The terror of freedom

If you’ve seen a tame elephant you might have wondered how it is that this, the strongest of animals, can be constrained by a flimsy rope tied to a stake. It could easily tear the stake out of the ground, or break the rope just by walking away, but it stands there, calm and docile.

It’s because there was a time when the rope was a real constraint, when the elephant was a baby and lacked the strength to break the tether. The baby elephant came to associate the rope around its leg with being unable to escape and so accepted its fate. Even though it grows bigger and stronger, it keeps that belief that the rope and stake cannot be escaped and so it never tries. It has learnt to be helpless.

Even when the rope is removed, the elephant is is often reluctant to move away and explore new territory. It prefers the comfort of staying where it is.

We can feel like this when we have left the Mothership. We are so used to having decisions made for us, having out priorities and targets given to us, having our calendar filled by obligations and our time and mood dictated by the flood of emails, texts and other messages, we find we are unused to the freedom that we now have.

Like the elephant, we feel more comfortable with the rope around our leg, constraining our possibilities but making us feel safe. We look for someone to set our priorities for us, so we let our emails drive our actions and fill our time with aimless meetings and ‘busy work’. This is our learned helplessness, conditioning from several years of being at the whim and caprice of our managers and the organisations we worked for.

It’s not surprising that we feel uncomfortable when we find ourselves free to decide what we do and when we do it. We now have an unlimited number of choices, of possibilities, of options and we simply do not know how to cope with it. In fact, though an effect known as the Paradox of Choice, it makes us anxious. More than a few choices causes us distress, which rises as the number choices increase. Having unlimited choice can max out our  anxiety.

Freedom. It’s bloody terrifying. Well, they didn’t tell us that when we were tied down to our day jobs, did they? Now we have escaped the treadmill we are stressed and anxious because, well, we’ve escaped the treadmill. Marvellous.

The good news is that this fear of freedom is temporary. Once you have become clear on what your Post-Executive self and lifestyle is going to be, then you will naturally develop your own goals, make you own priorities, and move into action.

Some of us can be paralysed by this freedom, however, and get stuck for a while. It’s a good idea, therefore, to create some temporary structure and goals to keep you occupied whilst you sort yourself out. Getting yourself fit, starting a creative project, learning a new skill; these types of short-term goals create commitments that put some boundaries around your choices and stop you being overwhelmed by them. That, in turn, dials down the anxiety and gives you the mental space to work out what your Post-executive future is going to be.

Swimming amongst the sharks

When you leave the Mothership you can find yourself bobbing around in some pretty stormy waters. You’re splashing around, trying to keep your head above water and figure out which direction to start swimming in and it feel rather dangerous. But that’s not all because, whether you’ve realised or not, there are sharks in water and they are starting to take an interest in you.

You see, you are just what they are looking for. You’ve got plenty of meat on you, with that nice redundancy package and those savings you’ve built up. You’re probably not in great shape, either, battered and bruised from the way you left the Mothership and emotionally fragile. You’re not going to put up much of a fight. Easy pickings.

So, who are these sharks, then? You can’t see any.

It’s the outplacement company that want you to pay them few thousand for a programme that won’t meet your needs but will give you an amazing cv that nobody will read.

It’s the ‘consultants network’ of ‘director level people’ that will sign you up for ten thousand or so and put you in touch with other ‘like minds’. They won’t actually deliver any business to you but you will have an accreditation that no-one recognises and some nice events to go to.

It’s the company that will licence their ‘technology’ to you for ten to twenty thousand and train you to deliver something you could put together yourself off of the internet. It’s not bad material, it’s just that not many companies actually want to buy it. Only they don’t mention that, or the fact that they have flooded the market in your area because, well, their business is selling licences, not making their licensees successful.

It’s the franchise company that will sign you up to their system that *can* deliver you six-figure annual earnings – if you do exactly as they say for the next 5 years. Starting with paying them tens of thousands of pounds for the franchise, which makes you a sales person with revenue targets that they have set. Only they didn’t quite put it like that when they were telling you what a great life it was going to give you and you didn’t read the small print very closely. If, and often when, you fail to hit target, they terminate your franchise without a refund – but if you are lucky, they’ll release you from the ongoing payments.

And, worst of all, are the ‘get rich quick’ boys, the ‘millionaire entrepreneur’ clubs, the ‘billionaire business’ schemes. They lure you in with free weekends and then upsell you an unrealisable dream that’s always just one more product away. “If only you came to the all week intensive in Bali, only 25,000 pounds”. These are the vampire sharks, once they’ve got their teeth into you then they’ll bleed you dry.

“Don’t worry”, you say, “they won’t get me. I can spot them a mile off and I can swim away”.

Only the thing about sharks is that they have such big smiles. And not many people are smiling at you at the moment. So you think, “well, maybe they’re friendly, maybe they’ll be nice to me” because you are all alone in this big, stormy sea and you desperately want someone to be nice to you.

And they are nice, for a while. Just until you have let them get close enough to bite you.

Think I’m being cynical? Well, I’ve got the bite marks that prove differently.

Swimming with sharks is dangerous. Keep as far away from them as you can.


Did your career run on autopilot? When you were on the Mothership, you may well have been  following a career progression and had a rough idea where you were headed in the next year or two, or perhaps even longer. Even if it wasn’t particularly structured, there was an expectation that you would move up the hierarchy and you could have some estimationas to when you could reach each level.

Your annual reviews would include a discussion about this and you may have been involved in succession planning. Of course, you could move around and you influenced where you went, and by hard work or politics or luck you could increase your velocity. At the least, you had a perception of where you were going and a desire to progress at a certain speed.

Whilst I certainly influenced where I went and what I worked on in my career, it was in the context of this broader structure and how I was moving through the hierarchy. When I left BT, the fact that I had been stuck at one level for some time and had reached the upper limit of that pay band was an influencing factor in my decision.

When you leave the Mothership, there is no longer an autopilot on your career (or your life, for that matter). You have full agency over what you do, when you do it, how much you do and where you go next. There is no hierarchy to navigate your way through, there aren’t any levels of success to achieve. In fact, success is entirely what you define it to be and you can shoot for as much or as little as you want.

This can be overwhelming. On the Mothership we are encouraged to let the organisation determine  our career to some degree. When I first joined BT, it was very much the case that the organisation would look after you and develop you. Although this changed and people were encouraged to take moe responsibility for their own careers, there was still an ‘organisational flow’ that carried you along. You were expected to progress and to do so in certain ways. You were expected to grow into roles that suited the organisation, there were square holes to fit yourself into regardless of the shape you wanted to be.

When it is entirely up to you, it can be hard to find the right reference points. You may not know any other people who do what you want to do or have been through the same transition. You may not have any role models, there may not be a path that you can follow or at least learn from. You can feel totally exposed and in the dark, which is very disconcerting after the certainties of the Mothership.

This contributes to the confusion and uncertainty that you experience in the Neutral zone, as you transform from corporate life the new, re-imagined you.

You’ve got hold of the controls now, it’s up to you to decide where you want to fly the plane.

Old spanners, new nuts

When you leave corporate life you have a wealth of experience, skills, abilities and knowledge and you start out with the certainty that these will stand you in good stead in whatever you do next. It’s not an unreasonable assumption, it just happens to be wrong.

What you find out is that much of what you know is irrelevant, and some of it can be positively harmful. It’s like trying to work on a new car with a set of trusty old spanners. You find your spanners don’t fit because they’ve changed the nuts to different shapes and sizes. The trouble is, well, all you’ve got is your old set of spanners, so you have go anyway. Not only do the nuts remain stubbornly unloosened, you’ve now burred the edges and even the right spanners won’t work.

You end up hot, angry and frustrated, and are going to have to pay someone a lot of money to sort out the mess. (Believe me, I speak from experience).

This pattern has played itself out in my experience since leaving the Mothership.

One of the things that I tried to do was to replicate my old working routine. I really struggled when I was at home so I ‘went to work’ and travelled up to London for meetings on a regular basis, working in coffee bars or coworking spaces. This felt like how I used to make connections and start relationships back on the Mothership. Walking around and hanging about has been my favoured modus operandi.

The problem was that I was replicating the appearance but not the substance. I thought it was enough to be hanging out with people in business-like spaces but it didn’t work because often they weren’t the right people. They were perfectly lovely but  without the shared purpose, values and culture of a large organisation it was difficult build meaningful relationships. I wasn’t loosening the nut of networking or getting things done.

I eventually realised that working at home was part of my new lifestyle and so I consciously changed my attitude and behaviours. Now I am quite happy working at home 2 or 3 days a week and limiting my meetings and trips to London. I am no longer playing ‘lucky dip’ when I meet people and I only meet those where I feel those meaningful relationships could develop.

A second example is my behaviour from corporate life to ‘make things happen’. I would create a vision of what I wanted to happen, such as a new product line or a marketing programme, gather the team together and then drive it through. I didn’t manage most of the people in the teams so I had to persuade them to do what I wanted rather than tell them.

I was good at working like this and mostly got what I wanted. Although my approach was gentle, I  knew that, ultimately, people had responsibilities that they couldn’t avoid and I could pin them down with logic or wear them down with persistent pleading. A steel hand in a velvet glove, I could force the outcome that I wanted.

It did not work well, however, when I tried to collaborate with other people and help them develop their business idea. On the Mothership, my forcing behaviour created a pressure that tended to highlight our shared objectives and pull people together. Now, it made my would-be collaborators feel uncomfortable and highlighted our differences, pushing us apart and causing them to disengage. It was proving counter-productive, sabotaging the relationships I had established and choking off opportunities.

It’s taken me a long time to realise this, so ingrained was this forcing behaviour into my way of doing things. I was unable to see the impact on others and that I was allowing my needs to trample over theirs, quite the opposite to how I believed I was behaving. Instead of loosening the collaboration nut, I was burring the head and jamming it on tighter than before.

Of course, some of the tools you have do fit and do work in the world outside the Mothership and others can be modified and still be effective. Some, however, are going to have to be chucked and replaced with new ones. You have to gather a set of tools that are fit for purpose, fit for what you are working on now.

The trick is to be aware and check first. Like with your spanners, offer it up and see if it fits first. Apply it gently, don’t just use brute strength. And ask around to see if anyone else has the tools that you need or knows where you can get them. It will take time and a lot of trial and error but you will eventually assemble the right tools for the job in the situation you are now in.