Onwards we go, into the unknown abyss as COVID-19 shatters our image of the life we thought we had.
Goodbye pension, goodbye benefits, goodbye steady income, goodbye stability.
If you’re reading this and have recently lost some of those things — hang in there.
Some people choose to lose those things, but most recently the majority of people had them taken away..
After your “life” is uprooted by a pandemic, the only thing you can do next is breathe… then, take your next step.
You can’t plan your way out of this one. You can’t hide until it’s over.
Change is here.
Ask yourself: do you want change to happen to you as a silent passenger, or are you willing to ride the wave and make the best of it?
Therefore, I’d like to share my journey of instability with you. It relates to the current times now, and I believe that my experiences before have equipped me to weather this storm peacefully and gracefully.
I hope by sharing my stories, I can give you some comfort in the times ahead.
Here are the truths I learned about stability and comfort, and how I built a new life for myself by rebuilding my inner-foundation.
#1: Change is inevitable.
In 2017, I started consulting full-time. Which meant that I had to give up all sense of stability after leaving a management role in government. I cut off the golden handcuffs to build something from nothing.
It was terrifying. It still is.
But I am not here to tell you how scary everything is right now.
You already know.
I’m here to share my story of survival, to reflect on the most unstable time of my life — and how I built a life of self-stability. But let’s get the first truth out in the open:
#2: Nothing in life is stable.
In 2017, I chose to give up all my achievements in public service, management tenure and earned connections to the corporate world to enter the abyss of the unknown — and start a private consulting firm.
Yep, I chose instability over stability, in a time when everything was ripe, busy and bountiful. It was not advisable, to say the least.
At the time, starting my own business meant that I had to self-isolate, buckle down and literally socially distance myself to survive. Quite similar to the public health orders we are adhering to today.
But who, in their right mind would choose instability in a world full of safe, stable opportunity?
I chose chaos because I was spent.
I was numb.
I wasn’t myself, but most importantly — I was just tired.
I was tired of the corporate rat race. The ladder.
#3: Know your place on the ladder.
This “ladder” I speak of? You know it. The corporate ladder.
I was tired of cleaning the scraps and serving those who were holding it up.
When it was my turn to hold the ladder, I became tired of steadying it for managers as they fought their way to the top.
And when I became a manager myself, I was tired of the death grip I had to have on it, constantly defending the level I was on; from the fire brewing below me or dodging the bombs thrown down from the top.
Then on one fateful day, after swallowing another sharp and inconceivable decision from the top, I realized the decision that trickled down the ladder had nothing to do with the big boss, or “the top.”
The truth was, that even the top boss was answering to someone bigger — they were just holding up someone else’s ladder.
I was in a never-ending cycle: service, hold, climb, and repeat.
When I realized where I was in that rat race, I knew if I achieved anything higher, I would be moving back to the bottom of a new ladder. A bigger, scarier and higher-stakes one. Is that what I wanted? Sure, some other people love the chase — but not me. Not anymore. Like I said, I was spent. I was tired.
#4: Accept or reject your career cycle, before accepting your fate.
The brutal self-truth was that I played all of the parts of this cycle, and I did it with an eager smile. I was nearing the top rungs and had all these grandiose promises in my head that when I reach the top that “I won’t do that” or “I won’t be like that” and that I’ll “know better and do better” than my predecessors.
Which is insane.
Because I was just like them. In fact, I was just like the people I was tired of.
I don’t know why exactly, but it dawned on me that I was not some special millennial unicorn destined to break a cycle that existed long before me.
I was not special, so why am I expecting anything spectacular while on this pre-determined cycle? Should I just figure out where I wanted to land on the ladder, in the cycle and stay the course? Why bother climbing? What’s the point?
I told myself I had to stop climbing; to stop chasing something I would never catch. I had to get out to save my sanity, to save my well-being.
Because if I ever did reach the top of the ladder I was on, I knew those under me would surely resent me for it.
That’s what I would do in their shoes. How many times have you heard about other people’s promotions and eye-rolled? Don’t be so naive that someone isn’t doing the same to you.
#5: How you feel about the reflection in the mirror will tell you if you’re in the right place.
It feels ugly. I don’t like seeing the worst in others- and then seeing the same qualities in myself. How did I become this way? This person?
I wondered, that if I made it to the top, would I surely forget the promise of compassion and kind leadership I swore to embody on the lower rungs? Probably.
I wouldn’t have time to focus on how to make the lower rungs of my ladder better, nor uphold my self-made promises- I would be too busy learning and navigating the bottom of another.
There had to be another way.
If we don’t want to service, support or climb the corporate ladder, and join that rat race- what were the other options?
I could only see one:
#6: You must build your own ladder if you don’t like the cycle you’re in.
So in 2015, I set a personal goal.
To one day be my own boss and become self-made.
Self-aware of the work I did and how it contributed to society.
To sleep soundly at night.
To no longer stare at my ceiling into the early hours.
To do something meaningful, for meaningful people, places and causes.
To get off someone else’s ladder and build and climb my own.
I promised myself I had to do it.
Then, in 2017, at the age of 30, I pulled the trigger and began building.
I chose to enter chaos.
Re-entered survival mode.
Threw away all stability.
I entered the unknown abyss.
#7: Make the changes or nothing will change.
There were many weeks I spent wondering if I would survive; some weeks turned into months. My first year flew by because I didn’t stop working on surviving, that I didn’t even celebrate my 1-year anniversary.
I felt it was too soon to know if I would survive, so best not to count my chickens. I didn’t even know if I had any eggs to be honest.
I quickly learned that owning and operating any legitimate business requires upfront capital and liquid. Things like insurance, licencing, domains, phones, office equipment, certification, accountants and software cost a significant portion each month.
I didn’t have much capital($4000 to be exact), so the only way not to go bankrupt in 3 months of incorporating was to make more revenue than my expenses.
How does a consultant with no official experience make over $1200 a month, while still allowing for basics like food and some sort of social life?
I had to make some hard choices.
#8: To move forward, you must bravely step into the unknown wave goodbye to the comforts behind you.
It was baby steps, but each step was excruciating.
I had to rinse out the lifestyle and the person I was.
Pride was the first thing I struggled with.
It became immediately clear that I had to take up some other part-time job, that the corporate manager inside me swore I would never do again.
If you would have told corporate-ladder-climbing me that I would be dropping off pints in the local pub on weekends, after writing policy during the week under my own company name — I would have gagged.
The gremlin inside me prodded me with: “But what if people see you serving pints, won’t they assume you’re not a good consultant and can’t get good work?”
I told myself that that gremlin had to go, and anyone who dare judge me on what it took to survive this journey — must still be blindly climbing their own ladder. They can’t possibly know what it is like to give up security, so don’t pay them any mind. Just keep moving, just keep working. Head down, hopes up.
Next on the chopping block was any luxury, disguised as something I would call “treating myself.” Old me used to love filling my arms up with beautiful bottles of red wine each Friday, to enjoy at home and over chats with friends. I ghosted my favourite barista and cancelled long-standing reservations at my favourite restaurants.
I had to pass on the annual everyone-must-go-because-everyone-is-going trips to Vegas and Mexico with my hospitality friends who had un-taxed gratuity cash burning holes in their pockets.
#9: You don’t need the things you want.
Truth be told, in my first year, I tried keeping some of those things, whether it was for my own facade or not, only to push myself to the financial brink and have to shutter myself away for months afterwards. If I carelessly overspent, justifying the “treats” I deserved for myself while sipping $25 cocktails in Vegas, I almost hit zero. I almost lost it all — twice. It was foolish.
Within a year, I became the “what’s on special?” lady if I ever made it out of my home, or the “I’ll just have a water” girl. “Oh, I see… you’re doing sober October!” Sure, sure Heather — if that’s what you want to call it.
After quitting luxuries and relinquishing my pride, the next axe came to my common comforts. Routine purchases of new clothes, nail appointments and even makeup and toiletries became ludicrous on my new budget. Thank God for Costco, and being able to use my boyfriend’s membership. I would buy shampoo, moisturizers, toothpaste and all the basics — once per year. Coupon cutting at the local pharmacy and discount grocery store? You betcha.
And yet, even with all this sacrifice and purpose-driven ambition, the shallow-minded corporate-gremlin inside me whispered: “You still need to look the part.”
#10: Survival is more attractive than vanity.
So I would spraypaint the orange rust back to black on my car.
I would repair/mend everything that broke before considering replacing it.
I would tell myself over and over in my head “don’t tell them where you bought it, don’t tell them where you bought it” after receiving compliments on my thrifted, jacket, boots, purses and accessories.
I decided that it would be my little secret on how I looked the part while running my own unstable consulting firm and wearing the professional “costume” my imposter syndrome told me I was wearing.
The funny thing is — no one ever asked or cared where I bought stuff — most of the time they were just being kind or making conversation.
Most of the bullshit I agonized over was all in my head.
And I’m telling you right now, as you’re reading this:
#11: Most of the bullshit you agonize about is in your head.
Removing pride from your mind is impossible when you’re trying to work in a corporate world. I get it. Pride still haunts me daily like the 16-year-old tattoo I have on my back, originally done in spite of my mother: I know I shouldn’t have it, I’d love to get rid of it, but it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
Then came the gruelling part: the work.
When I did land some contracts and get legitimate consulting projects, I had to be willing to work long, gruelling hours at an unbelievably low rate — because after all, my only competition were well-established multi-national firms.
Why would someone want to hire little old me? Because I was relatively cheap — and businesses who couldn’t afford a multi-national could afford me.
Somehow, I found a niche in business and it became my bread and butter.
Realizing I had new options, I got creative and took on contracts out of my comfort zone, for industries I was not familiar with.
One season was a customer service review for a tool rental company, the next it was a wannabe-cannabis company looking for licencing and compliance research. I would take on random and interesting work, while I was drafting policy and bylaws for governments and registering guests for conferences for a temp agency. I was everywhere, doing everything, and it was exhaustingly wild.
#12: Self-made stability looks nothing like anyone else’s.
But this is what it took to survive.
I had to do odd jobs.
I had to take work I wasn’t super “passionate” about.
And from where I am standing today, I am so glad that I did.
With each job the old me would have considered “below me,” I was able to connect and meet with a handful of people to share my passions, aspirations and goals to one day get my firm running full-time.
Those people would ask what type of consulting I did, we’d have great conversation and then they would lock away in their memory that they knew someone who could do what I did and that I was out there, ready and looking for that work.
Many even offered help by saying: “I’ll definitely keep you in mind if I hear about something you’d be interested in!”
Speaking your truth and goals to everyone is beneficial. It is not below you to talk about your aspirations and goals before you get there. It makes them real and it makes you accountable for them too.
#13: Humility and is necessary for genuine success.
Over time, those connections and conversations became referrals, from friends, colleagues and strangers. Those referrals became clients and those clients became contracts, bigger projects and allowed me to increase my rate and professional network.
Before I knew it, I was looking down at all my accomplishments: a hefty client list made up of diverse, unique and challenging projects and people. I had gained rich experience in places I never considered, deepened my niche set of services, and build a service model that didn’t exist before me.
As I looked down on all that I had I realized I had an enlightened perspective — not from my own standing height anymore — from a few rungs up… on a new corporate ladder.
I was standing on my own ladder and didn’t know it.
My own ladder, my stability, was built from odd-jobs, gruelling hours, perseverance and humility.
A safety net of survival rooted from an openness to change and open-mindedness to things I still don’t quite understand.
I still have that pride-driven gremlin in me, but now it was a maternal-warmth type of pride: making it this far. I was so busy surviving I hit my second year in business without issue.
#14: Your journey and story build the foundation of your structure.
Suddenly, I began turning down work because I had options and a full schedule.
I had built something people valued and were seeking. I built my own stability while trying to survive in most unstable place possible.
If I were to describe my ladder today — I see it as a hodgepodge mosaic, made up of all colours, textures and strengths and experiences. Maybe it isn’t even a ladder, maybe it’s more of a hammock hanging from a tree?
One day the hammock is comforting and relaxing, baking in the afternoon sun; other days it’s drenched in rain and tangled by the wind. I am totally okay with that. Why?
Because the hammock is mine.
I built it, and I am so damn proud of it.
So during this time of uncertainty, this time of unstableness — if I can offer you one piece of advice from someone who lost it all, entered into the unstable abyss it’s this:
#15: Building your own structure is safer than grasping onto someone else’s.
Whether it is your own form of a corporate ladder, a woven hammock, or van down by the river — give it a name, give it some shape and nourish it.
Know what matters inside to yourself, your core values and beliefs and build the vessel that will hold it.
That structure will not only keep you safe, but it will also give you more stability than any of your old comforts and luxuries.
There is so much more to life than reaching the top of an unreachable ladder, it is what you build for yourself along the way.
Because as we all now know in these trying times ahead:
There is no such thing as stability…unless you build it yourself.