life

Thoughts on "Next"

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The most common question asked since I started telling people I was leaving my job at the FDA is ... "What's next?" I revealed that I don't know what's next. I am not taking a sabbatical. I am not formally retiring. I am not leaving FDA for another job. While some immediately understood, a larger number of folks openly expressed, or poorly tried to hide, disbelief, befuddlement, or incredulity. It was as if saying "I don't have a plan" simply did not, or could not, compute and threw a lot of people for a loop. 

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Say what now?! How can you not have a plan?

At the risk of alienating some of you, I have say that I think a lot of people are obsessed with "next." As I shared in my piece

I Demoted Myself

, I think a lot of us suffer from tunnel vision when it comes to our lives and careers. So often, we are future planning. Planning and plotting sequential steps needed to get us from point A to point B, C, D, and beyond. Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think there's anything wrong with having goals and knowing what's needed to reach a desired target. I guess it's fair to say that I am searching for my "thing." Some might call that looking for what's next. *shrug* I call it mental and emotional freedom.What I'm really talking about when I talk of "next," is about moving through life looking well beyond what's in front of us. Primarily focused on what's over the horizon. Not to get all Eckhart Tolle on you, but many of us are ignoring the

Power of Now

. We might be happy now, but we think we'd be so much happier if we --> over there. To quote one of my favorite authors, Mark Nepo, "We're chasing there, but need to realize there is no there. There is only here. If you cannot see what you're looking for, see what's here. That is enough."What I've found in my life is that primarily focusing on the next job, the next pay raise, the next purchase, the next whatever, I wasn't fully present and appreciative of what I already have. I heard recently that whenever we count or compare we cannot be present. The only thing we have control over is our presence or absence. So, I made a decision to not be absent from my life -- right now -- and the ones I love.Funnily enough, it took some amount of planning to make the decision to leave my job and move into an undefined period without a plan. While the obvious is financial planning, most of the work to reach this point was more emotional/psychological. After going through a divorce that wiped me out financially, I became a bit of a squirrel with money. I saved with no clear plan other than I wanted to have a "just in case" safety net. Never did I think that I would rely on my frugality to support putting a 26-year career in my rearview mirror. Of course, it has to be said that support from my wife was essential. I don't know if I would have had the courage, motivation, given myself permission to create empty space without her encouragement.In the end, I made the decision to step away from the pursuit of next so that I might discover what excites, energizes, and sustains. That may lead me toward something to occupies some or a lot of my time. Whatever comes, comes; but I hope to reframe whatever I do less in terms of full-time or part-time, but merely putting my heart, effort, and time into something I love. As a father to a 23 year-old son, I also hope that my actions will offer him some encouragement and freedom to only reach for what stirs his heart and soul.

Be okay with not knowing for sure what might come next, but know that whatever it is, you will be okay.

Creating an Empty Space

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I first started work in the Commissioner's Office at the Food and Drug Administration in May 2005. In the fall of 2008 I moved to a position in the Center for Biologics Research and Review. I'm not a scientist, but I played one at work. Just kidding, I focused on congressional affairs at FDA. A couple of years ago I took a position at the Center for Tobacco Products within FDA. It was unquestionably an upward career move. A promotion. Greater responsibility. Greater visibility. A larger staff. Increased pay. By all accounts, moving into this position was making the best of it. Within a few months I was undeniably miserable. I left the position after eight months. After leaving that job, I returned to the same job I had before the promotion. I wrote more about that experience in a piece called "I Demoted Myself."

Being back at the old job was great. It was familiar and I had great support from the leadership of the office and a fantastic staff. Maybe this was the best of it. After about a year back in the old position, I decided to sign up for a 200-hour yoga teacher training. In my mind, the decision was purely personal. I wanted to improve my practice of yoga, and maybe offer some assistance to family and friends. About two months into the training (it was a program that met one weekend a month for eight months) I was moved by an experience in a class and decided that I wanted to teach. Not full-time, though. I completed that training, along with a second yoga teacher training, by June 2017. I secured the opportunity to teach two regular, weekly yoga classes. The teaching schedule worked well with my work schedule.

While this was going on last year, a position in my office, one step above me, was open. My boss had been promoted and was asked if I were interested in filling this position. I reflexively said yes and didn't think much about it after that. (The hiring process in federal government agencies can take forever.) Sometime last fall, the angst that didn't hit me when I turned 50 started to creep up. I wasn't sure that I wanted to take on the additional responsibility of the higher-level job, but I couldn't put my finger on why? Well...I could, but I wasn't willing to be honest about it. In the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year holiday, I did a lot of thinking and relied on my wife to help me put some shape to my thoughts and feelings. By the time my annual performance meeting rolled around at the end of January of this year, I had decided that my truth was that I was no longer interested in pursuing the promotion, and I was no longer interested in this job. It was again a moment of genuine honesty. More with myself than others. It was tough sharing this truth with my boss, who I adore. We both shed some tears during our discussion, but there was agreement and acknowledgement that this was my truth and a good thing

.A couple of months ago I had lunch with one of the senior leaders I worked under during the “promotion job” I'd left a couple of years ago. We talked about this and that, and I shared that I was planning to leave FDA for good. What was most illuminating about that conversation didn't hit me until much later. Unbeknownst at the time, it occurred to me that the decision to leave that job two years ago was really the beginning of me reaching this moment of clarity. Turning some mythical mid-life age -- 50 or whatever -- wasn't something that induced a crisis. Quite the contrary.

Instead of suffering from a Midlife Crisis...I am discovering Midlife Clarity.

Midlife clarity has less to do with accepting that life is short or without guarantees. Those truths are relatively easy to grasp. For me, midlife clarity is all about being true to my heart and finding comfort with no longer being willing to knuckle down to do a job I don't love or enjoy. Of course, I worked through the normal concerns of any middle-aged person -- mortgage, insurance, other obligations and benefits associated with a salaried job. I am not completely free-spirited, just yet. I spent months crunching numbers to see if it were feasible to have at least a year to step away from what I don't love in the hope that I could connect and get clarity about what fills my heart and brings me joy. Teaching yoga is definitely something that I enjoy, but I am not certain that it's something I want do full-time. In fact, part of this burgeoning midlife clarity is knowing that I want to move away from framing what I do as a full-time job or otherwise. I don't know if this resistance is something I've earned from toiling away at one type of work for almost 26 years, but I'm going to unapologetically assert ownership of my time and headspace.Thanks for reading. I will share more of my thoughts about midlife clarity in future posts, but for now I'll close with a quote by Dr. Rebecca Ray that really resonated with me.

 
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