I used to have a big job at a big agency. It was one of the best in the country, a place that hired smart people, represented big brands and did great work. I was thrilled when they hired me. But I worked a lot. And I worried even more - about a lot of things – like new business pitches, client ultimatums, managing a team without burning people out, corporate politics, email avalanches and with the remaining 2% of my time, 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 receiving and answering emails at 2 and 3 am. 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), visits to a Spa 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 am after almost a bottle of pinot grigio. Of course I bought it on Amazon, selecting the perfect model, a Lanikai Tenor Ukelele LU-ZIT, after reading a series of convincing reviews like this one from Berndt H. Griner, “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 somehow 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 clearly and urgently to my late night conviction that I had to trade in my guitar (gathering dust in the living room) 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 okay and to tell me what she saw. A huge chunk of ice had fallen off the top of the bridge, flying down about 6 stories to hit my car, blowing out the windows on impact. Soon we were encircled by the flashing lights of the emergency trifecta: fire engine, ambulance and police car. As the paramedics put me on a stretcher (a precaution) and loaded me into the ambulance, I snapped a few photos on my trusty iPhone, emailing them to the 2 account directors 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. Five hours later my 72-year-old father picked me up from the emergency room.
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 as 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 was given the opportunity to keep working with the agency as a freelancer on one of the big accounts, which was an amazing on-ramp to a new life. 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 as well.
Now I have the luxury of time to do good thinking for a handful of great clients. I get to do more of the kind of work that made me want to become a planner in the first place. My client list includes: Arnold Worldwide, Havas Worldwide, Odysseus Arms (in my favorite city, San Francisco), Toth + Co, Communispace, a few amazing nonprofits and a few agencies that are just starting to form. 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, the lulls between projects feel too long.
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