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Filling the purpose bucket
Flashback to 2018: writing a letter to my career coach
Back in 2018, after a 6 month sabbatical from work, and after deciding I was going to leave Google, I wrote this letter to my coach, who had been working with me during 2017, and—as you'll be able to tell—was instrumental in helping me design a new life.
Looking back, it was one of the first essays that I sat down and wrote, and could be seen as a prototype for what The New Fatherhood would become, as well as influencing my own career path towards becoming a coach and working with dads across the world.
Hello from (a surprisingly sunny) England.
Last time we spoke I was over a year ago, when I was an hour down the 101, we were both in the Bay Area, for a quick check-in after our coaching engagement had finished.
To say I’ve been on a journey over the past two years is an understatement. Thinking back to when we met—randomly, in a mutual friend’s kitchen—I wasn’t exactly sure what the next step would be in my career. I was looking for guidance, and since you'd just finished your coaching training, you were looking for willing participants.
As you know, over the course of those 10 weeks (one hour, 3-4pm, every Monday) my perspective on the world was permanently altered. What started as career advice turned into something truly life-changing. I came out the other side transformed, with a fully-rounded approach to the different aspects of who I am: my family, my career, my side-projects and my good deeds. And I’m happy to let you know that was only the beginning.
In the weeks after we finished, I began to realise that I’d need to make changes to my life that were as significant externally as the internal change that had changed me so profoundly.
So my wife and I decided to take a career break. Padme is 4 now. She’ll be starting school soon, so we wanted to take advantage of this opportunity while we could. I told Google I wanted some time off, they offered 3 months, but said I’d have to find a new job when I came back.
So at the end of April, as our rental agreement finished, we packed up our house, gave back the keys, and got on a one-way flight to Tokyo. We didn’t have a proper plan, just a desire to spend time together in part of the world we’d always talked about. We spent a month riding the Shinkansen up and down the length of the country, before jumping on a flight to South Korea, and finishing it up with a month of true downtime in Bali.
It takes being away from the daily “fire drills” of a place like Google to get the headspace you need to really figure things out. Whilst away, we focused on ourselves — family, health, physical and mental well-being. During our month in Bali, we went to yoga every other day (one person stayed home with our daughter whilst the other went), ate tasty, healthy vegan food, and thanks to spotty internet, were voraciously consuming books.
I thought a lot about our conversations around purpose. How I had thought of it as a switch, that would be flicked on or off based on how fulfilled I was in my job. But together we realised that purpose was more like a bucket, and it could be filled from so many different places. And, in fact, that an extra 10% effort in filling it from “family” or “volunteering” could be more effective than trying an extra 100% effort to fill it from “work.”
During this time off, I’ve been “filling my purpose bucket”, and getting satisfaction from so many things that aren’t work: learning a language, writing a series of children’s books (true stories about famous animals throughout history); thinking about a non-fiction book about fatherhood; meditating; spending truly positive, non-stressful time with my wife, who I feel closer to after this time away that ever before; building an even better relationship with my daughter, as we spend everyday together rather than try to squeeze as much parenting as possible into weekends and two 45 minute slots every day; and getting fit and healthier.
(Quick side note on that one: When we were chatting, I was close to 200 pounds, the heaviest I’ve ever been, due to stress, unhappiness and “eating my feelings”. Now, I’m 165 pounds and have never felt better.)
Sometimes the smallest interactions can cascade, and with enough time, the right circumstances, and the right stimulus, lead to even bigger and bigger revelations, like that great YouTube video of a 5mm domino eventually knocking over one that’s over three feet tall. There were many moments during our engagement that I remember, but looking back, there was one that might have been the tiny domino that kicked all of this off.
Six weeks in, I mentioned looking on someone’s LinkedIn, and after letting me finish whatever rant I was on, you probed “that’s about the fourth time you’ve mentioned being on someone’s LinkedIn profile”. You asked me why I did it, and after some introspection I realised it was because I was constantly comparing where I am in my career with other people — peers, mentors, strangers. “He went to university the same time I did, and now he’s a VP of whatever” or “we were at the same level in our agency and now he’s the COO” …
You told me to stop — it wasn’t constructive, and actually would lead to more negative feelings that positive ones. It reminded me of something I’ve always believed — if only we could compare ourselves to those worse off than us, rather than better, then the entire world could be a much happier place. I’d started to forget that, and get trapped into the career (and some would say Silicon Valley) focused mindset of “I have to get ahead, I have to get promoted, gotta be the VP of something, gotta get a new job and get more money”.
At the same time, a friend recommended reading “Why Buddhism is True”. I’ve always considered myself a spiritual, if not religious person, and this attempted to explain Buddhism through the lens of modern psychology and philosophy. And lo and behold, this constant feeling of dissatisfaction I’d felt in my professional life was a problem as old as time. This book really helped cement a lot of the discussions we’ve had — that personal satisfaction starts from within, measuring yourself against others only leads to disappointment, powerful negative feelings can be managed by having the right outlook on life, and constantly seeking the next promotion / move / raise only leads to long-term discontentment.
As one domino knocks another, I was discussing some of these things with a Swedish friend, who told me about their concept of “Lagom”. It means “just enough”, and it’s etymology is from when Swedish Vikings used to drink together, and the tankard was passed “laget om”, or around the team, as each person drank enough for themselves, and no more. This word is the most accurate way of describing the Swedish mentality succinctly. People are happier, and more satisfied, as they work towards “enough” — a nice home, food on their family’s table, but not pushing for the biggest, the best, the most, “the Silicon Valley way”.
And to bring it all home, the apocryphal story about the mexican fisherman and the Harvard MBA, which I rediscovered in the “4 Hour Workweek” (reading in Bali whilst trying to figure out if this could help me rebalance work into the life of “enough” that we wanted to create).
You can see how these things dovetailed together. And whilst away from the crazy bustle that was San Francisco, the world of constant “more, better, faster” to a place like Bali, that everything started to crystalise. We wouldn’t be moving back to the Bay Area, to a place where it was so expensive to raise a family that we both had to kill ourselves working to cover our monthly costs. That would mean working just to earn enough Google stock that we could sell it immediately to send our daughter to a good school. And that we’d go live somewhere where we could be happier on less, where we’d live a happier life on a much smaller income, and that I’d work just enough to cover our costs.
It’s not hyperbole to say the guy you met in a kitchen in Woodside in early 2017 and the person I am today are worlds apart. Friends who’ve seen me recently almost didn’t recognise me, transformed inside and out. I often think of our meeting, a moment of serendipity in a cloud of fog (both metaphorical and literal, it was San Francisco after all) — I was on a career path, not satisfied with it, but just blindly sleepwalking on. And working together, you helped me understand that this wasn’t the path I wanted to be on, but the one that I felt I should be. So thank you for that. Thank you for helping me transform into a person who is grateful every day for the friends and family he has around him, that cultivates and nurtures those relationships and doesn’t take them for granted, that sees more of the beauty in the world rather than escaping into a social network, that now knows what in life is important, and what really, really isn’t.
In the interest of time, I’ve only shared the bookends, but there’s a whole slew of moments over the last year that brought me here. A morning sat on New York City rooftop watching the sun come up, when I knew I was finally ready to leave Google. A somewhat surreal 2 days in Disneyland with a colleague, and good friend, at a work conference that confirmed it was time to go. A number of coffees on the Embarcadero that helped me solidify my thinking by walking and talking with someone in a similar lifestage. A talk with a manager who, in as many words, said “the senior team think you shouldn’t be choosing your family over your career”. A friend in a similar company, in a similar position, that said we were both lucky to have the job that everyone wants, and realise in our mid-30s that it wasn’t the thing that we really wanted. A morning swimming with my daughter in Ubud, where I realised that a 9-5 for a big company wasn’t going to fit into our lives anymore.
So that’s where we’re at. That’s why, after almost a decade at Google, I’m saying goodbye to all those things that are the opposite of “enough” — a Bay Area life of earning more and having less than ever before, a performance review culture designed to overwork, demotivate and pit colleagues against each other, golden handcuffs that keep you unsatisfied but compensated in a way that makes you stick it out — and I’m going to go out on my own.
We’ve done the maths (I’m back in the UK, so that “s” is staying there) and realised we can live a comfortable life on a lot less work, with “enough” of everything we need. And I’ve figured out what I think is a really unique approach that I can bring that can solve really big pain points for clients and agencies alike, and something that I can own, do very well with, and will allow us to live the life we want, where work plays a "enough" of a role in it (maybe a conversation for another time, or another letter).
It might work, it might not. But as you once told me: “your career is something that’s yours, you built it, no one can take it away from you”. So I’ll always have my LinkedIn profile, that I no longer compare with everyone elses, to fall back on.
Thank you again,