Such pearls of wisdom are seldom dispensed from a place of deep career satisfaction and I think that teenage Giles probably clocked this fact (despite cringing at the unsolicited parental advice). My father—a self-made carpenter who earned his crust teaching at the local technical college—was downhearted about work again and wanted to make sure I didn’t settle for anything less than my life’s true passion.
Only one problem. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted.
So I chose second best: the resolute pursuit of qualification and achievement. If I couldn’t be one of those people who’d always had a dream to pursue, then the least I could do was something worthwhile; a challenging career that would bring riches and satisfaction and stability and respectability and… all that in itself would bring on the enjoyment, surely?
I took a characteristically roundabout route to it—the dossing around at school that precluded any inspiring university offers; a consequent year out before, then another, by design, during my studies—but eventually I qualified as a doctor. And then, seduced by the glamour of it all, trained as a surgeon. It was great and I did enjoy what I was doing. I was wholeheartedly committed. It was deeply satisfying. I worked hard and I played hard. I made a difference. The values I held were being met and, for a time, all was well.
I was on a ward round when the call came. He’d gone missing. Plagued for most of his life by the ups and downs of bipolar disorder, my Dad, in a trough of unfathomable despair, had disappeared. Left his partner’s house one winter’s evening, and not come back.
I mean, what do you do with that?
I know what I did: I worked harder. Given I was essentially powerless to change the situation, all I could think to do was to throw myself more keenly into my travails. Extra shifts, more pay, bigger nights out… I folded myself deep in the comforting embrace of a high stress job, where paying scant regard to personal torment (all in the name of alleviating the suffering of others) was a badge to be worn with pride. Surgeons. They were my people.
It was a full year (a strange year) before they found his body and the discarded pill bottle. Under a tree. In the corner of a field. Near a motorway. The field in which he’d chosen to lie down, for the last time, that bitter winter night.
This man, who’d literally whistle while he worked, who knew the answer, resplendent in all its finery, divine in its blindingly glorious simplicity—“Enjoy what you do”—had become a prisoner of thought, succumbed to the stories he told himself, lost sight and given up.
This most painful of experiences afforded me a brutal, obvious insight:
Life is short, fragile and wholly unpredictable.
It was a further three years (relentless years) before I stopped to take a breath, finally looking around me to reassess against this, my father’s most basic of criteria. I was at one of medicine’s staging posts—the final push to consultant-hood—and I afforded myself the luxury of being honest with myself…
Oh. It was apparent that I was no longer enjoying what I did.
It had taken years of working for the largest establishment in the UK to realise I was in possession of a deeply anti-establishment streak. And I’d attained everything I’d worked towards—the best jobs, the right research, the qualifications, the ability to nap on a dime—yet remained unfulfilled at a fundamental level. It was bloody hard work and I couldn’t shake the feeling that life should somehow be a bit easier than this.
Seeking inspiration I looked to my seniors – to the default life I knew I’d end up with if I stayed the course. Perhaps it got easier once you’d made it to the top? One and all they exhibited the trappings of success—money, status, families, houses, cars, holidays—but while some of them seemed happy enough, others were patently miserable.
It got me thinking, and in retrospect the slow and steady incorporation into my psychology of two simple facts changed the course of my life:
Stuff “out there” can’t make us happy.
There is no finish line.
Along with these new insights crept the notion that more than not enjoying what I did (for the most part, the work itself was still satisfying, even if the working conditions were increasingly dreadful), I was no longer enjoying who I was pretending to be.
You see, I’d always felt strongly about cultivating a decent crop of outside interests, but this marvellous surgical career that I was acting out had ensured they’d all withered on the vine. And that didn’t really feel like me.
There were also aspects of the system I was working in that I really wanted to change, in order to benefit patients and staff alike (most notably the way we mismanaged healthcare information). And that did feel like me.
So I listened to that inner guidance and, even though it “wasn’t the done thing”, I started having conversations about what I wanted. I looked into it. Quietly asked people about it. Was enthusiastic about it. Looked for a path; for how to make it real, in a way that was congruent with my bigger dream for how my life should be (i.e. easier, with more time to ride my bike).
The route I took was a bit of a hack-a-thon, truth be told. Messy. Unpredictable. Awkward. Yet somehow, in amongst the discovery of a great many bramble-strewn dead ends, a path was created. One that was fulfilling, and that matched my ever-evolving values. An expression of my true nature that arose simply from doing the things I was genuinely enthusiastic about. It was my path. A manifestation of me.
This was the biggest insight yet. A game changer. An aspect of the human experience I see time and again in myself, and for friends and family, and with all my clients.
The more we are our-selves, the better results we get.
I’d left a chronically vocational career to do something else that I really enjoyed, and it had turned out ok. I mean, who knew that was possible?! Over time, buoyed by my successes, I learned to trust that inner voice and I really started playing with it.
Having an employer no longer felt like me, and I became self-employed.
Entertaining people with ripping yarns about my two-wheeled adventures did feel like me, and I became a features writer for my favourite cycling magazine.
Experimenting on myself in order to lead the way for others seemed like the most natural thing in the world for me, and I became a speaker at conferences, sharing my understanding of human psychology and how it pertained to the process of career change.
And all these things just seemed to click into place for me. The circumstances that led to them were totally out of my control. I never really had a plan, beyond knowing what I wanted, to the somewhat uninspiring level of detail that I was pretty sure I’d recognise it, if it showed up. And it always did.
What’s more, I never really thought that much about what was going on at all, or exactly how things should be. (My epitaph: He was never one to dwell.) And you know what? This meant that things never turned out how I imagined.
They usually turned out better.
So. This final one has taken a while for me to grow into, but trust me when I tell you… it unlocks everything.
Our intuitive voice knows where to take us, moment to moment. And the “chatter” of insecure thinking is the only thing that ever drowns it out.
My story is your story. Because it’s the human story. Because, at the fundamental level, we’re all having the same experience. And beneath all the noise of who we think we are, we’re all doing just fine.
We transcend the worst things that have happened to us and in doing so, it makes us who we are. It stretches us to reveal a version of our selves we didn’t know existed.
And from that place, we grow.
On this journey, through experimentation and insight, I have re-learned what you and I already know of the world:
- That life is short, and it’s unpredictable.
- That the stuff you accumulate can’t make you happy.
- That being your-self is where it’s at.
- That your gut instinct knows what’s best for you.
- That over-thinking things is counter-productive.
- That, when you’re honest with yourself, you know there is no finish line.
If you know it’s time to go beyond the circumstances of your life; that it’s time to grow into the hero of your own personal journey, then let’s spend some time together and make that happen.
You can learn more about the work I do with individuals, by visiting this page.
Then, when you're ready, get in touch and let's have a conversation.