Five years ago, I owned a home and my mid-twenties’ dream car, was on a management track at my firm, and had a six figure income.
I also was in the midst of ending an exhausting relationship, working 60 some hours each week, and spending most of my “down” time in a doctor’s office or the emergency room. A beautiful life—at least in the eyes of those industry leaders who had successfully paved the way for young guns like me to make a living.
During that time, I idolized those who were consistently making huge sales and rubbing shoulders with some pretty fabulous people because of that. I had a newer model of the BMW I owned pinned to a photo board in my office at home (which I spent little to no time in), and I poured over my prospect list every few hours, every day. I was good at my job, and my clients loved me, but it was never enough. I needed what they had—the sales manager’s condo in the city, the owner’s seemingly perfect family life, a corner office with a wicked view.
I worked so hard to be a mover and shaker that I ended up burnt out and angry—feelings of jealousy and hate were easy to come by, and I resented everything and everyone around me.
I remember a brief conversation I had with my sister during that time where she blatantly told me the East Coast had changed the core of who I was. In addition to becoming a bitter workaholic, I had also lost quite a bit of weight. Part of that was on purpose, because I felt pretty strongly that everyone in the city was about four sizes smaller than I was at that time—the other part just happened. I left the house so early for my two hour commute that I didn’t eat breakfast, I worked through lunch, and worked too late into the night to eat dinner, most nights.
My sister was concerned—but most of the people I interacted with in business each day could care less. I started to realize that I was striving for a success that others had defined for me. The house, the car, the income—the life, right?
But what about my health, my passions, my time?
I’m not the first person to have this realization while trying to catapult up the corporate ladder in their twenties—I may be one of the few who is still in the same career after that realization, however. It took me years to sift through what it was about what I do that kept me going, day after day. The potential for extraordinary income, or was it the status that can come from working with high profile clients? It certainly wasn’t the long hours or pointless Monday morning training meetings.
I was drawn and kept in business by what I provided to my clients—how they were able to change something in their thinking in order to reach whatever success looked like to them.
I spend about an hour with each one of my clients the first time we meet, trying to understand what it is they need and how I may be able to help them achieve that position in this life. Most of what I do is planning through education, even though sales are an inevitable part of implementing that plan. I realized I was so caught up with the sales portion, I was overlooking what I truly loved about my career choice. I had to figure out a way to create that space for my clients, make an income from doing so, and not be hitched to the nonsense that can be the corporate side of my business.
Those closest to me and even some of my clients had encouraging but scary advice. Go out on your own—I heard it loud and clear. But I ignored it as long as I could. Although my working years have all been based on commission earned, the thought of starting something from the ground up was paralyzing.
Eventually, I ended up in partnership with two of my colleagues. One was beyond successful, but equally miserable in our oppressive firm environment, and one was simply along for the ride. The latter didn’t last more than a year, but we—the successful ones—kept on.
And we argued, a lot.
Even though I was free of a shit environment with nearly unreachable quotas in support of someone else’s dream business, I was still working hard toward someone else’s version of success. He wanted a practice that served a certain demographic, and I wanted one that served another. He had a different relationship with money than I did, and we were hard pressed to meet eye to eye on that topic in any aspect. He said I owed him respect—I said he had to earn it.
About a year in, I took two weeks away from everything—something I had never done in my almost eight year career—and thought about what my next move would be. Should I leave the industry altogether, or do I just separate myself from him completely? Was there a happy medium that would serve everyone’s needs, or were we doomed in working together.
I had worked hard in the business—lost friends, gained clients, ruined relationships, and bought too much crap to give up on the dream. But who’s dream was I after? Clearly, it was his, not mine.
My business remains intact, but now more on my terms. I operate on somewhat of a disruptive model, working with clients no one else will take, and charging them well below what I am worth. I have time for my other passions—writing, non-profit support, the occasional happy hour—and I don’t work more than 30 hours each week. I am content here, although my bank account would beg to differ. This experience is different than the last, and each morning I have to remind myself why.
Before I could get comfortable with creating my own vision of a practice in this industry, I had to let go of everything I had been taught by this industry. I don’t frequent country clubs for my clients—because my clients aren’t there. I don’t get concerned that my full sleeve of ink will deter wealthy prospects from working with me—because the people I want to work with don’t care. It isn’t my partner’s practice to build, it’s mine. I took me too long to understand that I define what success is, and it is unique to me.
As I sat on my bed one early morning a few weeks ago, I read through a handful of recent e-mails from clients. Some were asking for meetings to update me on their progress, and others were sending along the name of a colleague who could use similar help. In the quiet of my morning routine, I felt sad, but grateful. I wanted this experience with this business years ago, but was quickly blinded by the somewhat misguided focus of my peers. But as I realized just how much each e-mail had a tone of thankfulness, above all else, I felt so blessed for the opportunity to do what it is I am meant to do.
Taking on the risk to create what I want in a career that is built on a foundation of money and status has been a freeing experience, despite how terrifying it can be, day to day. I spent too much time climbing the mountain someone else created, I couldn’t envision my own. From an outside perspective, it may seem like I’ve taken a few steps back throughout this journey, but I’m not convinced that is the case.
I’m simply starting at the foot of my own mountain, climbing at my pace and on my terms, and I know the view will be better along the way.