Finding balance and nourishment in a corporate job

Published: December 1, 2017
Author: Steven Thomas


Diversify or die

In April 2016, I came out of Seth Godin’s altMBA course with a deep conviction that I wanted something more professionally than my job provided. I didn’t know what that more was and, like many other altMBA alumni, I contemplated quitting my job to find it.

But my story turned out in a slightly different way.  I ended up staying in the corporate job that I wasn’t enjoying and instead made a few changes to make what I was doing more fulfilling. I’m not saying I had some kind of epiphany.  There was no lightning bolt that made the scales fall from my eyes and helped me become instantly gratified by staying in the job I was in.  But gradually, through certain practices, it became clear that the best thing I could do was stay where I was and diversify.

Now, everyone has their own personal journey. When I see that people have taken control and decided to jump ship from a job they hated or that wasn’t fulfilling for them, I think “bravo”:  Good for you.  In Scotland, we’d say “all power to yer elbow”. But looking back, it’s pretty clear that taking ownership for a series of changes within myself helped me find a level of contentment I hadn’t been able to before - more so than would have been possible with only a change in my employer.

Practical stuff played its part

I’m a devoted husband and father.  The decision to stick around wasn’t just about me and my career.  It was about the lifestyle my wife and I had created for our family.  Of course, in some ways, it was also about paying the bills and putting food on the table. But I’m fortunate enough to have a partner who would support me making a big move if I really wanted to, so bringing a salary home certainly wasn’t the only driving force.  Which brings me to gratitude.

I practised gratitude

It’s easy for us all to become de-sensitised to all of the wonderful things that surround us and in some way this had happened to me.  I thought I needed a new job or a new challenge to find professional fulfilment. To some extent, I still feel that (does that ever go away?). But I decided to focus my gratitude each day on the things that I did have in place.  For example, I walk to work most days with my kids and drop them off at school.  I’m home most nights in time to play and read bedtime stories. I live within two miles of my office and it’s next to a beautiful world heritage site. Inside work, I have a small group of creative people that I’ve assembled, who have bought into my ethos and approach to making things happen in a difficult business. I also had a boss/sponsor who backed a lot of my creative endeavours.  On top of that, because the business I’m in needs to innovate more, I had fertile ground in which to try new things. Reflecting on a combination of these elements each day helped me keep perspective.

Other peoples’ stories helped

I also changed my perspective by listening to others, often. I took part in altMBA because I wanted to be exposed to an international cohort from different backgrounds and cultures. 20 months on, it’s clear to me that listening to the stories of so many others has helped me understanding that many people have similar or greater challenges than the ones I face.  Being part of the alumni Intrapreneur channel has given me access to a group who are in different sectors and different parts of the world but who face the same business problems I do. This was a reality check that led me to gradually accept that I still had an opportunity to create something interesting and worthwhile in my job.  In other words, I could step-up and pick the problems I felt I could solve.

I became a creative catalyst

Until altMBA, I would have seen myself as a senior(ish) business leader who was trying to make good change happen by championing pioneering initiatives. But altMBA stirred up a new level of creativity. Through comparing my thinking and actions with others outside of my business, I was able to see how much I had to offer. This was a confidence booster.  And where better to try out my newly planned creative endeavours than in a place I knew like the back of my hand and where I knew I could make a mark? So, I changed my posture to become even more action orientated (I was before but I turned this up).  For example, I shipped a huge project just after altMBA in record time (and on budget) that I was able build into a product used by millions of people. I did this using everything I learned on altMBA, but in particular through the lessons learned on story telling, shipping with and through others and using empathy. As a result of this, I found myself enjoying the day-to-day a bit more. Other projects included winning R&D funding from a Google innovation fund to build a cutting edge digital product and implementing a 90-day rapid innovation programme that has helped my business innovate quicker.

I decided to offset any recurring frustrations by helping others

From talking to others outside my business I realised that I had an opportunity to use my 20+ years of experience in business to help others.

During altMBA I became fascinated by how we can all develop through pushing through challenging projects and creating opportunities to grow.  I call it self innovation.  I started a practice of writing about this on my own site This practice has helped me develop my thinking around leadership, creative endeavour and self development immensely, and it made me a better writer.  The best part is that I have now built up a body of work that receives great feedback from people all over the world, many of whom are not from the altMBA community. I get a real kick out of knowing that something I’ve written has resonated with a person I’ve never met. Now, if I have a shitty day, I just go and write something and see it as investing in my own emotional bank account and as a contribution to someone else's.  My blog has led to speaking invites at international design conferences and I’ve even branched out into writing poetry that has been very well received. This would not have happened without the regular practice of writing about a subject I’m passionate about.

Coaching others has become equally important to me.  I’ve had people come to me and ask for this kind of support on a regular basis and it’s now something I really enjoy. Best of all, the people I’m working with are seeing great results personally and professionally. Of course this is down to them but I’m happy to play a small part. Again, this helped fill some of the gaps I was feeling in my day-to-day work.

Other practices that have helped my keep the balance include mediation - evolution's way of helping us all come with the stresses of modern life.  And the study of Stoic philosophy which had led to a daily practice of journaling and focusing on accepting the elements of life that I simply cannot change (whilst taking action on those that I can).

So what's the punchline?

That’s the point.  There is no punchline.  There is a key lesson though.  Are you ready?  Sure? Okay… here it comes:

It’s on you.  Yup, that’s it.  It’s on you.  Nobody else.  Just you.  

You need to find the people who will stretch your thinking inside and outside of your business and who will help hold you accountable to making the changes you seek to make.

You need to find ways of pushing yourself creatively, often to a level that is uncomfortable and remind yourself that the things you practice most grow strongest.

You need to accept that sidelines are important and may well fill gaps that you day job can’t reach.

You need to stay curious and feed the things you find into your day job and side projects.

You need to seek projects that are a form of altitude training.

You need to make sure you’re a creator not a commentator.

You need to embrace vulnerability.

You need to embrace your restrictions and use them to do work that matters.

You need to find a way of helping others and making a contribution every day.

Is this a magic recipe to stay motivated in your job?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But one thing is for sure, you won’t know unless you try, try and try again.

Photo by Héctor J. Rivas on Unsplash