It was 2013, and I was about to give a speech at my alma mater, Brown University. I was nervous as hell (as was the Brown Alumni Relations staff!) because I planned to get raw. In front of a room of two hundred successful women, I was going to share the story of how I became happy at work only after I realized that the idea of who I wanted to be was making me anxious, destructive, and depressed. I was nervous but also elated as I approached the podium.
As I began to command the large hall I'd walked by many times as an anxious, and often sad, undergraduate, I felt free. "If you knew me at Brown, I don't think you'd have expected I'd be keynoting the dinner," I said.
"I have the dubious distinction," I continued, diving in, "of being an ambitious risk-taker who also struggles with anxiety and depression. This has forced me to learn some very helpful coping mechanisms, and I want to share some today with you."
But first, I told them, there were the panic attacks. That time sophomore year I couldn't get out of bed for a week. Hiding in my dorm room, and then, when I graduated, in my apartments. How I sought geographical cures, moving to different cities, like London, and even farther-away continents, like Africa. How I did a fair amount of drugs — the worst of which, ironically, were by prescription. (Okay, I didn't mention that in the speech.)
I talked about how, as a young woman, I wanted so badly to be liked, and to do everything right. I felt it was expected of me. I had been the kid who cried at sleepaway camp and wouldn't let my mother and sister leave my first night at college. I only wanted home, and comfort. Instead I dealt with its absence like many young people do: through eating, drinking, and hookups.
I told them how, because I was very ambitious and driven, I went for every big job and opportunity I could — how I ran marketing for Europe's largest online travel company when I was twenty-five. How I kept getting promoted, and I kept being miserable. The work was easy, but the office politics, the hours, the pace, networking, and rules of getting ahead rubbed up against my very temperament. I was living out someone else's climb up the ladder, and I was fighting a losing battle. I had quit nine jobs, I wasn't even thirty, and I cried in the bathroom almost every day.
Then, I talked about the day I realized that who I was and what I was doing every day were completely mismatched.
It was during my final corporate job, when, under the ubiquitous fluorescent lights, I realized I was allergic to them. They give me migraines. And as long as I had to show up and sit under those lights for ten-plus hours a day simply because I was expected to, I could never be happy.
"I see now," I told the audience, "that I was caught in a cycle of achievement, of working hard for someone else's dreams or expectations, and not my own." It was only when I accepted that I needed a quieter life, needed to reframe success on my own terms, and figure out the tool kit I needed to get there, that I could find joy at work. Becoming "less successful" set me free.
Not exactly your typical go-get-'em women's leadership speech. I had worked so hard on it, and it was the first real keynote I had delivered. (It's still one of the few.) I looked around the room and was terrified. Would the undergrads and alumnae think I was a nutjob?