“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to their graves with the song still in them.”
That’s a quote by American author, poet and philosopher Henry Thoreau. It dates back to the 1840s but I fear it’s just as relevant today, if not more so, and, of course, to men and women.
I was heading that way, pursuing a career trajectory that, I only realised afterwards, was taking me further and further away from my authentic self, from my song. There were days of ‘quiet desperation’ when I’d stare at the computer screen, unable to muster any enthusiasm for my work, despite being in a job many people would have killed for. My soul had clocked off, my spirit had gone to sleep.
It’s taken years to discover who I am at my core, to identify the kind of work that makes my heart sing and understand the rhythm of life that’s good for me.
I need variety, flexibility and freedom – freedom to work how and when I choose (even if that brings its own struggles). I need to be creating – building, making or writing something unique. I need a combination of solitary and group activities in my week, to satisfy both sides of my personality, my introvert and extrovert. I need to be out there, leading groups, running workshops, giving talks, but then I also need to retreat, to rest, recharge and to create in silence.
I need to be fulfilling the side of me that loves to teach, coach, train and mentor, that wants to encourage, support and nurture, that wants to help others to fulfill their potential and live their dreams. I need to be working with people, writing things that help people or coaching them to live their best lives. And at times, I need to be at the front of the room, on the stage, in the spotlight, being seen, in a very visible role.
I didn’t know this before, or perhaps I didn’t need these things before. Perhaps my younger self was satisfied with the adrenalin buzz of news journalism. And my previous job did come with its fare share of highlights.
I got to tell stories, which is one of the things I enjoy most. I worked in a team and got to interview people from all walks of life. I got to travel the world, experience new cultures, speak my languages, give free rein to my gregarious self. All that was good, but there was always an undercurrent of low self-esteem, of “I’m not good enough”, which held me back and caused me stress.
Then, as the years went on and I climbed higher up the ladder, moving into political reporting, I spent less time out in the field meeting new people and hearing their stories and more time sitting in an office, writing what seemed like the same news stories over and over in a set formula, which began to feel like a straight jacket. And as my job became higher profile and my stories more widely read, the volume on the “I’m not good enough” voice went right up.
The more dissatisfied and bored I felt, the more I felt I was putting on an act and the more scared I felt that I was about to be found out, the more I fell back on the coping strategies I’d been using for years to mask my shame and fear – primarily binge eating, starving and compulsively exercising to lose the weight.
As I see it now, from this vantage point, my inauthenticity – an ever-widening gap between who I was on the inside and the role I was playing on the outside – caused a huge amount of stress. I was contorting myself into an unnatural shape, squeezing myself into a box where I didn’t fit. Food was my stress relief, along with compulsive work as I battled to prove my worth.
Now I’m on a different path. Writing my book and making good progress, yes, but also building a business that’ll allow me to achieve my unique potential and play to my strengths while helping others to do the same. I’m using my experience, my natural abilities – including coaching, encouraging, communicating and leading groups – and a really effective tool called Packtypes.
Packtypes is a simple card system that helps people quickly identify their strengths and their areas of natural talent and ability. It uses dogs as metaphors for personality types and traits, although it doesn’t put people in boxes. Instead, it helps people take responsibility for their own development, shows them how to play to their strengths and how to work on their blind spots. It builds self-awareness and confidence and increases motivation. It helps children and adults find their path, discover their song.
So are you, like me, a people person, a natural teacher and coach (a Coachdog), who also has a penchant for communicating, leading groups and being centre of attention (a Mastiff)? Are you the ideas person on a team, the inspired entrepreneurial type (a Hound)? Are you the researcher, who loves facts, figures, logic and making sure everything has been checked out (a Pointer)? Or are you super organised, with a love of writing lists and ticking things off (a Sheepdog)? Do you love rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck in (the Terrier)? Do you have strong moral principles, proceeding with caution because you’re keen to do things for the right reasons (a Retriever)? Or are you determined, ambitious and results-driven, a bit of an Alan Sugar type, without pointing any fingers (a Guarddog)? Your profile will be a combination of these cards – some people will be more specialist and others will have a broader array of strengths.
Packtypes helps you identify your natural comfort zone and then move out from it, without creating too much stress for yourself. It helps you understand how to relate to and communicate with other types, helping to improve relationships. And it’s great for identifying gaps in teams – be that in schools, charities or the corporate arena – so you can make sure everyone’s in a role that matches their strengths and you can get your recruitment right.
All the research suggests we’re living in an age of huge dissatisfaction and disengagement at work. We’re medicating ourselves more than ever before, with pharmaceuticals, alcohol, food, sex, money, hard drugs or compulsive work, amongst other things. Addiction is widespread, in children and adults. We’re ashamed to admit what we’re doing, to be vulnerable, to share our true selves, as Brené Brown so eloquently describes in her fantastic Ted talk: The Power of Vulnerability.
I honestly believe one of the reasons we’re feeling disengaged, depressed or are self-soothing with unhealthy, often harmful substances or behaviours is that we’re squeezing ourselves into boxes where we just don’t fit, we’re contorting ourselves into shapes that were never meant for us.
Picture a large round ball of dough and a star-shaped cookie-cutter. To fit the dough into the star-shaped mould, we have to squidge it, squeeze it and lop bits off. It gets in, but it’s an uncomfortable squash and some of it gets left behind. Or think of a plasticine man and a square box. To fit him in, we have to compress him into a different shape so he no longer looks like himself.
Is this what we’re doing to ourselves? Are we working in something we hate that doesn’t play to our strengths? And is this what we’re doing to creative, free-wheeling kids when we force them to sit and conform to one-size-fits-all schooling, exams and results?
Do we feel squidged, squashed, contorted, compressed or incomplete? Do we feel bored, like our souls have gone to sleep? And what do we do to compensate, to feel better, to give ourselves some relief?
I imagine a world where everyone is playing to their strengths, doing work or pursuing studies that make their heart sing and doing so in a balanced way that allows space for all the other things that bring them joy and peace. In this world, there’s less depression, less obesity, less alcoholism, less illness and less stress. There are fewer hunched shoulders, fewer bad backs and fewer heart attacks.
Utopia? I hope not. And I’d like to think I can do my little bit to help. I can lead by example by making sure I live a balanced life and honour my talents, hopes and dreams and I can use my natural abilities and the tools I’ve discovered to help others find their path and the courage to pursue it.
When I’m doing this work, which feels so aligned with my authentic self, I can barely hear the “I’m not good enough” voice. It’s not a struggle. Everything just flows.
My goal is to help people break free from their lives of ‘quiet desperation’ and find fulfilment and joy; to help them discover their song and sing it out loud. If you know of anyone who I might be able to help – individuals, schools, companies, charities – do share this blog and my website: How to Play to Your Strengths.