Sabbatical Daze

I’m officially on sabbatical now.

The last loop has been closed. My final invoice has been sent, and paid, and the payment is logged. My trusty blue box— the one that carries my facilitation supplies— is folded flat and gathering dust in the basement. I’m done with so many things! No more standing behind a podium, no more rehearsals to get the tone of a training session just right, and no more afternoons at the printer, picking up colorful charts and boxes full of binders.

I’ll miss those red metal buckets of Sharpies, fresh Play-Doh, and the soft zip sound that a flip-chart makes when you pull off a sheet.

And I’ll miss standing back and asking, “What do you think of this thing you’ve made?” Because most of the time, my clients created wonderful things! Plans and decisions and goals, of course. But also themselves. They remade themselves, year after year, and it was beautiful to watch. Like a field of flowers unfurling. Like a dozen jangly instruments coming together to sing a joyous song.

Like magic.

I’m thinking of those moments, after class, when a manager would shyly approach and tell me about their successes. Whenever this happened they’d look sheepish, almost embarrassed, as if they weren’t allowed to be proud of themselves. And I’d tell them that I was proud of them, and that they should be happy, because they were doing what was right, even when it was hard.

Now that I’m done, I wish I’d fully appreciated those moments. I wasted a lot of time worrying that I’d mess it up or let someone down. But that’s life, isn’t it? We struggle through our lives in the moment, and we feel our fullest appreciation only in retrospect.

Best. Job. Ever.

Sabbatical Daze

Eyes forward now, I’m telling myself. You’ve worked hard for this time, now live in it.

I rolled into sabbatical-land gradually, first by cutting my hours, then by working remotely while we traveled, and then by cutting my remaining cords. Already, I can tell you the most wonderful parts of not-working.

  • Spending lots of time with P.
  • Being free to travel.
  • Getting enough sleep.
  • Having the time to write and play.
  • Slow mornings.

Slow mornings are my idea of heaven! After waking up well-rested around eight-thirty, I stay in bed for about forty minutes, drinking coffee and journaling. It’s such a lovely way to start the day. Incredibly, my lifelong insomnia is mostly gone. I often fall asleep within 20 minutes of closing my eyes, and it feels like a superpower.

The ‘good parts’ of being on sabbatical are huge! Life-changing, even. But I feel so disoriented, in a who-am-I-now kind of way. When your career was a big deal to you, and you leave that identity behind, even small talk feels super invasive.

What do you do, Cheri?

 STOP ASKING ME SUCH PERSONAL QUESTIONS!!!

I’m mostly joking. But the “What do you do” question peers right into the heart of my uncertainties, and I get all huffy about it. Every response that I’ve tried feels like a lie.

“I’m on sabbatical” – Okay, but that’s mostly a statement of what I’m not doing.

“I’m a writer.” – Accurate, but does it make sense to define yourself by your hobbies? Do people introduce themselves to strangers as “woodworkers” or “knitters”?

“I’m not working right now.” – Defensive, right? It sounds like I got shit-canned for stuffing staplers into my bra.

“Hey look, it’s Vin Diesel!” (ducks behind a nearby shrub) – Amusing, but you can’t always count on having greenery nearby.

I realize that when someone asks, “what do you do” they don’t want your life story; it’s merely polite conversation. So why does it make me squirm?

No More Excuses

Here’s the truth: I don’t know what to do with myself, now that I’m home and without a job.

Showering, food prep, and taking care of yourself can’t take more than a couple hours per day. Television and books are wonderful, but you don’t want to spend your life on the couch. Most days are a game of “what shall we do today?” Go for a hike? Sure! But how many days per week do you want to do that? I love my writing time, but I don’t want to ruin it by treating it like a J-O-B.

Until quite recently, I had things I needed to do and places I had promised to be. And with those responsibilities came a hidden perk: a ready supply of excuses.

If I was tired, it was because I was working too much! If I was stressed, it was because work was stressful! And if I wanted to do something but I wasn’t doing it, it’s because work needed to come first. Not my fault, at least not entirely. I had work to do!

Here in sabbatical-land, however, I’m fresh out of excuses. If I didn’t exercise today it’s because I decided not to. If my energy is low or I’m feeling kinda bitchy, that’s no one’s fault but my own. Am I failing to follow through on my dreams? Well, I’ve got nothing but time so it’s all on me!

I’d always wanted the freedom of not working, but I’d never considered the responsibilities that came with that freedom. I can no longer use the excuse of work to wriggle out of my most personal responsibilities. To put it another way, my satisfaction with life is 100% my problem now.

My career used to scratch all these itches I didn’t even realize I had! I had purpose, and I belonged, and I had important things to do with my time. And now, with my supply cut off, I’m starting to feel… itchy.

I told P how I was feeling the other day. Actually, I might have said something along the lines of “I’m losing my mind, and if we sit around “drinking tea pleasantly and relaxing” for one more freakin’ day I’m going to throw myself into a live volcano just for kicks.” P, unfazed by my antics, calmly asked if I wanted to return to work.

Did I want to return to work? I thought about it, for half a minute. “No,” I said, feeling stubborn. “I’m gonna figure this sabbatical thing out.”

He responded with a look I couldn’t interpret. Perhaps he didn’t believe me? If so, that’s okay.

Because I don’t know if I believe me either.

Lessons from the In-Between

Last week, I facilitated a strategic planning retreat out on the Kitsap peninsula. It was my eighth year working with that group, and I always enjoy our time together. Over the weekend toasted marshmallows, and we also toasted each other. For me it was a goodbye of sorts, as I’m preparing to depart for my year of travel and debauchery. They’ll need a new consultant.

They presented me with a gift certificate to REI, which I used to buy the travel backpack I’ve had my eye on. It arrived a few days ago, and it’s perfect! Big enough to hold all my stuff, but small enough not to weigh me down. After I’d finished running my fingers over the fabric and zippers and lightweight buckles, I jotted down a list of what I want to pack for our first multi-month adventure. Three quarters of a page later, I was done.

osp40

Isn’t it pretty?

I’m excited about my new backpack, and the freedom it represents, but I’m also queasy about all this change. Letting go of my clients and my livelihood is harder than I thought it would be. I took my foot off the marketing pedal some time ago and my work has been tapering. But introducing my clients to other consultants has been what Pam Poovey might call “a kick to the ol’ emotional nutsack.”

She is such a poet!

She’s such a poet.

Over the last month I’ve managed to stress-eat an extra five pounds onto my body. I even tried talking myself out of taking next year off:

I can keep working… right?
I can do a bunch of projects over the summer, when we’re in town.
And when we aren’t in town, I can do coaching and webinars…

Yes, those things are technically true. I’m free to work next year if that’s what I want to do. But is that what I want? Am I *really* going to arrive in some beautiful new place and want to spend my time hustling for new business? I guess it could happen – I’m willing to see how it goes – but I’ve got a bigger question. Why am I trying to backpedal away from what I’ve promised myself?

Fear, probably. Being a consultant has been my identity for a long time. My response to feeling that identity slip away was to get super clingy. WAIT! I CAN KEEP IT ALL GOING. NO NEED TO PANIC! I’LL JUST WORK CONSTANTLY WHILE I TRAVEL. PROBLEM SOLVED!

Here are the questions behind my worry:

Will I want to work next year?
If so, how much?
Will my business survive, as I become semi-nomadic?
What should I tell people?

I’ve already answered the last one. My clients who hire me on a regular basis have already been informed of my plans and given other options. Everyone else (those folks who hire me intermittently) can call me when they need help, and if I’m not available at that time, I’ll connect them with someone awesome who is. Easy peasy.

The remaining questions are harder, because I have no way of knowing the answers yet. And I guess the whole not-knowing thing has been wigging me out, leading to spikes of insomnia and eating too many Cheetos.

If I look at this situation logically, it’s kind of funny. Why do I think I should know everything about what’s going to happen next year?

Because I’m used to living my life “according to plan” – that’s why.

Huh.

Lessons from the In-Between

My old life (that I loved for a long time) is slipping away fast, and that’s scary. My new life (that I’m enthused for) isn’t quite here yet, so I’m sitting here watching my old passions crumble into dust. Combine that with the fact that I’m a chick who likes to plan everything and next year is pretty plan-free—no wonder I’ve been so anxious. I’m stuck in the “in-between,” and way outside my comfort zone.

Here’s what I’m telling myself, when I feel afraid:

  • I can’t have an adventure until I let go of what’s familiar.
  • Following your bliss comes at a cost. No one tells you that, but it’s true.
  • If you miss working all that much, you can start working again. But wait and see, instead of rushing back in.
  • You and P have worked so hard for this. Enjoy it. Go see the world!

Letting go is hard! And even though I know that, knowing hasn’t made it much easier. But the good news is that I’ve only got three more months left in the in-between. Starting in January, anything’s possible.

“Let us step into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.”
― J.K. Rowling

Falling Slowly

This month marks my tenth year as an organizational development consultant.

I’ve read that only 4% of businesses survive for a decade, so I suppose I get to be proud. I’ve survived! And even better than surviving, I’ve had fun.

So what’s next?

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a while now, probably because I’ve been feeling like one of those bands from the seventies that tours the country playing only their most popular songs. Does playing “your greatest hits” make for happy customers? You bet! Is it creative, interesting, and challenging work? Not really.

Whenever I got a case of the blahs, I gave myself a little lecture:

What’s your problem? You’ve got these wonderful clients. You care about them on a personal level that goes beyond work, and they pay you well to do a pleasant job that you’re good at. What’s not to like? Seriously! If you can’t be thrilled about this situation, there’s something wrong with you.

I’m very familiar with those words. They run in my head at intervals, like a commercial for Geico.

Push Me Over the Cliff, Why Don’t You?

The universe has been pushing me hard towards a decision that I’m not ready to make.

It began in February when I packed my schedule full of interesting consulting projects. I’d had a nice break from work, and I was ready to kick some ass. But to my surprise and sadness, my work felt like a chore! The work hadn’t changed, but I guess I had?

I hate it when the universe moves my cheese.

Soon afterward, P and I tried to book some of that “long slow travel” we’ve been dreaming about. But we found that my intermittent commitments in Seattle were making that impossible. We did manage to string together enough days for one long trip, but it ended up being 3-4 times more expensive than it needed to be, due to my limited availability.

And my next gap between projects was nearly 18 months away…

Then a client and I had this long talk after a meeting, sharing our travel dreams, and she looked me in the eye and told me that I should pack a bag and go, as soon as possible, because who knows when I’d get another chance. And I felt like she was saying the words I’d been trying to so hard to ignore.

Can you see where this is going? Once I saw where it was going, I cursed under my breath.

Dammit, I thought. This was not part of the plan.

Whee! I’m Falling.

The plan, you see, was for me to happily weave together consulting and writing and traveling and play. But now it seemed that my spirit had risen up in rebellion, and was making demands. And as soon as she had my attention, she laid out her instructions:

You will wrap up your current consulting projects by the end of the year.
You will do your best to leave everyone in good shape, to succeed without you, while you’re gone.
You may be on-call to your clients via email, telephone, or Skype.
You will buy one-way plane tickets and leave the country in early 2017.
You will not come home until you want to.
You will not “wait one more year” because it won’t be any easier next year.

I listened to that fierce voice, and responded the only way I could:

I said Yes.

The Dark Side of OD Consulting

When I tell people about my job I often get enthusiastic responses.

“That’s my dream job,” people will say, with a big smile and bright eyes. And I understand because for a long time being an OD consultant was my dream job too. But OD consulting isn’t my dream job any longer. It’s my real job. And while there are plenty of beautiful moments I am no longer sashaying from project to project with rainbows shooting out of my ass.

Yes, my work is positive and life-affirming. But being at the center of organizational change can be emotionally difficult. There is a dark side, and I’ll tell you what it feels like.

  • Sometimes it takes me days or weeks to “shake off” the negativity that I pick up like lint from a difficult set of meetings.
  • I’ve had a client “use me” to bring people hope and enthusiasm (temporarily) without intending to follow through.
  • I’ve brought difficult feedback to the surface and it blew up in my face.
  • I’ve seen someone I trusted use my words to“prove someone else wrong” in a petty argument.
  • I’ve had clients lie to me (and their teams) because they were worried about looking bad.
  • I’ve had a CEO ask me “who he should fire” after facilitating a team building day. He didn’t like my answer (no one) and I wasn’t invited back.
  • I’ve had an executive pull me aside and tell me (with great sadness) that as much as my efforts were appreciated the organization’s leadership didn’t really want to change, and our work was ultimately pointless.

Even though I have twenty positive stories for every bad one, there are times when being a facilitator breaks my heart.

farnsworth

Last winter was unusually tough, and one particular day comes to mind. I’d been raked over the coals by a client during a difficult meeting. Afterwards I drove my rental car to a Taco Bell parking lot so I could bawl my eyes out in private. I had just texted P to tell him I was going to cry for another 20 minutes to get it out of my system before I got on the freeway to come home because I didn’t want to crash the car. And that’s when my heart whispered:

i don’t know if I can do this anymore

In ten years of OD consulting that was the only time I’d ever seriously considered quitting. Up until then I’d been able to roll-with-the-punches, but all of the sudden my work seemed untenable.

What had changed? Where had I lost my way?

I’ve been searching for my answer.

The Problem with Idealism

Most of the OD people I’ve met have something in common. We do this work because we care deeply about things like fairness, honesty, progress, and helping other people have a voice. We’re idealists! We believe in the goodness of people. We feel that goodness. And as a result we tend to put our hearts on the line when we walk into a conference room or when we start a project.

I wasn’t crying in my car that day because the meeting was hard. Hard meetings happen and I can take my share of tough feedback. I was crying because I’d believed deeply in my client and I felt that they had let me down. I felt like everything we’d been working towards was a lie. And I was ashamed of myself for being duped.

I was heartbroken. I felt like a teenage girl who had fallen in love and belatedly realized she’d been dating a jerk and everyone knew it except for her. And because I was so focused on my own feelings of betrayal I wasn’t able to do my job, which was “girling up” and dealing with the immediate issue of what had happened in that meeting.

What a mess!

Putting Away the Pedestals

Consulting work pushes me, hard. What I learned last year is that I have a tendency to put my clients up on a pedestal.

These are the good guys, I tell myself. And then when they fell off the pedestal and proved that they were as human as anyone else I got all butthurt about it. Change is hard and I expect a certain amount of struggle, for sure. But integrity failures make me feel personally betrayed. Things like not following through. Not being honest. Being disrespectful. Not taking the work seriously. Being closed off to feedback. Using me as a ping-pong ball in a petty squabble. Being mean.

We all make mistakes. Hell, I know I do! But I don’t think that heartbreak is the correct response to client behavior. Therefore something in my thought process needs to change.

I think I need to replace my idealism with something healthier. Pragmatism?

Because when an Idealist gets her heart broken she thinks:
I believed in you.
I threw my heart into this.
I thought you walked the talk.
I told your employees they could trust you.
I thought *I* could trust you.
But I was a chump!
(weeps)

But when a Pragmatist has a bad interaction she thinks:
How interesting!
Perhaps should explore this.
Surely there is something to learn here.
After all, we all have bad days,
And if it turns out this leader is horrible after all,
I can probably help, if they want help,

And if that doesn’t work, I can walk!
I’m a free agent, after all.
(smiles)

Pragmatism seems healthier. More professional certainly. And also a tiny bit sadder. There is a part of me who mourns the old-Cheri who could pop into a meeting full of naive belief that all people were inherently trustworthy.

  • I used to waltz into a new project full of hope and optimism, convinced that my clients were going to “fight the good fight” and operate with integrity 99% of the time.
  • I never used to worry about covering my own ass.
  • I accepted what people told me at face value without looking for (or expecting) deception.
  • I assumed that so long as I was honest and I was respectful that others would value what I brought to the table.
  • I assumed when people said they were willing to do the work, they always meant it.

Looking back on the way I used to be, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I miss my blind idealism. It felt so good! But I’m glad I’m not being a Pollyanna any longer. Old-me was sweet but she was also pretty naive.

When it comes to my work I still trust but I expect people to earn it. I still believe but it’s not unconditional belief. I’m a lot more skeptical than I used to be, back in the day. And I’m better able to see the truth of what’s in front of me, both the good and the bad.

Being a facilitator can break your heart. Being a facilitator might even change your heart. I hope these changes are for the better. But are they?

Whenever I ask myself that question, my heart whispers:

do your work with love

and have faith

Faith in what, I want to know.

have faith and you’ll see, she answers.

I Facilitated a Meeting on the Death Star

“To practice Right Livelihood, you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others. ”

Thich Nhat Hanh

I’ve always loved the Buddhist notion that your work should be an extension of your humanity. And because I work with nonprofits and social enterprises it’s pretty easy to align my values with the work that I do. But a few years ago I took on a project that bent my moral compass. And I don’t think I handled it very well.

I was hired to facilitate some planning meetings for a nonprofit advocacy organization. And nonprofit advocacy sounded good to me. Squeaky clean, right?

What I eventually figured out was that this was an industry lobbying group operating under a not-for-profit banner. The meetings included CEOs, lobbyists, and visiting government officials, all connected to a particular segment of the economy.

Still, I was fine with that. I’m pro-business and it seemed like a good learning opportunity. I didn’t know much about lobbying and the industry represented was one that I admire. But over time I became quite uncomfortable with conversations I was facilitating.

  • I facilitated a conversation about the importance of squashing environmental protections.
  • I listened to CEOs bemoan the evils of a higher minimum wage.
  • I helped a group that was 100% male and 100% white and 100% well-off create a concise list of what they wanted their legislators to do and not do.
  • I observed cozy relationships between business leaders and government officials.  I heard lobbyists proudly describe their close personal friendships with my elected representatives.

I was there as a facilitator and not a participant, so what could I do? I helped the group have the conversations they wanted to have. And by the time I got home I felt sad and dirty and disgusted with myself.

After our last session together I remember thinking: Shit, I think I just facilitated a meeting on the Death Star. I just helped the Empire make plans to fuck up the planet and keep poor people in their place.

I felt like a coward for keeping my concerns to myself. I wanted to ask the group what made it okay for them to buy political influence. I wanted to know why they felt so comfortable cracking jokes about “entitled” hourly employees while they were all financially secure. But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to hurt my reputation by pissing off a client so I wrapped up the project, made polite excuses as to why I wouldn’t be back, and I walked.

The participants weren’t bad people. I could sense that they had the capacity to be smart and kind and wise. What freaked me out was that they seemed to put their humanity on hold for the duration of those meetings. It was as if they boxed up their compassion for others and put it on a high shelf while they were in business mode.

Movies like Star Wars are so rewarding because they clearly delineate between good and evil. We can cheer when they blow up the Death Star because those evil people were blowing up planets in their quest for power. Good guys won! Bad guys lost! Huzzah!

But in our world we aren’t confronted with obvious villains very often. What we need to worry about are those otherwise good people who do evil in the name of business. In the name of profit. Under the banner of being a responsible leader.

One well-placed shot isn’t going to save humanity. Instead we need to fight the evil that rises up within us when we put business first and people/planet second.

stormtroopers

Have we forgotten how to identify evil when we see it?

  1. When a leader puts the interests of a corporation above the interests of humanity, that’s evil.
  2. When a business poisons the planet because not poisoning it costs money, that’s evil.
  3. When you try to buy a politician or threaten them with a loss of money when they cross you, that’s evil.
  4. When we put human health at risk because we don’t want to risk jobs, that’s evil.
  5. When leaders drive their sports cars from their well-appointed homes to a conference room to complain about how annoyingly entitled their employees are for not wanting to be poor, that’s so fucking evil.

I wish I had been more courageous when I facilitated those meetings. I wish I had spoken up with equal fervor and compassion and said, “Friends, we are so much better than this.”

Because we are. We are so much better than this.

I want to be braver than I’ve been.