How to cope with an involuntary pause
Saturday 17th March, I delivered a very personal TEDx talk about coping with an involuntary pause in your career and life. I'm not embarrassed or ashamed by this narrative - but nor do I intend to be defined by it. I am both ready and excited to move on. At the same time, I know how useful a number of you have found this story - thank you so very much for your kind feedback. So here is the transcript of that talk. The audio is available as an Entrepreneur Agony Aunt podcast mini extra episode (also on Spotify and iTunes).
Press Pause To Begin - TedX University of Glasgow, March 2018
Not all pauses are voluntary.
The shock and sheer physicality of an involuntary pause can render the maps you’ve used to navigate your life to this point completely useless.
In your desperation to begin again, you may come to realise that not only do you not know the way, you can no longer even see who you are.
You are lost.
The pause feels like a threatening wilderness. And the strong sense of who you once were quickly unravels.
The interesting thing about an involuntary pause is that there is a way through that lets you construct a new, more honest self from the experience.
But first you have to live completely in your pause, for far far longer than you want to. And learn to re-orientate in order to create a brand new map of your world.
And so it ends
8th June 2017, the Bloomsbury Hotel, London. I’d been networking over lunch with clients of my technology company. Next-up I was leading a discussion group, so I headed downstairs to the hall to get set up.
As I rounded the corner, I came face to face with my finance director, clearly on a call with my board of directors, at the very moment that he said “so we’ll stick her on gardening leave then, effective immediately”.
Gardening leave is a fluffy term for dismissed. Fired. Given the chop… a kind of enforced isolation.
We made eye contact - he knew I’d heard him. But in my shock, I just carried on into the hall and ran the workshop as planned. If anything I was extra brilliant - just to show them.
By time the afternoon finished, reality was no closer to setting in. I got on a train and slightly drunk and very tearful, turned up on the doorstep of my best friend from high school. She took it surprisingly well.
Only 7 months earlier I’d been on top of the world - one of those startup success stories. The company I’d founded had closed an investment round in record time, Mastercard had selected us from the best startups globally for a prestigious program. We’d been top tech startup in Europe and I’d be won Innovator of the Year.
Now I was handing back my computer, my phone and I was blocked from having any contact with the staff and clients I had come to think of as my friends.
I insisted on keeping all the trophies we’d won - I said if they didn’t like it they could go win their own. They are still in a box as I’ve nowhere to put them.
It wasn’t completely unexpected. A miserable 6 months of conflicts had left me stressed, ill and defeated. My strategic plans had been rejected, leaving my position as CEO unworkable.
All the same, this ending, when it came, was brutal, sudden and incomprehensible.
Almost 20,000 hours of work in just over five years (which averages 10.73 hours a day, 7 days a week) to nothing…... No calls, no emails. Nothing……...
Definitely an involuntary pause.
Find your equivalent of a garden
The first Monday morning of the rest of my life I got up, opened my new computer and had literally no idea what to do next. Except I had an incredibly panicked sense that if I didn’t do something - anything - and get started on it right now, I would be lost.
What I’ve come to learn is that this rush to begin again is a normal response to an involuntary pause.
One founder told me how he closed down his company in the morning, then wrote a panicked business plan for his rebound startup the same afternoon.
But it is a response you should be ready to resist.
You have to take your time - even though that great expansion of time ahead is absolutely terrifying.
I had one call that day - a call that changed my life. It was with a wonderful woman who had lived through a similar experience. She offered to coach me through my remaining 9 weeks of gardening leave.
Although I didn’t understanding at the time, she was preparing a plan that would let me be present in - and appreciative of - the enforced stage of this involuntary pause. It provided the time, means and structure for reflection.
I committed - in writing - that at least every week, for the next 9 weeks, I would visit a garden. (Yup - I took the whole gardening leave thing a bit too literally I think, especially for someone who doesn't actually have a garden!) At that garden I would take lots of pictures and post them to my gardening leave Instagram account - I was going to rule this and have the best gardening leave ever - and without fail by 3pm every Friday I would send her a new garden selfie.
This was genius on so many levels. Firstly gardens are cheap, accessible and beautiful destinations. They forced me outdoors, but in a way that did not require complex planning. For a plant lover like me, to wander round a garden forced me to be appreciative of the world around me.
I also discovered it was impossible to stay angry in a garden.
If you ever find yourself in an involuntary pause, find a physical environment that is your equivalent of a garden. Make this where you walk through your wilderness.
Reclaiming personal identity
One of the weirdest things I have felt through the last 9 months - and what I’ve put the most effort into fixing - is an incredible loss of my sense of self. Not just self worth - though that is part of it - but a complete crisis of personal identity and meaning.
Mending that has taken as much work as a physical injury would. It is impossible to rush, because you are making yourself again and that takes time - there are no shortcuts. But I didn’t understand that and so I wasn’t prepared.
My face had been the face of the company for so long, it didn’t feel like my face any more. If other people had got sick of me popping up in their newsfeed all the time, imagine how I felt, being stalked round the internet by the far more successful version of my former self. It’s pretty demoralising!
I felt I didn’t own my identity any more - like the company got to keep that as part of our divorce settlement. Yet, I’d still got stuck with my face and name, which meant I was now constantly needing to explain to people that I was no longer working there.
They always said the same thing - but you’re the founder, its your company - how does that work??
I have no idea. No clue. Do I look like I know? Go away. Mostly I avoided saying this out loud. But not always….
This single most constructive thing I did - though it was entirely by accident - was to regain control of my name and my narrative by writing.
I wrote a lot. And by sheer chance, simply because I already owned the website domain, I started to publish that writing at vickybrock.com. Some weeks I’d write 20,000 words.
And that writing hit a nerve with fellow founders and entrepreneurs. So I started to get an audience.
People began to thank me for telling the realities of business like it really is. And so an audience turned into a mission. I even professionalised myself a bit and made a logo.
And then one day I didn’t hate my picture any more. It no longer stalked me around making me feel like a total failure. So I stuck a purple filter on it and used it in my blog.
I had originally begun writing because I felt I had been completely excluded from my own narrative. I just wanted to understand my own story. But by writing and linking that writing to my name as closely as I did, not only did I reclaim my narrative, I slowly rebuilt my personal identity.
I became a cautionary tale, but it was my tale - so I’m OK with that.
The old stuff doesn’t go away - but I drowned it out with the new. I started to create my travel journal through my wilderness, long before I understood what new path I might be on.
The end is not your new beginning
Of course, the 9 weeks of gardening leave weren’t the end of my pause. They weren’t my new beginning.
It has taken 9 months to feel I have fully transitioned through my pause period, to event start to reach this new beginning as the person I want to be next.
It was a period of intense grief and numbed intellect. It took me a while to recognise it as grief - after all, who grieves for the loss of a company? (Me, it turns out).
I launched myself headlong into busy tasks. I started painting my flat, only to abandon it halfway when I couldn’t stand it anymore. My living room is still half painted! I’m trying to pass it off as a design feature.
I had a few job interviews, before being forced to accept that like most entrepreneurs, I am completely unemployable.
I came up with loads of startup ideas - most of them ridiculous - but I just couldn’t summon up the brainpower.
I had time, but no spark. No energy. And so the time felt very frightening.
It was an intellectual wilderness too - I could have read a hundred books. I didn’t.
But I wasn’t completely without a guide. This book - Transitions - was recommended to me by a politician who had lost her seat at the general election. And with it, the career path that had laid so clearly ahead.
It introduced the two concepts standing between me and my new beginning.
The ending - every transition begins with one. Endings begin with something going wrong. The first, not the last, act of the play.
And the neutral zone - the pause if you like. An unproductive period where we are disconnected from the past, emotionally disengaged from the present, yet very slowly re-orientating toward what will become a new future.
This neutral zone can’t be skipped. It is where you self-examine and repair. It is where you absorb and reflect upon the internal and external signals that allow you to rebuild a new personal meaning.
What you cross off the feature list of your next phase of life is just as important as what you include.
I find myself now with a deeply sharp sense of the people, interests and activities that I want in my life. I have emerged from my pause writing, podcasting, working with startups that interest me, campaigning as a Women's Enterprise Scotland Ambassador - caring more about my eulogy virtues than my resume virtues.
I seem to have lost my capacity for arse kissing and polite compliance. I have gained a frank openness that I suspect some people find rather alarming!
I may have been forced off the route I was on, but now I feel that I am a better person on a better path.
Only my actions will tell, of course. But I have regained control of my own narrative and my own journey in a way that before my pause had become lost.
I am now ready for my new beginning.
Live completely in your pause
So how do you avoid the pain of the involuntary pause?
The point is, of course, that you can’t. Just as you can’t usefully prepare for it in any practical way.
Even if, at a logical level, you know there is a possibility you may fail your studies, suffer a catastrophic injury that ends your sporting career, have your visa denied, have your year-long planned event cancelled by snow - if you always prepared for the worst, you would never achieve your very best.
Instead, if - when - life challenges you to the extent that your previous map no longer applies .....pause.
Accept the end is only the start, and that your long pause is an essential step.
Find a physical place where you will walk through your wilderness.
Keep a travel journal as you go.
Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t finish painting your living room - celebrate that it served its purpose as a brainless task.
Be ready to live deeply and completely in your pause for far, far longer than feels comfortable.
Because it is in that pause that you will finally find the signs of what matters most and where you want to go next.
It is where you will create your new map to a new beginning.