BelongCon inspired confession: I don’t belong in employment

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I have a story to tell, but until now I have been afraid to tell it.

Being at BelongCon in Brighton yesterday, watching so many people brave enough to reveal their story, I decided it’s time that I share mine.

As a freelance content marketing specialist and writer I get paid to write brand stories. Every day I write meaningful content about what matters to them and their audience. Yet my own content outputs have been in limbo as I continue to battle with a fear that if I reveal the truth, I won’t ever be able to get a permanent job again.

It’s time to burst that bubble (see what I did there @and_Helene). It’s time to accept that employment just isn’t for me and share my story in the hope that it will inspire others like me.

So here goes. My confession, the thing I have known for years and finally accepted…

I don’t belong in employment. I don’t fit in any box

I can’t follow rigid rules and conform to a restricted working culture.

I struggle with invisible challenges blocked by political hierarchies.

I can’t get up at the same time every morning.

Some days I need more rest and others I can work into the night.

I don’t do my best work first thing after I have rushed into work and feel scrutinised for being 5-minutes late.

I wanted to belong so bad. I wanted all of those company perks and the camaraderie of belonging to a ‘work family’, but I just couldn’t do it.

But, oh how I have tried…

I poured my heart into each employer’s business and worked my ass off. I delivered amazing work and was impressive in so many ways. Yet, still I was reliving the same pattern over and over for years. All of my attempts at belonging in employment resulted in one of three scenarios:

  1. Getting so caught up in how I should be, I lost myself and became unhappy
  2. I became unfulfilled and complacent, not brave enough to escape
  3. So passionate and honest I stepped on toes and lost my job

Nothing I do in life now is without purpose and when there isn’t any, I am miserable. Maybe it’s my age, maybe its an awareness I have developed that I cannot shake. Either way, the few moments in my life when I managed to stick it out and it wasn’t my decision to leave (often very quickly after the promise of promotion), have not only been hurtful. They have been extremely damaging to my confidence and emotional wellbeing. One employer, after just over a month, even pointed into my face and aggressively said:

“Are you going to cry? Are you depressed? This is exactly why you are not right for us.”

Despite this traumatic situation I didn’t back down. I didn’t cry. I reminded them why they hired me and they eventually had to admit that I was losing my job, simply because they ‘changed their mind’. They thought they wanted to be different, but they realised they didn’t.

I am tolerant and I am strong but I am still human. There are only so many hits you can take. I didn’t break, but on the few occasions this happened to me, I came very very close.

Ignoring repeating patterns led to more misery…

I was always an experiment, the wild card and it always came back to bite me on the ass. Of course, the more it happened the more fearful and insecure I became. I was well aware that a repeating pattern leads right back to me. So, over the years I attempted to adjust my own behaviour and approach to break the pattern. This included:

  • Being compliant and following a JFDI approach (just fucking do it)
  • Being ridiculously honest about my experiences at interview stage to mitigate risk
  • Remaining true to my instincts and being brave, despite pull back and politics
  • Flitting in and out of all of the above, hoping one works

No matter what route I took the same pattern emerged. If I was compliant then I didn’t fulfil their expectations and became unfulfilled. If I pushed the boundaries and made bold moves to elevate the business, I was considered difficult or ‘risky’. Even when I was honest about these experiences at interview stage and hired to innovate – employers were still surprised that I actually followed through on that promise.

“What… now?”

“Oh, you are actually going to follow through and change things?”

Yes, yes I am.

Often I wished I could JFDI. I could just do what I am told and play it safe. I wanted so much to learn what it was my colleagues were doing and get it right.

What ‘Dramatic Jen’ learned along the way…

The biggest lesson for me over the years was how not to leave a job and the importance of maintaining a good relationship with previous employers. Even if it is just for your own sanity. I refer specifically to a couple of moments in my 20s, when I was still what I refer to as ‘Dramatic Jen’:

  1. Bridget Jones style exit at a corporate London agency.

I discovered a series of emails about me being ‘difficult’. After a quick trip to the toilets crying on the phone to my mum, I sent the email company wide telling them all where to go before strutting down the office with a box full of my belongings. Bridget Jones style.

  1. Hippo clad confrontation at major toy store in London

Yes, I was a hippo. It paid well, shhh.

That day I had put my foot down about all three of us hitting the crowded streets together for a 6-hour shift, without supervision. Later I was sharing a lift fully clad in my hippo costume with the supervisor and her friend. She thought I was someone else. After a ream of insults I removed my hippo head and exclaimed (while shuffling my hippo belly to hers):

“If you have something to say, say it to my face.”

That Jen is long gone. As hilarious as she was, these were the kind of conflicts that made me uncomfortable and kept me up at night.

Now, 99% of the employers I have left or have let me go have since become freelance clients or a valued part of my network. Some are even very close friends.

Many have even apologised or at least admitted their part in what happened. I am so thankful to those employers. Without them I wouldn’t have got to this point. Those that haven’t? Well, I am still here and willing to discuss, resolve and move on. We may have parted, but my how we have grown since.

Why I don’t belong in employment…

In most cases I was hired as an experiment. A new role and a way to ‘shake things up’ or an effort to be innovative. There was a drive and desire to listen and break new ground for their business, but the reality was just too much for them. Either that or my all-round experience led to unrealistic expectations on my abilities across marketing disciplines. I am amazing at some things, good at others and reluctantly experienced in many areas. I am human, not a superhero. I am not an expert at everything I have ever done and have learned to communicate this better along the way. I am now a content specialist and proud.

Ultimately I believe that no matter how much employers may think they want change, to embrace diversity and honesty; when it actually happens they are uncomfortable. While some companies are striving towards a new way of working, employment as it stands is a battleground of fears and challenges. No amount of alcohol, pool tables and company perks can fix it. It will take real change and a big shift in attitudes to working culture to get to a point when people like me (millennials and entrepreneurs if you want to label us) can perhaps consider returning to employment.

There is no rule book to follow, no obvious method to control us, but – guess what? You don’t need to control someone to get the best out of them. You can nurture, encourage, exchange ideas and reach new heights together.

Being uncomfortable is actually an essential part of growing. I mean, why else would we all go through the hell that is puberty?

A long and treacherous journey, but a necessary one

It was early last year when I almost broke. I had found the best job. I was the happiest I had ever been in employment and truly believed I had finally found my work family. I was home. I was close to my colleagues. I knew their secrets and innermost fears, and they knew mine. If it was ever going to work for me it was here.

A week after talks of promotion a cluster of unfortunate circumstances and the result of many variables fell on my shoulders. It wasn’t my mistake, but on paper it was my responsibility. I was let go. Very suddenly.

My heart broke. Honestly, it felt like a break up. But I vowed that day, that was it. No more. I will never work for an employer permanently ever again.

Since, I have built my freelance business and finally had time to work on ALT-MU Magazine. As a freelancer I get to help businesses find their voice, tell their story and love the dynamic of a client / consultant relationship. I love being part of the bigger picture, being open and able to advice clients without fear of any fallback as an employee long-term.

As the founder of ALT-MU I am now able to work with other writers and create a peer-to-peer community for both the magazine and freelance network. Everything I do now lives under my overall mission to educate, inspire and entertain the world. Focusing on the things I care about. Whether that is music, career and personal development, flexible working, emotional wellbeing, content marketing, weight loss or my love for dogs. I have even created a community for writers with dogs.

I have more security and a sense of purpose than I ever did in employment. Most importantly, I now belong to something much bigger. A tribe of people like me paving the way for change. A movement towards creative freedom and flexible working in a world where it’s okay to be different.

The question is, are you brave enough to join us?

I would love to hear your stories in the comments or you can tweet me @jenniferthered.

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