Back in the Office: Unexpected Affirmation

Several years ago, I worked for an incredible arts non-profit organization in St. Louis. It was my first full-time job out of college -- the people were (and still are) wonderful, the work is top-notch, and my supervisor was a supportive, selfless, brilliant human being. According to all logic, I should have loved it. 

Instead, I spent most of my time trying to like my job, and small bursts of time crying in the bathroom. 

I spent over a year feeling stuck, and hopelessly foolish. Why couldn't I like a great job in a wonderful environment? Everybody else seemed happy enough; most of the employees had been there for many years, and found internal growth opportunities. My boss was outrageously supportive, and consistently committed to assisting me with my professional goals, whatever they might be. It was a great scenario, and I scolded myself for being so discontent. 

Sure, I got bored a lot. But I found creative ways to improve existing systems or identify new responsibilities for myself, and my supervisor was generally onboard for those opportunities. I didn't see another role in the company structure that I wanted to work toward, but perhaps that direction would come later on in my professional journey. 

The decision to stay or move on ate at me, and I was paralyzed by indecision. At the time, I had no idea that I had high-functioning generalized anxiety, and thus felt even more foolish for not being able to act one way or the other. That period of time in my professional life was characterized by fear, shame, and guilt, and I had little hope for my professional future.

Eventually, I took a role in admissions at my alma mater, thrilled to pursue something more along the lines of recruitment. I was also hopeful that a more people-focused opportunity would be a better fit for my needs. Besides, I'd worked in the admissions office during my undergrad and loved it. What could possibly go wrong?

My misery set in much more quickly as an admissions counselor. I was in a cube maze office instead of an independent office with a door and some privacy, and thus felt even more exposed and foolish on my bad days. The people on my team were welcoming and helpful, but I felt trapped by the work, and bored by the tasks on my plate. It was incredibly discouraging to walk into that role and fail to find any joy in the work. 

At that point, I knew that I didn't want to make another "wrong" move in my career. I risked a visit to the Career Services office (yes, at my alma mater and current place of employment) to ask for some confidential assistance. The director was understanding, and immediately put me through the full gamut of assessments. 

Her analysis of my results was pretty straightforward: 

  • "You really need to do work that you believe in."
  • "You need as much independence as possible--ideally, that means you'd work for yourself."
  • "The traditional 9-5 environment is going to crush your soul."

The director winced occasionally as she explained, but kept on smiling anyway. I'd wager a guess that she was fully aware of what she was really saying: "Unfortunately, you're a minority in the business world, and our professional society isn't wired for you at all. Do what you're wired to do and be broke for awhile, or be miserable in a job with salary and benefits. Sorry."

It was bittersweet to receive her assessment. I was discouraged to know that I needed to move on (again), but affirmed by the confirmation that the admissions role was not for me. At the same time, I had absolutely no idea what to do next, and felt trapped once more in a terrible fit.

I was driving to lunch one day that spring, thinking about nothing in particular. Out of nowhere, I felt God calling me to quit my job, without securing another job, and trust the everything would work out. The invitation was to step out in faith, and explore possible career paths without the restrictions and burden of a job I hated. 

As a Type A who loves alphabet plans, this should have sounded idiotic. Instead, I felt an immediate sense of peace, and set the date for my resignation notice at the end of the recruitment year. 

Slowly, I shared my plans with my close friends and family, and was astonished by the support. My parents--who normally would have lived in the "plan, plan, and plan again" camp--affirmed that it seemed like the right thing for me to do, for whatever reason, and they encouraged me to pursue God's direction. I had a good amount of savings built up, after all, and could pay my bills for 9-12 months without a paycheck.

June came, and I resigned. I flailed for a few weeks, during which I re-read the entire Harry Potter series from start to finish. Side note: if you've never read all of the books in rapid succession, I highly recommend it. It is a joy to take a long series in all at once, the big picture laid out before you in one beautiful arc. 

A mentor invited me to consider an internship at my church that would cycle me through various types of responsibilities and help me to explore possible "next steps" in my professional life. I was elated--I was already entertaining the idea of working for the church (work I could literally "believe in"), and felt that the work culture and responsibilities would be an ideal fit for me.

For awhile, the job actually lived up to my romantic, idealistic expectations. I loved the people, loved the opportunities I had to contribute and grow, and felt that I was thriving for the first time in my professional life. The internship turned into a full-time paid position, and it was the closest I had ever come to professional contentment. As a beautiful, awe-inspiring bonus, I was also engaged to my best friend and the man of my dreams, who was also working for the church. What could be better than that?

As He has with many "almost" moments in my life, God mercifully allowed a period of chaos and pain and stress to drag me away from my role at the church. That wasn't where I belonged, but it would've taken a mountain to move me from the position at that time--I was too fond of the place. Fortunately for me, God can move mountains; in this case, He picked up one massive, jagged, oppressive mountain and dropped it smack into the middle of our lives. (This is a distortion of God's true nature, of course. He wasn't the one to drop the mountain, and wept with us when it fell. But he maneuvered the fall of the rubble just so, and protected us on the ground, so we came out bruised but better for it on the other side. In truth, it took me about 18 months to believe God wasn't the one dropping the mountain to begin with, and that was perfectly alright. He is eternally patient and loving as we struggle to remember who He is.)

And so the mountain fell. An important person in our lives turned manipulative and spiritually abusive. I was scared and confused and unable to identify it at the time, but the relationship was toxic, and it was distorting my perspective of important relationships and decisions in my life. Andrew and I were married in the midst of the chaos, and the madness reached its peak literally three days after we returned from our honeymoon. Our first year of marriage was robbed of the usual joy, in a way, and we went straight into survival mode. 

It took another three months for me to even begin to identify the abuse, and by then I had a solid case of complex-PTSD and needed to resign from my job. Andrew was still in school at the time, and I took another job in haste about six weeks later with an executive recruiting firm, worried that I wasn't doing enough to support us financially while Andrew wrapped up his semester. I wasn't ready to go back to work, and the combination of PTSD symptoms and another 9-5 environment was too much for me to bear. I resigned, ashamed of the shortest stint of full-time work on my resume, confident that I'd ruined myself professionally. 

Andrew finished school and started his job search, which turned out to be a longer process than we expected. While we waited for something to come through for him, we halfheartedly called the season "fun-employment" and traveled as affordably as we could manage. Between trips, we were champions of the local library system, checking out movies and books at an inexhaustible pace. Eventually, Andrew found a job. And I found writing.

I started working from home, and have loved every minute of it. Yes, maintaining a routine can be difficult sometimes, but it is well worth the effort for me. I settled into a pretty good groove, and knocked out the first draft of my first novel at 71,926 words in under six months. The novel was a fantasy re-telling of my manipulation and spiritual abuse experience, and it will always have a special place in my heart, even though I will likely never share it. I've moved on to my second major project, and am exhilarated by the concept, thankful to be able to pursue work that I love.

Recently, I was invited back to the arts non-profit--my very first full-time job--to cover for my replacement for a week during a particularly busy period in their calendar year. I was back in the office for a week, and loved catching up with former colleagues, many of whom are now dear friends. But while I was working there, I was startled by how oppressive the 9-5 environment felt. 

It was jarring, friends. And looking back, I suppose that makes sense. It was my first time back in an office setting since I'd started working for myself from home. The experience was uncomfortable in many ways, and overwhelmingly restrictive, but it was also overwhelmingly affirming

For perhaps the first time in my professional journey, I deeply and confidently knew that I had made the right choice. I am meant to work for myself, and I thrive in the environment most suited to my personality and preferences. Working in this capacity is indescribably freeing, and has brought a peace into my life beyond description. 

But being in that office also put me in the midst of more human beings than I typically encounter in a month. Working from home can be isolating, especially as an extrovert. I will always write--I don't think I could stop writing if I wanted to, now--but I always knew I would need to fill out my professional pursuits with client-facing work.

There was a thread in my history that I simply couldn't ignore. At the arts non-profit, my favorite project was managing the seasonal internship program, and the recruitment process for those interns. The next role in admissions was all about recruitment, essentially: "resume" review for students, and helping them find the right fit in a university and academic program. At the church, I loved helping the volunteers figure out what their strengths and skills were, and placing them in an engaging role. And then I ended up at an executive recruitment firm, experiencing the hiring process hands-on with responsibilities in headhunting on LinkedIn, screening resumes, conducting phone screens, and participating in in-person interviews. 

For years, I have been an informal career coach for friends and family. Without realizing what was happening, I had gained significant experience in resume writing, LinkedIn profiles, and interview coaching. I experienced the hiring process from every imaginable angle: job hunter, interviewer, hiring manager, job poster, headhunter, and resume screener. And weirdly, I have never stopped loving this process--a transition that makes the average person want to bang their head against a wall, repeatedly.

Almost everyone I know is stressed out by job hunting, and it is a joy to serve people in that place, to relieve some of the burden through my Career Communication Services. But I can't get over the incredible story arc that I see when I look back through my resume and past experiences. Jobs that I hated, that made me cringe and weep because they were such a bad fit for me...every single one of those roles led me to where I am today. Every job incorporated writing and editing as a major responsibility, and every job had a significant (though sometimes indirect) emphasis on hiring and on-boarding. 

It is impossible for me to look back and credit anyone but God for my professional contentment today. By His grace, I stumbled into the skills, tasks, and passions that I can dedicate myself to with professional and personal purpose. 

I hope my story is an encouragement to anyone who has found themselves crying in an office bathroom. If that is you, you are not a fool, and you have nothing to be ashamed of. But you are, perhaps, designed for something else--something that better suits your unique design. I pray God shows you that path and leads you to a fulfilling career, brimming with both passion and purpose.