Back in 2009, I took a job with a big manufacturing company in the UK, working in their communications department. It was the first communications job that I’d got on my own, without knowing anyone at the company or using my slowly expanding network.
As such, it was kind of like my first ‘real’ job, so I wanted to make a good impression. Somehow, I decided that meant I had to put aside the things that made me ‘me’, and be someone else. I needed to be organised, on task, offer insights to leaders, hardworking, thorough, and…sensible and dull. There would be no time for jokes, or innuendo, or music chat, or anything that would distract me from my primary goal of being the ultimate corporate communications machine.
And it sort of worked. I made a good start, a solid first impression, and was told that I ‘fitted in’ really well. The bosses were pleased with my approach, the impact I was having on the team and the work I was delivering.
I kept the charade up for a good few months, only letting the veneer slip a few times with some unmissable comedy opportunities. I’m human, after all.
The side effects of Corporate Keith
With the success in my new job came a nagging feeling that something wasn’t right. I’m a people person, but operating as this new corporate version of myself prevented me from building friendships and connections across the company – I was too busy working and ‘adding value’ to get to know anyone. Inevitably, the nagging feeling got worse, and I started to get more and more unhappy.
Over time, I tried to loosen up to fix the decline, and attempted to be myself a bit more. I’d make jokes, join people for lunch for a chat, be a bit more social, and talk more about my life outside of work. It felt a lot better, but even being more like the real ‘me’ didn’t take away the feeling that I wasn’t meant to be there. Pretending to be someone else had led to success, so there was a clear conflict – ‘risk’ being myself, or keep plugging away at trying to be the employee I thought they wanted.
After nine months, I was approached by a headhunter who was looking for someone to move to British Airways. It would be a promotion, a pay rise, and come with some pretty awesome travel benefits. It totally lit Corporate Keith’s fire, so after all sorts of interviews and assessments, I ended up leaving the manufacturer after a year, and joined BA.
At which point, Corporate Keith came back with vengeance! I thought that as it’s a promotion, as I would be leading a team, and as I was now part of the leadership team, I had to act and be a particular way. So I did. Luckily for me, working on my team was one of my now best friends, Richie Merrett, who saw through that Corporate crap and gradually made me realise that I could laugh when someone said ‘ohhhh this is a hard one’ or something similar. But, I still kept up the pretence that I was something I was not.
And so the nagging feeling remained.
You would think that I would have had the wisdom to see that something wasn’t quite right with the road I was travelling. I had landed two traditionally awesome jobs, had two promotions in 12 months, and was making my way up the ladder. I’m afraid not. I hadn’t realised at that stage, as Stephen Covey so wonderfully put it, that my ladder was leaning against the wrong wall.
And so, 18 months later, came a third opportunity. Return to the bank where I started my corporate career, covering my pal Julie in her role while she went on maternity leave, and take a huge promotion. The move would give me more money, cut down the commute, and mean I could spend more time with Angie. Plus, Julie knew that when she returned from maternity leave, I would leave the role and there would be no fuss.
I took the job.
But critically, I made a choice. I decided I was going to be me. Over the first six months, something really different happened. By being myself, I was actually a significantly better employee! I built connections all over the bank. I was a positive motivator to the people around me. I got involved in the choir, played new sports, and joined the book club. I also became a trusted advisor to senior leaders, something that I hadn’t quite cracked in previous roles. Now, rather than telling them what they wanted to hear, I told them what I actually thought. Never aggressively or with malice, but instead I gave them my take on the situation and how I would handle it. In an organisation of ‘yes’ people, it made me really stand out.
Not only that, but it also changed the way I thought about work. It made me realise that I could be ‘me’ in an organisation and be a success, and it led to yet another promotion and a permanent job offer. In fact, the trajectory of my career completely changed when I started to speak my mind (thoughtfully) and be myself.
The nagging feeling didn’t come, but by that stage, I had started to question a lot about my life and how I was living it. I’d already worked out I was wrong about food, training and lots of other things. I was challenging everything I believed in, and I began to realise that the real ‘me’ would never be happy in a traditional, 9-5 (or longer) corporate environment. No matter the benefits, the environment that I was in, where I was striving so hard to be a success, was directly linked to the person I had been trying to be for all these years – not the person I was.
I didn’t leave the bank immediately, but rather than just leave and jump to another organisation doing the same thing as I had done before, I looked hard at the kind of life I wanted to live, and the kind of person I wanted to be, and after endless discussions with Angie, I concocted a plan to live a simpler life.
Now that I’m in the next phase of my life, starting a business, returning to teaching, and occasionally writing for the bank and other companies, I feel a lot more in control. If you’re feeling like I did at any of the stages above, here’s what I would do:
Realise that you can be yourself at work
You might think you have to be someone else, but you don’t. The company that hires the real you will get a more inspired, more valuable you, rather than someone that’s behaving in a way they think they should behave. My career took off when I dropped the mask of being sensible and injected some fun, honesty and energy into the way I was at work. And now, whether I’m teaching year 6, writing copy for a sustainability review, or coaching one of my clients on hip mobility, I’m me.
Analyse the nagging feeling
If you’re unhappy in your job, don’t just get the same type of job in another organisation. I hear this all the time, and you now know I took this route myself a few times before I actually stopped to reflect. The chances are, when the honeymoon period in your new job ends, you’ll feel the same as you do now. So really think about what’s making you unhappy. What were you put on this earth to do? Shuffle paper around and work on projects that will be cancelled six months from now, or truly make an impact on the world in your own unique way? The nagging feeling is your gut telling you that something is not right, so even if you can’t see a way out yet, or have no idea what you would do even if you did get out, at least stop and think. What are your passions? What are your dreams? What gets your heart racing? Let yourself be inspired, then begin the process of taking action to build your life around something that will make your heart sing.
Look to the roles that inspired you
I’ve had a lot of jobs in my lifetime, from a morning paper round to a Head of Leadership Communications at a FTSE 100 financial institution. But whenever I think about the best job I ever had, I always think of my time working at Camp Encore/Coda. I have never been happier in a job, and so I analysed why. Camp is in a beautiful location. It’s full of intelligent, motivated people who happen to be brilliant musicians. As a counselor you make a difference every single day, and you inspire and guide people with everything that you do. Creativity is appreciated, and you’re encouraged to try new skills. Those are the traits that I realised made me happiest, and that’s what I’ve injected into Live Simple. You can do the same.
Leave every organisation on good terms
I have a lot of affection for the bank where I used to work. I have some wonderful friends there, travelled to Asia many times, and was given a ton of opportunities. After leaving on good terms earlier this year, I was asked if I would do some occasional consulting there on a project that actually did mean something to me when I returned from the US. I jumped at the chance, and the money that I’m earning is giving me and Angie the freedom to build Live Simple in a way that is slow, steady and meaningful.
Fake it till you make it doesn’t always work
I’ve written before about this idea before, of just pretending you are who you want to be, and gradually becoming that person. If it’s to have more confidence, it can be a powerful tool. However, it is hugely flawed when the person you are trying to become is not actually the person you want to be in your heart.
Live the life that’s yours
Once I’d figured out that I wanted to do something different with my life, I had to work out what that was. I have a unique set of skills (not like Liam Neeson), just like you do. I have passions, things that make me excited, and a desire to be more than just a guy plodding through life. Live Simple is a blend of everything that I am, and that I am striving to be. Me and Angie both want our lives to mean something, and by helping people get fitter, healthier and aspire to more, we want to help other people take control of their health and live their passions. The question for you is, are you ready to listen to your gut and take the first step towards yours?
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” Steve Jobs