Why? Because that was the whole point of the escape. To build a life without the rules and constraints. To take the time to think objectively about how to achieve a happy existence. To hit the eject button and float down on the parachute without trying to aim for one haystack or another.

That’s when I realised that “what next” is symptomatic of life on the conveyor belt. If you think of your life as a series of milestones and achievements you will always be thinking about the next thing. For some people it is school, marriage, babies. For me it was good grades, right university, good job. Study law, train to be a lawyer, become a lawyer. Junior lawyer, mid-level, counsel, then partner. One thing follows the other.

By leaving my job I have short-circuited this cycle. There is no obvious “next thing”. Anything could be next. The enormity of that prospect is only just hitting me.

So I am going to give myself until the New Year to clear my head and try to re-wire my thinking about jobs and careers. It will take more than a few weeks to shake off 30 years of “harmless good advice” (cough, brainwashing) but I hope it will serve as a recuperative pause before I hit the ground running in January.

In the meantime I will be doing some serious thinking about topics that are so important that I put off thinking about them until now. You see I was waiting for the moment when I would have sufficient time to give them the serious consideration they deserve. Like when I retired maybe? Might be a little late then. Better perhaps to think about family and happiness and health and well-being and success and fulfillment now; instead of waiting until I’m 60.

And next time someone asks me “what are you doing next?”, I am going to say “I honestly don’t know, and you shouldn’t either”.

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