By Judy M. Ford
MY JOURNEY TO “Live YOUR Light!” – PART 1:
In 2007, on the heels of being ‘let go’ from my job of 4 years, I was offered a high-level senior leadership position in one of the nation’s largest national foundations with nearly a $500 million endowment – a career coup for any philanthropy professional; especially a black woman; especially a young black woman; and especially one who just experienced the shock and heartbreak of an unexpected and undeserved lay off.
The true value and meaning of an event is rarely what it appears to be – especially when the lens through which you’ve been encouraged to view that event is not your own. Let’s back track.
Over the course of my four years with that organization, I was promoted from senior program officer to associate director; I received annual ‘outstanding’ performance reviews; I represented the organization on the board of directors of national professional associations and funding collaboratives; the organization published press releases about my accomplishments; I had been chosen for a prestigious international leadership development program for mid-career leaders; and two months prior to being ‘let go’ I was awarded the highest available merit bonus for performance above and beyond. I was, by every accepted and traditional measure, a success!
One spring day, I received an email from one of the executive vice presidents asking me to meet with her. When I walked into her office she was there with the director of human resources. The executive vice president cried what seemed to me to be crocodile tears, and claimed that this was the hardest thing she had ever done: my position was being terminated in two weeks. The director of human resources pushed a separation agreement across the table, and I was told I should feel free to retain an attorney. They said it was not due to any cause on my part but that the organization was restructuring. Restructuring? Separation agreement? Attorneys? Termination? My mind was spinning. I felt ill, confused, shocked, angry. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to hit something – someone. I wanted the pain I was feeling to be felt by those I believed to be the cause of it. What I did manage to do was remain icily calm. I remember saying one thing, and one thing only: “Is there anything else?” There really was nothing else. I got up and I walked out.
My self (my feelings and perspectives about work, life, success, self-determination, value, purpose and fulfillment) – and my professional life – all changed forever after that meeting. In walking out, I not only walked out on that meeting and that organization, I also was taking my first steps in walking out on my habitual ways of being, on belief systems and paradigms that no longer served me personally or professionally. I didn’t realize it then, but getting up and walking out were my first steps on my journey to “Live YOUR Light!”
By the time the offer from one of the nation’s largest foundations came, that career coup I mentioned earlier, I was already a very different person. How did I feel about the ‘opportunity of a lifetime,’ about the ‘opportunity any black person in philanthropy would kill for,’ about the ‘opportunity that doesn’t come around for black people in this field very often?’ In a word: I didn’t want it! Or I should say, I didn’t want what I would have to give up in order to take it – my home, my life, my community, what I truly valued, my sense of place and being in the world. But the problem was, I didn’t yet know I had every right not to want what everyone else said I should want. I didn’t yet know my Soul was calling forth from me the courage to free myself to follow and live my own light. I had been broken wide open by the unexpected loss of a job well done, and made wiser because of it. No longer was I the eager, wide-eyed, ambitious, career/accomplishment-driven philanthropoid willing to do anything, go anywhere, give up anything for the next big position that would advance my career. No longer did I care about positions and titles and the perceptions of power they proffered because I now knew that that kind of power isn’t real; power is not real when it can be given or taken away by others. No longer was I naïve enough to believe that playing the game well can provide you with the job stability or the financial security you assume comes with your adherence to the rules.
So, what does one do when offered such a career coup, on the heels of such a heartbreaking professional experience, in the midst of all this new-found wisdom and paradigm shifting about the true nature of life and work? Well, you accept the position, of course!! You pack up your things. Lock up your home. Say goodbye to family and friends. And you move clear across to the other side of the country for that career coup. All the while, in your deepest being, you know this is not for you because this is just not who you are anymore.
……And exactly three weeks to the day you moved across the country, you find yourself back home kissing the living room floor having quit that career coup of a job, moved back home with no job and no real plan, but feeling lighter, happier, freer, more authentic and more rooted in your own power than you ever have before. Ready to redefine what ‘stability’ and ‘security’ mean, and to provide those for yourself in ways others can never again disrupt. And somehow, without anyone telling you; without any societally-approved, socially-imposed, external measures of success, without any need to seek anyone else’s approval or validation, you not only know you’re going to be ok, you know you are on the threshold of a life success greater than any career coup society has to offer.