I used to have a big job at a big advertising agency. It was one of the best in the country, a place that hired smart people and did great work. I was thrilled when they hired me. But I worked a lot. And I worried even more -- about things like new business pitches, client ultimatums, managing a team without burning people out, corporate politics, email avalanches... and doing work I could be proud of.
I didn't sleep much for the three years that I held that job. And when I did I slept with my iPhone, often answering emails at 3 a.m. At night I usually had an extra glass of wine. I also "shopped my feelings," with retail therapy that included shoes, black sweaters (you can never have too many), spa-visits to "manage my stress," pottery classes for makeshift art therapy, cases of California wine for obvious reasons, countless bars of chocolate, and a pile of books with titles like: Mindfulness: an Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, The Happiness Project and Buddha Walks into a Bar.
The night when I realized that something had to change was the night I bought the Ukulele.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, which was at about 1 a.m. after almost a bottle of pinot grigio. Of course I bought my Lanikai Tenor Ukulele on Amazon, after reading a series of reviews like this one "I have no other experience with ukuleles but this one sounds good to me." I paid the extra $3.99 for next-day delivery because for some reason that I could no longer recall, I needed that Ukulele immediately. The next morning as I drank my coffee spiked with Splenda, Advil and buyer's remorse, there was no cancelling the order.
Explaining the Ukulele to my husband was no easy task. He practically fell over, laughing 'till he cried, not hearing a word of my tenuous rationalization, one which involved my having read an article about a Hawaiian Ukulele factory in a hipster magazine, listened to Eddie Vedder's album, Ukulele Songs, and watched a handful of instructional YouTube videos. This multimedia exploration led to my nocturnal conviction that I had to trade in my guitar (gathering dust in the den) for a much smaller model before daybreak.
As an account planner it is my job to study human behavior. I am trained not only to understand how people behave but to understand why they do the crazy things that they do, to uncover human insights that become the heart of effective creative briefs. But I had yet to turn that analytical lens on myself. The Ukulele was an undeniable sign of trouble. But it took a true deus-ex-machina, something literally falling out of the sky to prompt the full Eureka.
A few weeks after I bought my Uke, I was driving to work in the midst of a winter snowstorm. As I crossed the Fore River Bridge on highway 3A, going 45mph in the fast lane, I heard an explosion, something hit my head and shards of glass and hail flew at my face from the shattered dashboard window. As I steered shakily to a halt, lucky that no one had rear-ended me, another driver stopped to see if I was ok and to tell me what she saw. A huge chunk of ice had fallen off the top of the bridge, flying down about six stories to hit my car, blowing out the windows on impact. Soon we were surrounded by the flashing lights of a fire engine, an ambulance and a police car. As the paramedics put me on a stretcher and loaded me into the ambulance, I snapped a few photos on my trusty iPhone, emailing them to the two colleagues I was meant to meet that morning along with a note explaining that I would not be in that day -- and that yes I did have a pretty good excuse.
I made the news and the car was totaled. I was a bit scratched up and extremely grateful that I was not seriously injured. But in the days that followed, I slept fitfully and drove nervously (especially after writing a big check to replace my 12-year-old car. No one seems to be liable for falling ice on bridges.) I also had trouble concentrating at work and struggled to care about what I was working on. Only then did I realize that it was time to make a change. I mean, what kind of idiot ignores a sign that literally falls from the sky?
So I resigned, from that job... and kept working with the agency for almost a year as a freelancer. Now I am Executive Vice President of absolutely nothing. But the freelance life matches my personality. I have always been a bit of an outsider. So being a professional hired gun just makes sense to me. I was happy to trade bonus checks for bonus time. And apparently I have terrible car karma. So I was happy to skip the commute.
Now I have the luxury of time to do good thinking for a handful of great clients. Sure I miss big agency resources and some of the smart, creative, funny people I used to see every day. Sometimes there are too many projects at once and no one down the hall to help. Other times, there a long lulls between projects.
But these days I am relishing the work-life balance and trying to live a simple drama-free life. I bought a kayak that I use almost every day, getting some fresh air between conference calls. I gave away all of the self-help books on happiness. But the Ukulele still sits in a chair in the bedroom, a funny reminder of a time when I almost lost my mind. Maybe one of these days I will actually learn how to play it.
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