I’d lost count of how often that nagging question ambushed me. As I did every workday, I charged down the narrow road to the highway to work, my brain on fire. Not with ideas and energy, but with a morbid calculation that had become routine. So routine that I’d even gone through my old college physics books to refresh my memory on kinetic energy.
As I eyed the thick, ancient trees lining the road, that question which had gripped my mind so often came up yet again:
“What’s the optimal speed to hit one of those trees, so I don’t kill myself but hurt myself enough to get a three-month break from work?”
I’d “made it” but my heart was crying
I was 32, had a six-figure salary running a $100 million sales department for the coolest IT company at the time, and 65 people working under me. Most people would say that I’d made it. And yet, here I was, considering self-harm as my only escape. Maybe I needed a break from work, not hospitalisation.
Except, I was already taking all the breaks the system allowed. That’s to say, 25 days of paid holidays, but never more than 2 weeks straight, where you spend the first few days fidgeting nervously while trying not to check your work emails on your phone every couple of minutes, and the last few days with a creeping sense of nausea at the thought of going back to the office.
Sandwiched in-between are those fleeting, euphoric moments where you tell yourself, “Screw slaving away as a corporate drone, let’s sell all our things, move here and open a bed and breakfast.” I’m pretty sure I said some version of those words at least once every vacation I took.
To be fair, though, work wasn’t all bad. The best parts of my job involved collaborating closely with my team members, engaging with them and challenging them to overcome their fears, nudging them in the right direction, and seeing them grow and prosper as individuals. That energised me, making me feel like I was doing something worthwhile. But such moments were very rare. My reporting requirements kept me buried under spreadsheets for days, pushing numbers up the command chain so the top management could further “motivate” my department with targets, metrics, and benchmarks.
The other problem was that I’d chosen to be there. No one was forcing me. And yet, I felt like a hamster on a wheel, always running but going nowhere.
Every workday, I left my heart at home and replaced it with my laptop. From 8 a.m. till 7 p.m., I was busy with tasks, responsibilities, and obligations that meant little to me. Days, weeks, and months disappeared in a hazy blur of repetitive motion. It was making me sick to my stomach. But I’d no idea how to get myself off the wheel without throwing myself off and crashing into a tree. And the wheel was just spinning faster and faster.
I needed something to happen. To dig deep, close my eyes, and jump off that wheel.
So, I did. I jumped. And I didn’t crash into a tree or anything else. In fact, I landed on my feet. But nothing turned out as I expected or planned.
An interlude with lasting impact
This journey had started many years before, back in my last year of business school in my native Sweden.
As both my parents were teachers, an academic path was always a given. Not even discussed, never questioned. From the start, I’d bought into society’s prevailing narrative of success: study hard, get good grades, land a good job, get a mortgage, and save for retirement. The whole enchilada.
My strongest motivation to do anything different was simply to leave Sweden and see the world. I don’t know where it came from, but I’ve always had this urge to see more, experience more. Anything that allowed me to do that while checking all the boxes in my life plan suited me just fine. If I had any sense of purpose, it was merely to get out — and fast.
But then, in the year of completing my bachelor’s degree, I struggled with some exams. It felt like I’d failed myself, and for the first time, I began questioning whose dreams I was trying to fulfil. Was it really me who wanted to do this, or just what I thought society expected of me? What about my upbringing caused me to expect this of myself?
These questions and the sense of failure led me to take a sabbatical and go to guitar school for a year.
Yep, you heard right. Guitar school.
I moved to London and started at the Guitar Institute of Technology. To say I was the odd man out and that I didn’t fit the guitar school mold would be an understatement. For one, I was probably one of a few students who’d completed high school. I was also probably the only one not to spend every waking moment in my room practicing scales. The other thing I didn’t share with my classmates was talent. They had it in spades, whereas I … well, I enjoyed playing guitar. So, I accepted that I’d never be a rock star and moved on.
But it did me good to be in an environment so unlike the one in which I’d spent my entire life, and to encounter backgrounds and dreams that were so different from my own. And it planted some seeds that wouldn’t blossom for another two decades. But, at the time, it didn’t really change anything.
I finished my sabbatical at guitar school and then had a free semester until my last year of business school. With nothing else to do and thinking it might be fun, I accepted an offer from a colleague of my parents to substitute teach international trade and accounting at a high school.
The two-week stint turned into a month, which turned into the entire semester.
It was my first taste of teaching — the first time I felt the excitement of seeing a student get something and grasp things from a new perspective — and I liked it. Indeed, were it not for the lack of career progression and the fear of getting stuck in Sweden, I’d have liked to be a teacher. But my ambitions were bigger and I returned to University to do my master’s degree, with no real change in my own perspective. If anything, my semester in guitar school and my semester teaching were mere interludes in my planned trajectory, opportunities to take a break, nothing more.
Quitting a guaranteed career
The questions I’d started to ask myself before starting guitar school had drifted away and then disappeared altogether. Rather than following any purpose in my life, I was following a plan. And that stayed the same as before: good school, good job, good retirement. Any sense of inner purpose remained out of sight and out of mind. And so, in 1998, I graduated from business school and landed in the management trainee program at a large, Scandinavian consumer goods conglomerate.
My life plan entailed climbing the career ladder and creating a comfortable spot for myself in the world. But, as I mentioned, one constant factor that didn’t fully fit with this plan was my desire to get out and see more of that world. So, when the management trainee program ended, I left that guaranteed career path and took a job in Amsterdam, at the IT firm, where I’d eventually find myself driving to work dreaming of crashing my car into a tree.
But everything had started out well. I worked in sales. We had a great, young pan-European team, all with similar life ambitions, and everything buzzed with energy. Soon my career took off and within a few years, I was running that $100-million-dollar sales department. I’d even won an award for best account manager in Europe and found myself on stage in the U.S. with the global CEO and other important people. I thought I was having the time of my life.
Except I wasn’t.
I was working hard, putting in hellishly long hours building and expanding my team while telling myself that all the hard work would pay off in the future — when I’d be a global CEO. When I’d made it to the top. My trajectory was taking me there and then I’d get my reward.
Except, my colleagues at the pan-European level didn’t remotely inspire me. The place where they’d worked themselves toward didn’t seem a happy one. And the place where they’d reached in their lives — working incessantly and neglecting their families and their dreams — didn’t inspire me either. And I felt like I was joining them in the same uninspiring place.
From the outside, of course, I‘d made it. I’d left my little hometown. I had a good education. I traveled, I was living abroad, working for a great IT company, earning good money. I was starting to become a bigwig. I had a wife, whom I loved. We had a daughter, whom we adored. Everything should have been perfect. But on the inside, my heart was crying — though I didn’t know yet for what.
And once again, those thoughts that had led me to guitar school started to creep up on me.
“Was this it?” I wondered. “Was this all there was to life? Was this what I was working so hard to achieve? Whose dream is this, anyway?”
My workload at this point was crushing me. An iron yoke pulling me along and dragging me down as the invisible hand of my plans whipped me relentlessly forward. Meanwhile, around me, my colleagues were smiling and laughing, giving each other high fives. I thought to myself: ”Am I the only one struggling here? Am I not cut out for this? Am I not good enough?”
I couldn’t accept that, and so I worked myself harder and harder. It got to the point where, on the last day of my 2005 summer holidays, I was sitting in my parents’ garden, talking to my father and lamenting that I had to get back to the office on Monday.
I wanted an escape. A way out. At the very least a break. But the birth of my daughter and having a new family to support didn’t allow me the luxury of another sabbatical. That autumn I started contemplating those trees on the road to work, thinking about ending up in the hospital and finally throwing off the yoke of work, at least for a while.
Escape, lawsuit, and vodka
I mentioned initially that my career path didn’t end up as I expected. I’m a thoughtful, careful and sensible man by nature and not given to rash behaviour. So, I quit the IT firm, but not with a bang. Instead, after a few more months of grinding away, a friend suggested that we both jump off at the same time and set up an IT management consultancy, which we did once we’d secured our first client.
Initially, being an entrepreneur thrilled me, and in the first 18 months, we secured a couple of big-name accounts and hired six consultants. But my heart wasn’t in it. My business partner was, and is, a highly driven and successful entrepreneur and passionate about building businesses regardless of the sector. But for me, now in retrospect, the project was more of a means of escaping corporate employment than a way into something inspiring.
On top of all this, my relationship had become strained and I was beating myself up for putting us in this situation. Leaving corporate to set out on my own, I had pulled my wife away from her exciting career and an environment with lots of friends and put her in an apartment in a new country, with a language she didn’t know, without friends or family around, taking care of our baby daughter while I was away all day “entrepreneuring” without bringing home much money.
Then 18 months into my adventure as an entrepreneur, the thing I treasured the most, my marriage, was falling apart, a major client refused to pay us, and we ended up in a legal battle facing all of our work leaving us with empty hands.
After three sleepless months, the client finally owned up to what was right. But my wife and I decided we needed a fresh start to heal ourselves and our marriage, we decided to move to Prague, my wife’s home town. I exited the business I had helped to build.
To cut to the chase, I got a consulting contract back at, of all places, the IT company in Amsterdam. That carried us through the relocation and starting anew in Prague. Then the financial crisis hit in 2008, and only a few months after I’d started, my contract was canceled.
After six months of unemployment, I took a strategy job at a telecom company in Prague. Not long after, I felt the familiar stress building up in me again. Soon, I found myself stopping by the corner shop on the way home to down an airplane bottle of vodka as a way to decompress, and then going through a pack of chewing gum so my wife wouldn’t notice.
Unfortunately, the vodka was followed by a bottle of wine at home and this became a habit, day after day, week after week, month after month. Things, as I said, weren’t turning out as I’d expected, and I found myself back on the same hamster wheel, the same worn path I’d been on for most of my life, this time with the added weight of too much alcohol and some extra years pushing me down.
It was then that I promised myself that I’d quit the corporate world for good by 40, only four years out. But how to do that? As I said, I’m a sensible, rational person.
My escape route first emerged while doing consultancy for the IT firm I had worked for in Amsterdam, to which I owe a huge debt for teaching me a lot, for building my resume and for helping me finally leave corporate employment.
One of my assignments there had been to coach and mentor junior sales managers, and I’d quickly discovered a deep pleasure from helping people. It reminded me of my semester of teaching at the high school.
Now, some years later and once again finding myself utterly worn out, it seemed like coaching could be a way for me to heal, and maybe even a way of jumping off the corporate treadmill. I’d finally found some meaning beyond working for the idea of a more fulfilling future.
The first steps to explore purpose
My lucky break came, once again, from the very corporate world from which I was trying to escape when a global networking company offered me a position. The job was actually a breath of fresh air — this was a smaller, younger, more vibrant company without all the stifling bureaucracy — but the bitter taste of my time at the telecom company remained.
I hadn’t forgotten my promise to quit the corporate world by the time I hit 40. Yet, as the sensible man I am, I realised this might be financially challenging, so I decided to seriously explore coaching and get my professional coaching accreditation. It would thus be something to keep me sane should I be too afraid to honor my promise and quit.
So, for the next year, twice a week, I’d get up to have a virtual training session with an Asian coach training company between 5:30 and 7:30 in the morning, then wake my family and start my workday.
And what an amazing experience it proved to be. As much as I was learning about how to coach others, my mentor took me on a journey to explore who I was, digging deep into my motivations and fears, helping me hold conversations with that little devil perched on my shoulder, who kept whispering in my ear: “You can’t do this. You’re not good enough. People will laugh at you,” and more.
I found the tools to work with all the symptoms I’d had of something being not quite right. The questions about whose dreams I was pursuing, the feeling of failing at the IT firm, and the conflict that had raged inside me for so long — and still was.
These factors, combined with an interest in Buddhist philosophy and meditation, which had been growing inside me, prompted me to join a small Buddhist community for regular meditations. Conversations with a Buddhist priest helped me by grounding myself in who I am, and I started to think in terms of my purpose for the first time in my life.
Simultaneously, from the conversations I was having with friends and colleagues, I realised that I had quite a lot to offer other people. And so, what had for so long been a fog of poorly defined and fleeting ideas scrambling in my mind became a clear vision of wanting to use my experience to help people overcome the challenges that I’d had, to reconnect them with who they truly are and create a path towards living it.
Except, I had no idea how to make that happen.
Walking in the light of purpose
That answer came in the form of my coaching accreditation, which gave me the confidence to start working with clients. Eventually, this led to partnering with Oxford Leadership, and in turn, opportunities to go into large companies and work with leadership development until, a few years past my 40th birthday, I left corporate employment behind to dedicate myself full-time to explore my passion and purpose.
It was such a relief: the dissonance between the life I had been living and the life I wanted to live had become so strong that the consequent pain had become unbearable.
In doing so, I finally feel that I am, if not yet fully expressing my purpose, at least walking in the light of it. And on my path to here, the corporate years served me well; I wouldn’t be able to do what I do now without them.
I’m also grateful for all the role models of the life I don’t want to live that I’ve met over the years. They have unknowingly pushed me to explore my path to avoid my biggest fear in life — ending up as a grumpy old man, bitter for never really having lived.
And please don’t get me wrong: walking in purpose doesn’t make life easier, but I find that it does make it simpler. I see my way forward, and even if the exact path is unknown to me, my heart is in discovering and exploring it.
Reflecting on my inner journey, I now have a sense of coming home to who I am. I can now show up 100% as me, no longer feeling that I must assume roles to fit in, or withhold parts of me, like I often felt back in corporate.
My current understanding of my purpose is to help create a sustainable and inclusive world, one conversation at a time.
At the centre of this lays nudging people towards new perspectives of themselves and their world, facilitating integration of their Self and unlocking courage to be who they deep inside know they could be.
This could mean inviting a single person to explore and own their shadow sides, to uncover motivation in their heart rather than from outside expectations, or to be more conscious of what they support with their spending.
Or it could mean working with a room full of corporate leaders on how to pursue a purpose beyond profit and have a sustainable and inclusive impact on the communities their business touches.
Whether with one or many, it’s one conversation at a time. A conversation that’s taken me half my life to finally have — first with myself and now with others.
May you also walk in the light of your purpose.
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An earlier edition of this text was first published as one chapter in a book about purpose written by consultants in Oxford Leadership community. 22 authentic and bold stories — some you may relate to while others you may not. Perhaps some of the stories will inspire you to reflect in ways that are surprising. It’s all welcomed because our intention was to move you through the sharing of our individual personal stories — regardless of the direction it takes you. More about the book here.
The title of this story is borrowed from Ethan Nichtern’s book ‘The Road Home’. A fantastic book that has had profound impact on how I relate to myself and my world. Thank you Ethan.