Late last year, I announced I was leaving the private sector to pursue a new adventure. Not only did I change my job and switch industries, but I moved across the Atlantic Ocean to take up residence in the United Kingdom for 15 months. This was part of our family’s grand plan to move to Europe. My family continues to reside in Boston, Massachusetts until the end of the school year (June) and then they will pack up our home and move to the Netherlands where my husband’s position has been relocated. Once I have completed my fellowship in the UK, I will join them in our new home.
I have dubbed this my #adultgapyear because this is the first time I have been on my own in quite some time. I started college before I turned 18 and have been in school or in full-time positions without a break in between any role for twenty years. Living in a new country without spouse or kids, I naively thought I would have time to travel all over Europe in between my research and writing responsibilities. Not quite. I find myself busier than I have ever been – not dragged down by ‘busy’ work, but juggling multiple research and writing activities all competing for brain space and the time to complete. Would I have it any other way? Absolutely not.
Now that I have completed 1/3 of my #adultgapyear – my year of transitioning from the private sector into academia and the non-profit realm, I am reflecting on what I have learned and identify where I still need to devote time and energy to improve.
Learning to be alone, not lonely
I am an introvert – my power and energy come from reading books, being a culture vulture, and small group interactions with trusted friends and advisors. Meeting new people and engaging in small talk is not my favorite thing, but a necessity when moving to a new a new country and workplace. While I am no stranger to being alone, I have always been alone amongst others – meaning, I have lived with my husband and two girls, so one is never truly by oneself. When one is not just alone, but lonely, it is hard to combat the demons and you begin to question your life choices, voice, and confidence. In this isolation, no creative ideas can take root. I moved to London with very few contacts and spent the first month using my PhD as an excuse to not leave my flat. With some prodding from family, I decided to explore my backyard. If I was unable to find time to take longer trips, I would use the time I did have to explore London. I have made it a habit to book some type of cultural activity every weekend – to see a new exhibition, play or musical. At first, I went to these events alone, but now that I have started to integrate into my new workplaces, I am inviting colleagues to join me. In Boston, you might find me at a coffee shop alone, but dining alone? Not likely. In London, I have taken to hunting for the best vegan comfort food. You will now find me occupying a table for one, dining on vegan deliciousness, and reading a book. I am beginning to learn how to be alone without being lonely – to not be afraid to still my mind and take in surrounding pleasures without feeling guilty about not working. Feeding my mind and nurturing my soul is now my new barometer of productivity.
Being comfortable being uncomfortable
Oh, karma. How many times have I uttered the phrase ‘you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable’ to clients and colleagues embarking on large digital and community transformations? A lot. I have had to take my own medicine. Transitioning from the private sector into the role of an academic researcher is much more difficult than I anticipated. I may have worn the hat of a student or teacher for the past two decades, but that did not prepare me for the shift required to enter academia full-time. Research is extremely different from consulting. I have had to learn a new lexicon and re-learn how to actively listen. I may have counted this as a super power in my days as a community manager, but after my my most recent roles as a manager and subject matter expert, I find myself in a position where I have to listen much more than I talk. It feels good to flex these muscles again, but under much different circumstances as an active researcher. The experience is humbling.
Finding my voice
I just told you I am re-learning how to actively listen and then I segue into ‘voice’ – how can this be? In a few weeks, I will defend my PhD thesis. After four years of blood, sweat, and a lot of tears, I am fulfilling a dream. It is not the research or the writing of 80K words that almost did me in, but the discomfort of writing in an academic voice. You see, in the corporate world, I have always been told my language and style was too academic, and in the academic world, I was told my language sounded too much like a marketer and I spoke in business jargon. I couldn’t win nor could I locate ‘my voice’ when speaking in the corporate or academic worlds. Who was I? Depending on the day and hour asked – consultant, academic researcher, student, teacher, spouse, and mother. I found it difficult to write internal communication pieces, then transition to academic writing, then transition to social media interactions, then transition to personal blog or fiction writing. My personal blog, once a respite, became a burden to maintain. It was becoming increasingly strenuous to juggle the many writing styles. I had to put my blog on the back burner and focus solely on my academic voice, so that I could complete and submit my PhD thesis on (my self-imposed) deadline. Now that I have completed the thesis, I am able to explore other writing styles and habits. I have come to terms with the fact that I have a hybrid-style and that I will never be just one thing…and that is OK. I am able to view this writing style limbo as a strength, only if I can continuously work to improve where I am weak across various writing styles.
Adult Gap Year #BookDNA
I have a long list of books on my to-read list, but I don’t necessarily plan the order in which I read books. I let the books speak to me – they let me know when it is the right time to flip the page and take my fill of a new story or when it is time to re-read a book with a fresh perspective. Usually, when I look back on the books I have read over a year, they all seem to logically connect without having a specific end-state in-mind. This year is no different. As I struggle to let go of my old self, I find myself gravitating to books with characters or authors embarking on a similar journey. Here are a few of the books that have resonated with me during the first five months of my #adultgapyear and that I hope you may also choose to add to your #bookdna:
The Age of Light by Whitney Sharer – the journey of a woman (an icon) in one of her many metamorphoses.
Dare to Lead + Power of Vulnerability series on Audible + Netflix Special by Brené Brown – culmination of Brown’s previous four books and what should be required reading/watching in order to survive the modern workplace and life.
Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone by Juli Berwald – this non-fiction wonder details the midlife challenge of an educator / journalist as she explores the great unknown (sea).
Walk, Climb, or Fly by Leigh Durst – a great guide to discovering how you work and how you work in combination with others.
The Care and Keeping of Museum Professionals by Sarah C. Erdman and Shaelyn Amaio – individual essays about the hardships and joy of being a museum profession – know that we are not in it alone.
Typically, a gap year is taking time away from work or other responsibilities and is a break between events or responsibilities to simply enjoy the present and find out who you are and what you want to do or become. This is my #adultgapyear. I have family and responsibilities – as much as I dream of leaving everything and living in Bali for a year, I know this would not make me happy. Honestly, after three days, I would be ready to get back to work and my family. It is not that I like to be busy or stressed – I feel more alive when I am challenged. Somehow, I don’t think the next ten months will be free from challenges. In the next installment of #adultgapyear, I will be sharing about my growth in the areas of collaboration, leadership, and travel.