How corporate America stole my abililty to speak freely

Aside

It’s been two whole months since my last post. I got sloppy. 2012 has not been my best year to date. I reached the point where answering questions about where my life was going, or what my legacy should be became painful to even think about. I didn’t want to articulate what was actually going round in my head, and trying to force out what I thought I should want to say because exhausting; I got the point where I could barely remember who I was, as though I was writing the account of someone I met once on a train and thought we might be friends if we lived closer. I still feel like that: like who I am is in another room and I am opening doors trying to find her.

When I first started this blog my aim was to rediscover how I express myself; to encourage deep thoughts; to realise interesting things about myself and feel reunited with my i. Perhaps I aimed too high. Perhaps I’m way too out of practice at these things. I work in the corporate world, people. Worse, I work in Healthcare. Even worse, I work in Healthcare in a foreign country. I am used to expressing myself according to very limited terms and conditions. I measure my opinions. I live in the midwest, the key is to blend in. And truthfully, I don’t disagree with blending in, it’s something that, as adults, most of us have to do to some degree. It’s compromising, or justifying, or being collaborative, or some other business lingo. It’s a mindset that you train yourself for, or that you get unwittingly trained in through the “needs must” school of life. It’s hard to admit that it’s nearly impossible to break out of this identity, it’s like a bad habit, I self-edit constantly.

As a marketing and operations professional, I focus on impressions and working as an art form. I advise people, reprimand people, mentor people on the right or wrong thing to say. Most of what I preach I don’t practice, and even less do I actually believe is true in the real world. But the business world isn’t the real world, and that’s the fundamental lesson behind my life. How many people would write emails to their friends like they write to their colleagues? Or how many people would dress to go to a ballgame with their friends as they dress on “casual” day at work?

I’ve learned a lot from my job, especially my current position, and wouldn’t want to change any of it. I’ve build a knowledge base on everything from database systems to healthcare operations; public speaking to individual mentoring; from how to dress at a conference to what is the “right” answer if someone offers you wine at a business event. But I haven’t learned anything about myself. I’m English, so people label me constantly. Mostly people run the fine line between considering me an awful prude or an outrageously liberal alcoholic (I’m neither, by the way). I’m a monarchist or a communist, a label-loving Londonite or a Welly-Wearing hoorah henry with a country pile. Different people take away a different version of me, and I am constantly shifting between each identity.

My failing was that I thought this would be easy. Things have always been easy for me, I’m one of those people that worked hard but not too hard in school. I got excellent grades because I understood how to check all the boxes, not because I actually wrote the most insightful answers. This is why I’m excellent at my job, because it’s all about educating people on what they should be saying or doing, and I’ve always been good at playing the game. Life is about displaying that you know what you’re talking about, rather than knowing what you’re talking about. The truth is, I’ve realised, that I know how to act like I know who I am, but really I have no clue.

So I’m starting from scratch here, and it’s probably going to get a little ugly.

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If you had the opportunity to get a message across to a large group of people, what would your message be?

I’ve had a lengthy pause from my last post. 2012 has been quite a year so far. Some of you may recall my stating that I was going to train for a half marathon earlier in the year. It’s true. The “big day” was this last saturday, the 14th April. Well, I did it. Truthfully, the experience was a little disappointing for me, and I didn’t manage the time I’d hoped to finish in, but at least I crossed the line. I was expecting to be more emotional, but I was in so much pain when I crossed the line that I was just overwhelmed by relief that it was over!

The question today is about messaging. I’m in the world of marketing, and spend a lot of my time thinking about and focussing on what the correct message is for the right situation and audience. I’m also surrounded by people who are always presenting the best image that they can of themselves, and of our company. This is a trait that I am in awe of – I am brutally honest to a fault, and can’t contain how I’m truly feeling most of the time. When piecing together localized marketing campaigns, it’s easier to decide what the message should be. I work in the southern states, and it’s a safer bet that two people in the same geographic area will respond to the same anecdote than two people from opposites sides of the country. When putting together a national piece the challenge is harder, and a lot more difficult to predict. My experience has shown me that, the larger the audience the more general the message. Therefore, I have to consider than any personal message I would want to convey would need to be general enough to have a beneficial appeal to a wide audience.

This rules out things like “visit the North West Norfolk Coast” (A place a would strongly recommend anyone to visit, but is located in rural England). I’m not very political, and even the few political items that I have decided opinions on would not be things I would want to influence people’s decisions on. I’m not eligible to vote in the United States, and mostly I am glad of it; with the election this year most people I know have gone politics mad. My husband, formerly the most liberal person I know, has joined discussion groups and is considering becoming a representative for a republican candidate, and everything from his iPhone to his facebook is a walking banner for his own political opinions. I think that over time this is something he might regret.

I think that my message would have to be hinged on something I think it plausible and relevant for any person, regardless of country, gender, education, or age. It would need to be universally important to every person.

My first thought, thanks to Richard Curtis, is the message of love. Yes, I believe it is one of the most important things we can learn to do, and also learn to accept from others.  But I think that we hear this message a lot, thanks to Church billboards and hallmark cards, it’s hard to decipher true messages from propaganda.

But, I would still like my message to incorporate elements of love, and peace, and strength. And so my message for the world would be: Know your Inspiration. Sounds strange, maybe, but I think it’s universal. My thought is that if you know why you are doing something, and what you want to achieve, then you are far more likely to a) succeed, and, b) do something worthwhile. Do YOU know why you are doing what you are doing? Or are you simply following someone else’s motions hoping it will ring true for you?

When I entered the 8th mile of my race over the weekend I lost sight of my inspiration. It was what crippled me. By the time I crossed the 11 mile mark I was walking 90 percent of the time and thinking “why on earth am I doing this, it doesn’t matter”. I ended up feeling worse about myself at the end than at the beginning, and it’s because I lost focus on my inspiration. Even now, knowing this, I still find it hard to remember what my training was in aid of, but I know that if I had kept my inspiration close to me I would have had a much better and more positive run.

My message for humanity is a dream for an inspired world, where people work with dedication and passion, with a deep rooted belief in their actions. Perhaps it’s not original and, I’m sure, people will argue that it’s not even possible, but I genuinely wish our societies allowed us more room to act on our inspirations, and to see how that new energy fuels the world that we live in.

How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?

Interesting question. I am going to interpret the question to mean something along the lines of: how old a life are you living?

As a society we are constantly looking at aging celebrities, college friends, family members and thinking “that person needs to grow up”. When I was a teenager I was often told I was “responsible”; I always knew exactly when and what time I would be meeting people, or which bus I would be on coming home. These were the pre-mobile-phone days, where definite plans needed to be made and adhered to. In college I kept a list of emergency numbers with me at all times, always completed my coursework at least 24 hours before the deadline, and, although I liked to go out and have a good time, rarely stayed out all night. I wasnot the type of person that needed to grow up, if anything, I needed to “grow down”.

When I got engaged at the tender age of 21 my mother said she wasn’t surprised that I’d gotten engaged so young. This fascinated me – the hubs and I had barely been dating six months, and I had always expressed the intention to not get married before thirty. But, looking back, I was always racing towards the idea of domestic bliss. I think I’ve always wanted to know exactly what the future looks like – I’m not spontaneous, and I’ve even been known to read the end of books first so as to know what I’m working towards. I feel comforted by knowing what the outcome is going to be. This is how I have been my entire life. I used to tell my friends that my ideal was “the four M’s – middle aged, married, post-menopausal, with a mortgage”. I remember how they would shriek in horror, professing that I must be crazy, and couldn’t imagine a life like that. Back then, I found that hard to believe – how did anyone not find that appealing on some level? the normality of it? the comfort.

However, now I am married and with a mortgage, approaching early middle age (twenty seven is my dreaded number, the age I’ve always feared, and it’s only a few weeks away), and with my biological clock firmly ticking (my doctor told me that “you just need to accept your body is slowing down” the other day). I think, on paper, most people would think the husband and I were in our late thirties. Walking round our home we have new furniture, carefully selected decor palettes, and all matching plates, mugs, and dishes. Last night we chose to stay home and eat soup rather than go out on the town!

How do I feel about it? Well, I alternate between loving it and thinking I’d trade it all in for the chance to backpack around the world. I think that everyone fears growing older once they’re actually doing it – especially as I’m doing it so much faster than my friends – because it doesn’t come with instructions. I don’t know how a person my age is “supposed” to act, or whether I’m doing a good job at it, but the only thing I can do is keep doing it and stay true to myself.

So today I am going to tackle the following questions in one response: Are you holding onto something you need to let go of? When you are 80 years old, what will matter most to you? And, when is it time to stop calculating risk and rewards and just do what you know is right?

Well. I have been in the unique position of having to address all of these questions at one time on two separate occasions in my life. The first was making the decision to follow my heart and allow myself to be with the man that is now my husband, and the second occasion is my present day life.

The first time I had to weigh up these turmoils in my mind I had to wrestle the idea of having trans-atlantic relationship with a man I, realistically, didn’t know that well; leaving my family and my homeland; making myself employable and desirable in a foreign country; the impossible large idea (especially for a 20 year old) that this might be my biggest regret if I didn’t go for it, and maybe this person was the person for me. I was much more romantic back them, with my notions of soul mates and such. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good decision and I love the hubs, but nothing is ever as clear cut as a twenty-year-old literature lover can dream it to be.

And so now I’m on the flip side, faced with a familiar dilemma. I love Kansas City, I have friends here. I don’t love the crime, and I don’t love the distances between places, and I don’t love the work ethic. I don’t love the idea of raising children miles away from their only potential cousins, or in an environment where I’d have to hand them over to daycare at eight weeks. I’m not fortunate enough to afford the luxury of staying at home when the time comes. And, seven years later, I’ve never adjusted to being so far away from my home. So you see, dear internet, I’m in a predicament.

What do I do?

What I would like to do is pack up my husband and my hound and board a plane. Our friends have passports, they can travel. I don’t want to cause pain and upset to my inlaws my stealing their only son and, after all, these people have been my family for the last five years, I’d miss them too. But without them we have nothing here, and that’s the realization it has taken me years to reach.

I miss the sea. I don’t want to wake up at seventy years old and realise I’ve only seen the ocean a handful of times since I was in my twenties. I’m used to seeing it every day. I think it’s soulful – it’s a part of me.

I know all the arguments for staying, and all the arguments for going back to front and inside out. I know what my heart wants to do. Strangely, and probably something most people would doubt about me, I actuallywanted to come here and find it enough, and to be able to allow my husband to be the only thing that mattered to me. But I’m not a Victorian, my post-feminism, liberated backside has dreams and preferences and loves of it’s own, and signing them away with my marriage license didn’t happen.

And the hubs really isn’t set against moving; at least not most of the time. Really, he’s been very flexible in his opinions on subject, other than the occasional “Dammit, woman, I’m American and I need steak and beer every day” moment. His main fears are for his family.

This post isn’t really to seek answers to declare a resolution – I know that these questions are going to be conversations that we have for a LONG time – I just know it’s the only honest answer to these three questions, even if the answers aren’t really answers, but more questions.

What can you do today that you were not capable of a year ago?

I think that to answer this question I need to think about myself a year ago. Realistically, not much have changed. I weigh the same, do the same job, drive the same car, hang out with the same people. 2011 was a static year for me (I think 2012 will be MUCH better). I think that I didn’t really aim for anything in 2011, I just allowed myself to exist as I was. I don’t feel bad about it, I think I’ve achieved a lot in my life by comparison to a lot of people, and I think I just needed a break from improving. If anything, I probably let myself slip a little.

Actually, 2011 is the first year of my life that I seriously considered seeing a psychiatrist, getting some counseling of some sort. Yeah, that was kind of a low.

However, I think I became better acquainted with myself. More honest. I’ve definitely become more willing to stand up for myself, more honest about what I want and what I think is unfair.

Today, I can stand and look in the mirror and be honest about my faults:  I need to lose about 20lbs, I’m tempestuous, prone to laziness, and messy; I can also be honest about my good points: I have great hair, I’m a very loving and loyal friend, and I really do make the best tea in the world. I can also admit when I’m wrong (well, sometimes), or when I’m hurting. I don’t have to pretend everything is okay all of the time anymore.

Maybe it’s not anything remarkable, but I think it’s a step in the right direction, all things considered. And I really do think that 2012 may be one of the great years of my life.

When was the last time you tried something new?

What a fitting question for the start of a new year, and the start of this blog. The obvious answer would be that by answering these questions I am trying something new; however, that wouldn’t be entirely true. I had attempted to start many different blogs over the past four years, none of which I have been able to keep updated with much regularity. I am a self confessed creature of habit, and am reluctant to make any changes to my life. I was also fortunate to have a pretty adventurous upbringing, trying lots of different foods, hobbies, and destinations.

Ok, maybe it wasn’t the most diverse upbringing, but I accomplished a lot before I was twenty one. I’ve been to the worlds greatest music festival (Glastonbury 2003), dived, para-glided, travelled to Africa, learned a foreign language, played a competitive sport, and read (almost) every book on the BBC recommended book list.

But as I hover close to twenty seven, I’ve found the last four years have become routine. Everything I “cook” comes out of the freezer, my work colleagues can predict my lunch order, and I haven’t updated my Ipod since 2008. This is a true fact. Even my midwestern husband accuses me of being boring. Trying new things isn’t really “my thing”.

However, there are small glimmers of hope in the general magnolia of my life.

Photography is one of those clichéd hobbies for “Creative” people to take up in their twenties. I understand this, and I’m reconciled with it. I have many friends who are excellent photographers, and I’ve always envied them. I was also raised in an area of natural beauty, and, now I no longer live there, wish that I had more lasting photographs to keep with me. So this summer I decided to buy a DSLR camera (Nikon D500) and try to teach myself photography. I also thought it might be a good way to meet people in Kansas City, but I’ve yet to find a class that fits in with my schedule.

So far the whole thing terrifies me. Owing to my high self esteem issues, I had very high expectations of my natural ability. I was disappointed. My husband, who secretly thinks the whole thing is a waste of time, I think is waiting for me to “give up” and admit defeat, but I’m persevering. Ok, truthfully, I’m not outside every weekend finding interesting trees to take pictures of, but I did manage to take an awesome photo of my dog, Batman, in mid jump. I tried to upload it to this blog twice, but for some reason it’s not allowing me to edit the post, or showing any of the changes I have made.

Hopefully I can upload other photos into this blog later!

The day that started the questions.

The first mundane fact about me (and there will be hundreds, if not thousands, to follow) is that I work in an office, and sit in a cubicle. I used to have an office back when I first started 2 and a half years ago… four walls of my very own, with a copy of Van Gough’s ‘Starry Night’ on the wall, which everyone thought was depressing but I rather liked. Having an office was an advantage of being hired after a recession… lots of empty offices around. True story.

But, fortunately, my company has grown rapidly since then, and I have had to give up my (much-loved) office in favour of a cubicle that has a lot less space, but a lot more visitors. I’d much rather have a cubicle in a period of growth than an office in a recession, and I’d much rather have a tiny cubicle filled with visitors than a large office (with free painting) with no-one in it by me. Truthfully, I did rather rattle around in there on my lonesome.

Another (or two) mundane facts about me is that I like my job, and I like the people I work with. They keep me occupied. (Another mundane fact about me: I grew up in England next to a “pill-box” bomb shelter. I can’t use the word ‘occupied’ without thinking about the second world war, even if I don’t mean it in THAT way).

Anyway, as my A-Level Classics teacher, Mr Chappell, would say: “I digress”. It was on a rather usual day, when I was sitting in my cube with my work friends when someone sent me a link. I think the exact article was something along the lines of “50 things you need to stop doing”. The website was www.marcandangel.com .

I fell in love with this website on the spot. I love reading current things by current people, and this website spoke to me. I loved the truthfulness behind the articles, and found myself agreeing with almost every article I read. The points were simple, well constructed, and hard to ignore. After a good forty minutes of browsing (in between working, of course), I came across the following article: “365 Questions to ask yourself this year“. I read all 365 questions, even though I was at work, answering each one in my head. Some were easy, some were hard, some were cheesy, and some were genuinely insightful.

Suddenly a little voice (I think it might even have been “Me”) spoke up inside my head. I should do this, I should answer these questions, one a day for a year… and I was Inspired. Capital “I”. It’s been so many years since I truly felt inspired and motivated to write than I hardly recognized what was happening.

Inspiration was always easy for me in college, I only needed to open a blank document on my computer and a short story would come tripping off my keyboard, often a thinly disguised reflection of my own life. I could, and often did, write several poems a day, the themes were very collegiate: Love, Sex, Heartbreak, Despair. Moving into the real world came with the cost of a cold, hard truth. Writing a poem about paying a mortgage, or watching my friends lose their jobs was neither easy, productive, or touching. I found the only words trapped in my keyboards were short, unintentionally terse email home: Everything fine, sorry for not writing, hope to write more soon. My mother would reminisce: “you used to write such lovely, long letters, everyone used to look forward to them”. The elephant in the room was that I no longer wrote, and people no longer expected me to. Me, the family writer, suddenly without definition. I was the family wordsmith, I had become somebody else’s Employee, and somebody else’s Wife.

So this glimmer of inspiration, this tiny re-entrance into my mind, is something huge and wonderful in the scheme of my grand Midwestern adventure. I hope to discover who I’ve become, if I’ve really changed in the five years since I put down the pen. My intention is not to impress my opinion upon anyone, and I sincerely hope nothing I write is offensive, it is not intended to be. I will answer my first question on January 1st, working from the list in the original article. If I omit, edit or amend any questions, this is only to better suit the purposes of the blog. I will try to keep aligned as closely to the questions I first read on that strange, nondescript December day.