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I expected to be there forever. It wasn’t a conscious thought, more a feeling. I belonged there, I was comfortable, I knew what I was doing and where my life was headed. Until I didn’t.
When I was 19, I started working at one of the biggest banks in the world. Now you must understand, I hadn’t dreamt of a life in financial services, my simple priority at that time was that I wanted money, and to work 9-5 (after years of unsociable hours in the hospitality industry, I just wanted my evenings back).
I didn’t plan to stay there for long, maybe a year or so, when I’d go to university and start my proper career path. But, over time, something changed. I started to enjoy working there, I enjoyed having regular income and a career ladder to climb. I enjoyed working in a team, and having the opportunity to try out new roles and responsibilities. That’s why (13 years later, and now doing a job that I loved) my life was shaken to its foundations when I was made redundant.
When you’ve worked for one organisation your whole life, it becomes as much a part of your life as your friends and family – sometimes even outlasting them. Even though I understand the logical nature of business – that each employee is simply exchanging their labour for pay, my heart had allowed me to believe that this was something different. As humans we have a desperate need for purpose and belonging, and a narrative of exchanging time for money doesn’t fit with that, so we tell ourselves stories. We find ways to make our work meaningful, and we give the best of ourselves to our employers. This makes us feel good, but it also hides the truth, and that’s why I was so unprepared when it all came tumbling down. I had to face the reality, that the loyalty and dedication I had given would not be reciprocated – not out of malice, but because companies cannot do that. They are not one person, they don’t have emotions, they are doing exactly what they are supposed to do within this capitalist system we all operate within. This was the first of many expectations that I would need to unset.
The second was a big one – what my life was going to look like. I’ll be honest, I’d never really thought about not working there. This was always made easy because, in a company of that size, you can always try something new. I had done lots of different jobs from paying cheques into bank accounts and approving loans, to managing multi-million pound charitable partnerships and training new recruits. I suddenly realised that I didn’t know who I was outside of this one place. I had been so young when I joined, that my sense of who I was as an adult had formed with this at the core. A tangled web of competence, earning-power, relationships, and identity. If I was going to survive in the outside world, I’d need to unpick it all, and try to find myself amongst the wreckage.
I wish I could tell you exactly how to do this, but two years on, I’m still not sure that I know.
What I do know is that I take time to explore what I’m good at and what I enjoy. I’ve unset the expectation that my skills can only be applied within one industry or organisation.
What I do know is that I am studying a subject that I have genuine passion for. I’ve unset the expectation that university is for the young.
What I do know is that I am more than my work. I’ve unset the expectation that I must earn more to be successful.
What I do know is that no company deserves more of me than the people I love. I’ve unset the expectation that work can love you back.
What I know more than anything is that I am me, and I am free to explore what that means.