Brand building through storytelling

Writing the next chapter

Second Acts LayoutMy friend Ellen was worried about me. When she read in her morning paper that I would soon be leaving my job, she called to pose a question: “How does it feel to be done with the most important thing you’ll ever do?”

For nearly a decade I’d been Editor of Chatelaine. I gave keynote speeches, TV interviews and boardroom presentations. My in tray overflowed with promotional freebies, from best-selling books to the latest scent. If I had the inclination, I could have gone out every night to a champagne reception where the hosts all looked like models.

The job had an aura that eclipsed the private me, and had nothing to do with the intoxicating day-to-day frenzy of putting out the magazine. I had loved my job as if it were a friend–the demanding, flamboyant kind of friend who is always the centre of attention. For the sake of my job, I cancelled lunch dates and ate soggy pizza at my desk. I’d fly home from vacation on Saturday, wondering what I’d missed at the office, and then I’d spend Sunday catching up. I could work until the street lights came on outside and not even notice; I was having too much fun.

But that feeling eventually passed. To my dismay, I was bored. Surely there was some other project I could love, just waiting to be found. Ellen meant well, but her spoilsport question irked me. “Who says I’m through with important things?” I asked.

“Sounds like you’ve got a plan. So what is it?”

“To surprise myself. That’s all I know right now. I’ll fill in the blanks later.” She sighed. “Look, I don’t want to sound discouraging, but have you realized how tough this is going to be? You’re used to being a Very Important Person. The day you walk out of your big office is the day a lot of people start forgetting to return your call.”

“I’m not worried.” If I kept saying this in a strong, clear voice, then surely soon enough it would be true. I was leaping into the unknown, but I figured I was doing it by the book. My husband and I no longer needed my paycheque—or his, for that matter. We’d always planned to leave our jobs around age 55. Now that the moment had arrived, we were giving ourselves the perfect sendoff: two and a half weeks in Europe.

All year I’d been picking the brains of Formerly Important friends who claimed to have learned a thing or two about the process known as “reinventing yourself.” I seized on every tip. Build your support network—without colleagues, you’ll need your friends. Check (I’d never treated myself to so many social lunches). Hand off your job to other people task by task so that you’ll hardly notice when it’s gone. Check, except for the “hardly noticing” part (as I filled a yellow dumpster with old strategic plans, I found myself getting teary). Give yourself two years for the transition.

Great, but how could it possibly take that long? I’m an organized person, after all. And those tears in the dumpster? Surely just a momentary quiver of the heart. In fact, I had a good reason to mourn. My old sidekick Chatelaine was moving on without me, and the halls buzzed with plans I knew nothing about.

Meanwhile I’d been pitching a consulting contract that wasn’t going anywhere. I’d lined up a few speeches, but they were months away. Much as I’d been longing for a quiet life, with no all-day meetings and urgent requests from on high, things were looking a little too quiet for my liking.

It snowed on Day One of my new life, a Monday in January. Just back from Spain, where lemons still hung on the trees, I looked out on the storm from my home office. I had no meetings to attend, no calls to answer. No one brought me any problems to solve (unless you count my husband, looking for the cocoa powder).

I put on a pot of lentil soup for lunch and breathed in the heady aromas while pondering my empty computer screen. I hadn’t quit my job to serve homemade lunches, so what would I do with myself? For starters, I could write a memoir. I blocked out my critical path as if I were still writing strategy memos: prepare opening chapters (my winter project); sell book (April); finish book and open the champagne (December).

I still didn’t understand this mid-life “reinvention” business. I thought it was a question of what I would do, when the fundamental issue was who I would be without my job to confine and define me. Before finding a project to love like a friend, I had to reconnect with my private self. Several Formerly Important friends had tried to explain this. “Don’t fill up your calendar with make-work projects,” they would say.

Determined to keep busy, these women had rushed to the aid of every charity that called on them. My phone still wasn’t ringing, and my calendar looked so pristine that I could have used it as a sketchbook. Yet I had the same problem that bedeviled my friends—a habitual focus on results. In our boardroom years, results propelled us forward. Now we all had to learn a new focus—our own satisfaction.

When people asked if missed my job, I reeled off all the things I was glad to lose$#8212starting with self-appointed pals who once called on me for favours and now had forgotten me. “The only thing I miss is the IT department,” I would say. “When my computer gives me grief, I have to wait two days for a techie and pay him $40 an hour.”

True, but not the whole truth. I also missed the confidence that comes with a visible place in the world. I came to dread the question “How the book going?” April passed, then December, and I still had nothing much to show for my efforts. If I still had a paycheque, I might have gone shopping for some gorgeous bauble to lift my spirits—a beaded choker, a hat with a velvet flower. But I could no longer afford retail therapy, nor did I have anywhere glamorous to go. As a Formerly Important Person, I lived in yoga pants and T-shirts.

I had one great luxury: time. The trick was learning how to use it. In our first year of freedom, my husband and I took every trip that struck our fancy. We’d fly home from Miami just in time to start planning a trip to London. I always came home with a vague sense of letdown: what, exactly, was I returning to? Travel had become a distraction from my private journey as a corporate refugee in search of a new life rhythm.

One day I looked up from the suitcase I was packing for a spa vacation and said to my husband, “I wish we weren’t going. I’d rather put roots down at home.”

Writing was part of that process, but the harder I tried to keep a nine-to-five schedule, the less I had to say. So I made spaces in my day for hanging out and having fun. On a perfect summer day, while my former colleagues labored at their desks, my husband and I might take our grandson to the swimming pool. Or I could phone my downsized friend Claire and say, “I’m going for a walk. Want to come?”

In two-plus hours of wandering and chatting, we confided in each other as we never could in our corporate lives, when we used to spend our lunch dates surreptitiously checking our watches. Like me, Claire was discovering that you can’t transform your life just by following a game plan. Claire thought she wanted another big job—until she was offered the best job she could imagine. To her surprise, she turned it down.

On my way home from our walk, I caught sight of my reflection in a shop window-cheeks flushed with exertion, hair blown by the wind. My gait had a lightness I barely recognized. I figured I looked 10 years younger than I had in my severe black workaday clothes.

Maybe I was kidding myself (the window was kind to those new lines around my eyes). But I hadn’t felt so alight with possibility since I was 26. In those days I was knocking on doors in search of my first job. When employers shook their heads at my skimpy resume, I doubted myself—but only until I lined up the next interview. I just knew that my luck could change any minute, although what actually won me a job had less to do with luck than with persistence and hope.

At 56, I was looking for a sense of completion and purpose that nobody else could give me. Sometimes I wondered if anyone would publish this pesky memoir of mine, and then I’d feel every bit as vulnerable as I had 30 years earlier. But if my young green self could find her place in the end, then surely prospects were bright for the older, wiser me. I decided to keep writing for the sheer joy of it.

No matter what became of my book, I loved it, just as other midlife women in my circle loved going back to school or volunteering in the third world. We’ve all earned the privilege of defining success for ourselves. As soon as I understood this, the memoir clicked. I sold it, but the door that opened was in my own mind.

On my favourite urban hike, there’s a hill so steep, it leaves me breathless. At the top of the hill there’s a bench where I like to savour the view before pressing on at top speed. My first year without a job was like that bench, the restorative place between challenges.

Reinventing myself as an author took almost exactly two years, although to me “reconnection” seems a better word for the shift I had to make. I haven’t become a different person; I’m just giving free rein to my fun-loving side.

When I finished the book, I shared the good news with Ellen. In the midst of her excitement, she raised one small concern. “What if this book is the best idea you’ll ever have? Doesn’t that worry you?”

“Of course not.” I wasn’t lying, just dodging the truth about the twinge of sadness I was feeling, as if a beloved friend had moved away. Writing the memoir had absorbed my heart and mind; it had awakened me in the middle of the night. Now I didn’t have a focus. I would have to take a breather on the bench at the top of the hill. I’m still there, looking back on the climb I’ve made. I have no idea what’s next. But I do know this: it’s bound to surprise me.

Published in More, Summer 2007. Copyright by Rona Maynard.

Posted by Rona

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