Knowing When to Stop

There is an ancient tradition in Judaism called the shmita, or sabbath year. It’s the seventh and final year of the agricultural cycle, when any and all productive activity is forbidden in that field. The intent is to give the land an opportunity to rest.

Shortly after the pandemic arrived, I decided to stop working, leave San Francisco and take a year off. This was not an impulsive decision. In fact, my Jerry McGuire fantasy simmered and brewed over a long time. The pandemic just lowered the water line and revealed the rocks that were already there.

Immigration fatigue

I was coming to my 20th anniversary as an immigrant. I left my home country (Portugal) because I felt a call to adventure and a desire to vindicate the suffering of my parents and grandparents. I wanted to one day be able to shout at the top of my lungs “look, poverty and war didn’t kill us—we made it!”

I built and rebuilt my life in different places. It was exhilarating, and also exhausting. As a foreigner, many things that locals take for granted require extra energy: communicating in a foreign language 24/7; learning the history and pop culture so that you can relate to people; getting auto insurance with no driving record; figuring out where the trash goes. I got used to it eventually, but even a privileged immigrant like myself wakes up some days with a dull ache in the soul, one that whispers ”I’ve assimilated so much that I don’t even know who I really am anymore.” A yearning to stop efforting and just be home. Van Morrison sang it beautifully in “I’m Not Feeling It Anymore.” The man knew.

Transformation fatigue

In the last three years, I was at the top of my game professionally. I was working in my dream job as a transformation leader and coach in a large biotech company in California. I was helping to guide thousands of people towards a future state where our company would become more agile and human-centric. It was exciting, meaningful work. I built a new coaching team to bring transformation to life on the ground. We were like the sherpas that help people summit big mountains. We were a human fruit salad of professional and personal backgrounds, ages, races, identities, bound by a common goal: to cause ‘good trouble’ and leave no one behind.

In the beginning, people were a bit suspicious:  either they didn’t know what coaches did or they had had some really bad experiences in the past (I couldn’t blame them. Bad coaches are the belly fat of organizations). But this time, things were different. Much like the lone nut who started a dance party in the park, our coaches were humble and enthusiastic. They started small experiments, used outrageous moves, plus a lot of empathy and love. They taught people new ways to solve complex problems and thrive in uncertainty. They challenged and helped leaders to let go of control and become more visionary and wise. We found enough ‘crazy’ people willing to join us and a movement was born. Bureaucracy and hierarchy started to dissolve. Employees were more creative, autonomous. Leaders were more inspired and authentic. Patients were being heard and served faster, better.

As with any transformation, this was painful, and one of the hardest jobs of my career. A lot was changing at once. I said goodbye to many dear colleagues. As we scaled the transformation, demand for our work grew, our team grew — and I was miserable. I love creating something out of nothing with a small team and giving it the legs to walk, but being a people manager and a department head just brings out the worst in me. So I turned down the promotion I had worked so hard for and became a member of the team. And for a year, I truly enjoyed it. I worked with over 120 leaders on their personal transformation (“corporate soulwork,” as one of them put it). I was inspired by the beautiful new sparkle I saw in their eyes. I wondered where mine was.

Divorce fatigue

While all of this was happening at work, I separated from and divorced my husband: another decision that took me years to make and gather the courage to act on. I loved my ex-husband deeply, and I think he would agree as well that I was devoted to our relationship. I had made a commitment and I believed that only weak people quit. If this marriage was not working, that could only mean that I was not strong, resourceful or attractive enough. But after a long time planting seeds in a soil that was dead, I ran out of solutions. The only thing left to do was to accept reality, which turned out to be the most loving thing I could do for both of us. Our mediator put it nicely when he said, “I wish society would see divorce not as a failure but as part of the natural cycle of life and death in relationship.” When my marriage ended, other dreams died to. My ideal of a lifelong partnership. My house that I never renovated. My children who never arrived. I was filled with loss.

“Only that which can destroy itself is truly alive.”

I love this quote by Carl Jung. Here was my life’s second call for adventure. Sure, I needed to rest, but I did not need a vacation — I needed a rebirth. The person I had become had many strong opinions about what a woman my age, in my circumstances, should do and be. Only this time there was another voice, a strong underground current, a sense of inevitability for what had to happen. I had no partner, no children, no mortgage. I had a golden ticket in my hand, and I was going to use it.

Moving through paralyzing fear

When I’m about to do something important in my life, that’s when I feel the most fear. I am destroying my career. People will think that I am lazy, crazy. I will feel lonely. I will be bored. I will be financially ruined. And on, and on. I am blessed with a great brain but it can get stuck in this kind of obsessive, negative loop that paralyzes me. One way I’ve learned to snap out of it is to redistribute my energy to other places.

  • I ask my heart (not my brain), “what do I want?”
  • Then I check in with my gut (or go for a walk) to decide my first move
  • Only then do I crunch the numbers, research, etc. to make it happen

In this case, my heart wanted an unrushed life, more vitality, beauty and connection. My body had been ready for years to take a break, so it was more like opening the barn door and letting it trot out. Then I organized my finances and drew up all sorts of Plan B’s to prevent career and emotional catastrophe. I agreed with my management to take 3 months of unpaid leave, and after that we would discuss different options to return to work (starting small was very helpful because I was too scared to quit my job  during the pandemic and was still quite emotionally attached to my team). I sold everything I didn’t need and put the rest in storage, just in case this went longer than 3 months. And I got on a flight to Portugal to be with my family and friends.
A few months have passed. I’ve had a mild case of Covid and a breast cancer scare. A close friend died. All things that further validated my decision to slow down and connect more with what is healthy and gives my life meaning. Oh, I did end up quitting my job and a 15 year career with the company. Just thinking about returning to work made my chest tighten. I have been resting and am starting to feel energy to do things again, such as writing this post. In the words of Martha Postlethwait, I created a clearing in the dense forest of my life. Adventures big and small have been bringing some clarity about what might be next for me.

Ana Lucia is a transformation coach and a dancer who helps organizations and individuals move through change. Check out her blog here.
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