Each week our resident agony aunt Rhona McAuliffe helps a reader with a problem. This week, a woman who sacrificed everything for her career feels she's made a big mistake...
I left Dublin over ten years ago for work and after a stint in New York and Toronto, eventually settled back in London about three years ago. I’ve had a few relationships along the way but they didn’t work out for various reasons. I found a job in a niche industry early on in London and because I work with high profile artists and celebrities people presume I’ve ‘made it.’ The reality is I work constantly, travel all the time for long periods and have no social life.
This appealed to me initially as I didn’t have to make a huge effort to settle into London life but now I feel like I belong nowhere. My friends – who I never get to see anyway? are starting to have kids or settle down with partners and I never have time to date or meet anyone. I don’t really do casual hookups but have dabbled just to break the boredom.
I’ve also hit a career ceiling, I don’t have the skillset or budget to jump up to the next rung of the business (opening my own agency) and have started to view my working life as completely pointless. I have no money saved and spend my days stroking and tip-toeing around huge egos.
Having made so many sacrifices to prioritise my career, I feel like it’s all been for nothing, I feel isolated and lonely. I’ve lost touch with so many good people in my life and nobody checks in with me now and I don’t check in with anyone else. I feel a huge yearning to be at home with friends and family but home is a different place now, friends have moved on. I would be leaving a ‘great’ job at such a risky time economically and know returning to Dublin, single and 36 is not necessarily the answer.
I feel trapped with no support network but guilty because I’ve created the situation, made all the wrong decisions and let lots of friends down in the process. What next?
Bad Friend, London.
There’s a brilliant piece by David Sedaris in the New Yorker where he touches on The Four Burner Theory. Imagine a standard gas hob (he calls it a stove) with four rings. One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health and the fourth is your work. The theory goes that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of the burners. And in order to be really successful, you have to cut off two.
Nobody seems to be able to trace the origin of this theory – some attribute it to Sedaris’ 2009 piece – but a stack of psychologists and social commentators from Psychology Today to Forbes.com and the Boston Globe have all but validated its premise. Yes, as we all suspected, ‘having it all’ is an impossible dream.
Similarly, if all four of your burners are ticking over on a low flame, you run the risk of never fulfilling your potential in any area of your life, which would be, arguably, equally frustrating. Your level of dissatisfaction would be relative to your nature – horizontally laidback, for example – and likely your marijuana consumption.
You, on the other hand, have flung yourself at your work and should take stock of all that you’ve achieved. You’ve travelled widely, managed to career-hop and thrive in three different countries and give every hint that you have indeed ‘made it.’ Now, having neglected the other three burners – family, friends and health (yes, I’m still working with this theory) – it’s no wonder that you’re disillusioned with your career. When you’ve sacrificed so much it’s disheartening to realise it wasn’t entirely worth it; that your career is neither your ‘passion’ nor financially lucrative enough for you to retire at forty.
But these are the risks we all take.
I’m not minimising your experience by saying we all have it coming but in some shape or form, we do. It might be a divorce, a redundancy, a death in the family, an illness, or just an overwhelming feeling of ‘is this it?’ that forces us to recalibrate. It might happen in our twenties, fifties or seventies but believe that it’s coming for us all.
A huge bonus in your case is that you are in control of the outcome, to a certain extent. You’re craving connection, meaning, and (dare I say) ‘purpose,’ buzzword of the self?betterment gurus. Your current job, despite having a certain social cachet, is isolating you and preventing you from settling into London life. In my experience, having lived there for 15 years, it can feel like a cold and hostile place, depending on your situation and takes a good three years of chipping away to even consider calling it ‘home.’
The next step
Resigning from your job seems like a natural next step for you but hold off until you know what you’re looking for. Start with a running list of the pros and cons of London vs Dublin. Identify your deal-breakers. If we didn’t have kids, for example, I don’t think we would have ever left London. Having said that, it was the best thing we ever did for one simple reason: the people. Yes, friends and family factor here but I’m really talking about the random conversations and exchanges I have with strangers daily. It wasn’t something I anticipated, in fact, I was suspicious of Bord Fáilte’s glowing depiction of the Oirish and yet it’s the reason I would never leave. So, prepare to be surprised beyond your list.
Consider meeting a life or career coach to help you figure out how to focus your talents from here. You might decide that moving back to Dublin and being close to family is your number one priority, in which case it’s important to find the right job. Despite the uncertainty of Brexit at the moment, the market here is still buoyant. You may not match your salary but if you’re prepared to live a little further out you will definitely pay less rent.
Meanwhile, start picking up with old friends again – whether you move home or not – set up a WhatsApp group, put in some surprise calls. Don’t come on too strong or expect to pick up where you left off, but do rekindle the embers. Whether you stay in the UK or move back, there are lots of ways to grow your network and find your people. Bumble BFF has recently launched in Ireland; Girl Crew organise regular weekend gatherings, and Roz Purcell’s #hikelife is attracting lots of like-minders. You could also volunteer, sign up for supper clubs or join an am-dram group, pending your interests.
Time is all you need, so reclaiming your week to accommodate your spiritual wellbeing is essential. And by spiritual wellbeing I mean your basic, human need for connection; you’ve denied yourself for long enough.
Trust philanthropist, Melinda Gates, the woman who apparently ‘has it all’ when she says that: “Deep human connection is the purpose and the result of a meaningful life – and it will inspire the most amazing acts of love, generosity and humanity.”
Best of luck.
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