One morning over the holiday break, I was eating waffles and reading an ESPN article about the Chicago Cubs and their victorious World Series win. The article started by citing a recent scientific study on happiness and concluded that the net-positive affect of a sudden change in fortune would last about three months. Ninety days of a karmic lift.
So you can wait 108 years for a baseball championship and enjoy it for, let’s see, a fiscal quarter? Seems a little unbalanced but also indicative of our human-ness. We all wish and want for more and, oftentimes, it is the motivation to embark on change. But achievement does have a fading effect. Tastes great, less filling.
I certainly felt that in my professional life during the times when I would capture one of the brass rings that I was leaning off my carousel horse to capture. And I felt it again in my elongated life sabbatical, although the happiness cloud lasted much longer than three months.
One morning six months into my sabbatical, I was sitting alone on a beach in Mexico. I had been given a job offer the week before and was feeling the pressure to take it. I knew I wasn’t ready to give up my time away from working. My happiness high was still in place so I found the courage to say no, not yet, not now.
It was another three months before I started to feel open to returning to work. I woke up from a dream where I was sitting in a room with different people and we were all working on something together. I liked the idea of being part of a team again and started having coffees and conversations which led to two great options. I made the more academic choice, following money and benefits plus they offered me a late start so I could finish summer and join the company in the fall once my kids were back in school.
It also allowed me to squeeze in two more trips to satisfy my ever-present travel itch. And then, I found myself in a hallway one Monday morning waiting for my new hire group to be called in for orientation. After 15 months as a career hippie, I ended up in a room with 300 people joining one of the largest companies in the world. I didn’t just get back on the carousal, I went to corporate Disney World to do it. But a few things happened on the way back to the professional party. I purposely chose a smaller role than what I had before, hoping to experiment with a real work-life balance and test a theory that my previous workaholism was largely self-induced.
Here are a few observations from three months back in:
Assuming the problem is mine. It took me 30 minutes on my first day to figure out that my computer keyboard was broken and not that I wasn’t installing it correctly. I just assumed I wasn’t doing something right. Having that happen on my first day has helped me since to pause when I encounter something and do a “keyboard” check. Is there something obvious that I’m missing? If so, raise the new-girl flag and carry on.
There’s a liberation in not being in charge. I readily gave up my professional stature when I left my last job, but it’s one thing to be intentionally unemployed and it’s another to be intentionally in the middle. For me and for now, there are more benefits to not being important. I go to less meetings. I leave on time most days. I’m not caught up in discussion, debate, and endless wordsmithing. And there’s frustration in that, too. You don’t get to decide on the big changes or even help influence them. I now receive the information, not create it. But again, for me and for now, it’s worth it.
There’s a lot of boredom and tedium in being new. A few weeks ago, I went to a meeting about upcoming changes that had multi-components. I sat there for an hour and understood only about 15% of what was being said. I have two master’s degrees, but I couldn’t follow the conversation despite having read a six-page paper on the topic before the meeting. At first, I was upset that I didn’t get it but then I enjoyed watching the animated exchange of the ideas. Sometimes you don’t have to play an instrument to enjoy the music. Or at least that’s what I told myself while pretending to take notes.
Friends matter. I remember reading about another study that says employee engagement at work is much higher when you have at least one work friend. A large part of why I stayed at my last job for so many years was that I was surrounded by an abundance of good people who became great friends. Starting over someplace new is a lot like being the new kid at school holding your sack lunch at the edge of the cafeteria. But I was lucky. Another woman had started the week before I did. We became fast friends and compared notes on where to find what and who to ask when. We sat at the back of HR-required trainings and passed notes back and forth “Coke or Pepsi? Cats or dogs? Spicy or mild? Cake or pie?” Formal studies aside, work is more fun when you can giggle.
It’s still a (mostly) guy’s world. I’ve worked in the technology industry for the last decade and I’m used to the conversation of gender bias and balance. Still, I was surprised by how joining a much larger company really exemplifies it. At orientation, I was the only woman at a table of six. I glanced around and, of course, there were other women in the room but it looked like a visual pie chart of 15-20% of my girl club represented. Oftentimes the motion sensor lights kick on when I enter the main restroom on my floor. A colleague recently was mansplaining to me how it’s a good practice to include data if I’m going to do any corporate writing. This is the same person who likes to stare at my chest while he speaks to me. All that said, I’m not having any issues with being a woman in business (aside from data-quoting chest-staring dude).
So three months of acclimation has gone smoothly. I’m still traveling and already took two vacations in the first two months of being back to work and have two more trips planned in the next 12 weeks. You can take a girl outta sabbatical but you can’t take the passport out of her hand. And the paychecks aren’t too bad either.