For as long as I can remember, I have felt called to make a positive contribution to humanity. We all have that persistent nudge at the center of our heart that prods us to ask the question,
“Who am I, and why am I here?”
I believed that if I figured out the answer to the question, then life would click into place and I would begin living my purpose.
I studied a lot of psychology - earning three degrees along the way including a doctorate in counseling psychology - with the expectation that my purpose was unfolding in front of me. I would settle into a career that reflected the work I was called to do and all would be well forever after.
Life had other ideas.
Three months after I received my doctorate degree, I left my private therapy practice to begin uncharted work as the Director of Happiness at a venture capital firm. Think of me as a life coach for entrepreneurs.
For four years, I had a front row seat to the mental and physical distress that founders endure while building their companies. The range of emotions and behaviors was wide - everything from sleep deprivation to suicidal thoughts. I saw it all.
In this work with entrepreneurs, and as I spent more time around tech startups, I noticed one glaring theme - they were all men. Where were the women? Why weren’t they pitching their companies or raising money?
As a response to these questions, I co-founded the JumpFund, an angel fund that invests startup capital into women-led companies.
Around this time I was invited to deliver a TEDx talk in Barcelona. I shared one simple message -- "Lead Like a Girl." Don’t subscribe to the idea that leadership in a technology startup (or any business for that matter) has to look one way -- decidedly masculine. Embrace the characteristics that make you a badass female leader. Don’t apologize for leading with compassion, collaboration, equanimity and empathy. These are your gifts. Use them in spades.
Leading like a girl was much harder in practice than the talk I gave in Barcelona.
“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”
- Thomas Merton
Climbing the Wrong Ladder
In 2014, I started a hardware technology company to solve a huge problem I faced as a parent - video game obsession in my children. Professionally, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. For almost four years I was first in line to the circus act of hustling, grinding and fighting, believing I would succeed in spite of all the headwinds too numerous to name.
The experience brought me to my knees with the deepest exhaustion I’ve ever experienced.
I never worked so hard in my life - endless 80 hour weeks, four solid months of sleeping 3-4 hours a night, working Thanksgiving and Christmas days, sacrificing precious family time all the time.
I remember Thanksgiving Day 2016, I woke up and couldn't move my body out of the bed. My husband had to physically move my legs from under the covers and help me stand up. Overnight, it was like I'd turned into an old woman. I went to several doctors only to find I had been having recurring flare ups of the Epstein-Barr virus for the previous year and apparently this last one was the most acute.
I'd spent the past couple of years marinating in cortisol. To cope, I was washing down a couple of Benadryls with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc almost nightly, waking at 3 AM (unable to get back into a deep sleep), and then on to a full day of CEO-ing. Rinse and repeat.
It finally caught up with me, and my body's immune system didn't have a chance.
It Shouldn't Be This Hard
After three years of operating my company, the money dried up, the product still didn't work consistently, the team was falling apart, investors wanted out, and I was a shell of a person. My skin was intact, but not much else.
It would be another six months before I finally dissolved the company.
This experience left me with debilitating burnout, compounded by unbearable humiliation, that would take a full year to recover from. The physical stress of those few years was potent, but it was the emotional stress that caused the most damage. I was left with a large dose of mistrust in myself and other people, some deeply damaged relationships, a profound sense of shame, and a mangled identity.
In that year of recovery, I wrestled hard with my ego. I came to terms with my expert status at rationalization. For many years, to live with an over-active ego, I convinced myself the sacrifices I made to my health and relationships were necessary to the "noble work" I was doing. But with the clarity that comes with solitude and silence, it became clear that the ladder I was climbing was "leaning against the wrong wall."
It shouldn't be this hard.
Becoming My Big Self
At first, I managed to ignore my midlife identity crisis by digging in the dirt, cleaning closets, and eating Zoodles. Exercise and girlfriends and books saved me, as did writing and solitude and my saint of a husband, Chad. My kids were "proud of me anyway," which was sweet but only served as a reminder that I had, indeed, failed.
But it was my constant companion, Jake the dog, who was calm and happy and uncritical, all the things I couldn't be.
Whenever I got into severe self-criticism I remember Jake was there to lick my hand.
I would cry, judge myself some more: Now you're just being weak. Failure and burnout is common in startups. You're being a victim. Dust yourself off and get back out there.
Jake would sigh, close his eyes, and show me how to rest. Jake's non-anxious presence was a gift. It was as if God himself came to sit with me on my back porch, every day in the form of a dog.
I can’t point to an exact moment, but from a perspective that only comes with time’s healing I began to realize that it was time to let my life tell me what it wanted to do with me.
I was exhausted from being dragged around by the ego's claims on my life -- over-identification with my career, status, wealth, prestige. I was done with the white-knuckle approach. My ego had brought me to my knees, now I was able to stand up and start walking.
Burnout is the symptom of a sinister cultural mandate to build a career before you listen for a calling. It tells us once you start building that career, you can never stop. Keep pushing. Work harder. Winners are hustlers, so keep hustling.
This is especially true for high achievers. I now believe that if you really want to live YOUR life purpose, you must be suspicious of this mandate. In fact, you must be audaciously counter-cultural.
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
- Mark Twain
Life purpose isn’t about attaining anything. Our purpose is about staying awake long enough to see who we really are, and the gifts we can offer to the world. Our purpose has a way of moving us into places we never considered out of its insistence that we grow as humans. All of it can be used to bring our true gifts into the world.
And the ego is not the enemy. Unconscious identification with the ego is the enemy. It keeps you from your True Self. It keeps your greatest gifts disguised or underground in the pursuit of the next shiny object.
But ego in service to soul, that's the good stuff. That's the gold. That is home and what we're all journeying toward.
This brings me to my work with you.
My ego had to fail me so that I could set out to find a better way. Your ego will fail you, too. Maybe it already has. I can't protect you from failing and falling, nor should I, but I can walk alongside you as you live the questions that take you smack dab to the center of your truth.
The path I'm now on - living and working where ego sits in service to my soul, not the other way around - is so much better. There's an ease to it. I want that ease for you, too.
I’m committed to working with wholehearted high-achievers -- the ones who can’t and won’t trade in their big ambitions for a peaceful and happy life. They must co-exist.
People always ask, “What do I want to be?”
We rarely ask, “Who am I already?”
This is the Big Self Way.