The other day when I woke up I had a personality crisis. No, I did not go psychotic, started thinking about the boiling of bunnies or wonder what the world would look like should the holocaust happen in the next hour. But I did wonder what I was doing with my life and it kinda killed me.
You’re not supposed to have questions like this at this stage in life. You wonder what you are doing with your life when you find yourself in Thailand with no memory of what happened the night before and a local girl massaging your back with her feet. Or you wonder what you are doing with your life when you feel the wind in your face and your back pressed against the wall as you teeter on the ledge of the 25th floor.
With three best-selling practical books on SEO and online marketing out, a blog that gets visitors every day and a contract to write four more books, having thoughts like this smacks of self-indulgence. It’s not because there are no rules concerning when you’re going to get hit by the ‘meaning of life’ genie. It appears suddenly out of nowhere and asks a simple question and reduces you to a blathering idiot inhabiting a mental black hole you cannot see any way out of.
It’s that bad.
I had coffee. A lot. And walked round the block. And stared at people in the park until they must have thought I was a stalker or the next Ted Bundy in the making. And then came home and almost cried. I say almost because although I know the principle of catharsis and how tears can make you feel better I also believe in thinking things through and trying to find their causes. To cry would have been taking the easy way out. An expression of feeling sorry for myself without really knowing why, and all the while, on paper, enjoying the kind of life most people can only dream about: my own hours, free to travel, no mortgage and no commitments (except to one little white cat).
So no tears. Just coffee and thinking and brooding and thinking some more. When I was corporate I remember we used to send managers out to a sweat lodge experience. I never went but it was something like that. Somebody would tell them they were worthless, yell a lot at them all day (it had something to do with the military) and make them think why they wanted to be managers.
Some broke down and cried and they all would do group hugs and tell each other truths they had never told each other before and when the week was up they would all come back and be stronger, cleaner inside, with sharper, more focused thinking and the ability to lead their teams to be the best in the country.
Some left. I fancied they were the ones who continued the session of self-questioning somewhere on the beaches of Thailand.
I never went. Did not need to. Still don’t. But there was the question. I spent the day thinking and the night and the next day until I was almost sure my partner had had enough of my broodiness and was considering packing her bags and finding a guy who was a little younger and a lot more fun. And then it hit me.
I really need to understand what I do. Not how, but certainly why. In the corporate world I did not need to. As a communications manager charged with getting the message across to every level of the company and the carte blanche to go anywhere and question anyone I enjoyed a status that set me apart and had a role which, though challenging, was not a personal challenge.
Online is different. I can tell myself I am making money or promoting my books or giving my readers something practical they can do to help their business but all that happens in a vacuum where I am the self-appointed guardian of information I dispense.
That’s not enough. There is a disconnect which is obviously affecting me.
It took a while and a lot of coffee to get to the bottom of it. Here’s what I learnt:
1. Online work can become tunnel-visioned. I spend days researching SEO effects, pouring over developments in the social media world. Thinking about all the possible scenarios emerging from a merger here, a new app there and their impact on the social media marketing and search engine optimisation scenes. It narrows down my view of the world to the point where in one part of my life I develop tremendous confidence and excitement in the fact that I get to make connections which few others readily see. I use the information on the practical SEO Tips on my blog and in the books I write. That’s not enough.
2. I need to connect online as much as I connect offline. When I was corporate I wore a suit and tie most days of the week. Jeans and Tee on the weekends. Dress code, stupidly enough, determined my identity. By helping identify me a part of a group it made it easy to be who I was, without trying too hard. Maybe it made me lazy but certainly it did not make me introspective. I work online as a largely faceless ‘expert’, kind of the voice behind the curtain and get about in the offline world in tank tops and hacked off shorts. It creates a disconnect which in itself is troubling. When online I need to not just dispense knowledge and promote my writing but really, deeply connect. I now find myself contributing clearly thought-through comments backed by facts and experience rather than ‘LOLs’ and ‘Wow’s’. I maintain a far more open mind than before and listen to practically everything people say, thinking that, perhaps, like me, they are also trying to connect.
3. I give help everywhere I can. I work online to make a living. But I also use online to get my news, become informed about my hobbies, track my interests and even forge connections with online friends. Whenever anyone asks I give as generously as I can. It makes me feel better because I help someone and I also feel that silly as it may sound and tiny as it may be, this small change in attitude of giving without expecting ever to receive is helping create a better world.
4. Self-doubt is a friend. I came to a better and deeper understanding of myself and my purpose because I woke up feeling that my life suddenly led nowhere. It does not mean that I now have a crystal-clear life purpose. Beyond what I do professionally I wake up feeling, each day, that there is –should be- more that I can do to make the world better and me feel a more integrated part of it. See point three above. I am still working things out in terms of that as I go along, but at least I am not in that black hole where I felt like I was suffocating.
5. I start the day with a smile. Cheap trick. It works. I may have a dozen emails to reply to, six articles to write and a pressing book deadline to content with. I start feeling that I am lucky to actually feel alive and then I tackle the rest of the day.
6. I try to add value. Working in a corporate environment I knew what I was doing. Everything I did helped the company become better at what it did and my team work better (if not necessarily easier). Working, mostly, for myself I find that it becomes easier to lose sight of that fact and indulge in doing whatever I like. I now try to avoid that trap. If I take part in an online discussion I work hard to actually help make it more meaningful rather than just contribute ‘yeah, same here’. When I connect with people offline I apply the same principle. Yes I enjoy their company and try to make sure they enjoy mine, but if I can help in some way, I do. (See point three again).
So far all this works. I am clearer about what I do, why and where it’s taking me, than I have been for a long time. Like most careerists I stumbled across what I am doing through an organic process that appears inevitable only in retrospect. I have now taken a firmer charge of myself and my life and it has helped make me more productive.
Above all, it has made me happier.