Everyone has a talent. What is rare, is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads – Erica Jong
It’s 2003. I’m pregnant with my first child and my IT project manager husband is made redundant.
I was working in London for a global consumer goods company at the time, loving my job doing really interesting work in M&A and strategy, travelling all over the world. Upon returning to work from maternity leave, we decided that I’d be the breadwinner whilst he'd be an at-home dad (a rare thing at the time), and fulfil his dream of studying History of Art at university. With hindsight I feel grateful for these circumstances: they prevented me from experiencing working mum guilt or having to make choices regarding part time or flexible work - I just ploughed on with a career I loved.
I became more senior, my husband returned to his career in IT when our youngest started school and the trade-offs started to became less palatable. The hours got longer and I hated the short-term focus of the work – it felt like there was no time to breathe or think. The corporate world began to feel confining and I knew I wasn’t contributing fully. But doing something more purposeful, more aligned with who I am, was just a pipe-dream; maybe something I’d do in my 50s. Anyway I only had one way to measure success and that was by how high I could climb the ladder (which I measured, along with remuneration progression and expectation, on an Excel spreadsheet).
In 2011 I reached a career milestone when I left London to return to Scotland to head up the Investor Relations and Communications function of a company which had been newly-promoted into the FTSE100. Two pivotal things happened that year: firstly I found the 7 Habits workbook I’d completed in 2002. Doing Franklin Covey's “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” had a big impact on me: it inspired me to consider more consciously how I wanted to live my life. Reading that workbook years later gave me a real jolt – how little of the principles I’d truly assimilated into my life. The dreams I’d written of were about who I was relative to others – wife / daughter / friend / potential mother. I was nowhere to be found.
Then my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer and with her in London, me in Scotland and work very full-on, I felt like I was failing her and my dad by not being there. Circumstances transpired to allow me to leave that company with a package, which was very stressful, but a friend’s advice “see things as happening for you and not to you” became my mantra. I spent time with my mum before she died and had some space to start thinking about who I was and what I was all about.
In 2013 I joined a UK retailer as finance director, working for an ex-colleague from the global consumer goods company, and this was when I started to be more assertive about staking a claim for me in my career: I negotiated 11 weeks holiday a year and worked two days a week from home, three in the office a few hundred miles away, allowing me more flexibility to manage family life. I also intended to invest more time in myself and potential re-training, although I was vague about what that might be.
That year, I led the department's thinking on our purpose and designed a three-day leadership programme for the top fifty, bringing in two experts in transformational change. I loved everything about doing this. I'd found my thing - creating the conditions for people to connect to what makes them feel truly alive at work. The three of us started kicking around some ideas for a business together. Shortly after, my boss moved on, my new boss wasn’t a fan, the function was restructured and I knew the universe was asking me: “if not now, when?!”
So, I invested in re-training and became certified with Nancy Kline in Time to Think, a technique based on “listening to ignite the human mind”. I’m an NLP practitioner (and a H-for-humanistic NLP practitioner) and I’m certified to deliver a tool that takes a company’s values and measures the level of “cultural entropy” in an organisation. I found David Drake's Narrative Coaching, and pulled all of my experience together into an approach to helping people in business consider the fundamentals of what makes them come alive in their work. I call this Be Your Own Story.
Ok, this story is bullshit. It's what I call the "CV version”. What's the real story?
It’s 2003. I’m in intensive care as a result of complications after the birth of my first child.
At thirty-five weeks I was hospitalised with pre-eclampsia. At thirty-seven weeks I was induced. Warrior that I was, I rejected pain-relief. Forceps. Just a little episiotomy. Wow. Who knew I would make a boy-baby? Placenta. Piece of cake. That's not right. I feel like someone's taking an axe to me. Mmmm. Doors flying just like on ER. Mmmmmm. You look like George Clooney. Are you George Clooney?
Later we were told I had lived thanks to the quick actions of a doctor who had seen an inverted uterus once in her native Pakistan. I had also lived thanks to the fact that, having had no pain relief, my screaming caught the attention of the medical staff. Luckily, I was also very fit, having ran the Berlin marathon the year before. The surgeon put my uterus back. Manually. The anaesthetist was cute, but no George Clooney.
Six-days: we shopped in Baby Gap.
Six-weeks: sobbing with exhaustion, we went to the GP (I took just one of the anti-depressants she prescribed, throwing the rest in the bin.) I called the cavalcade; my parents stayed for two weeks.
Seven-weeks: gave up breast-feeding, saving a fortune on Lansinoh and cabbages. The baby stopped looking like a vampire.
Ten-weeks: mastitis gone, I created an excel spreadsheet to assess the pluses and minuses of the assignments I'd been offered. Plant finance manager, global Beautycare or back into the UK business?
Six-months: back where I belonged. Leaning in, but now living life (and distributing advice) with the irritating zeal of someone who’d had a wake up call.
In 2007, a psychologist tasked with assessing me for a job described my empathy as “off the scale”. As a result she had to do more to test my robustness, which she discovered was also very high. Robust, yes, I was a fucking warrior, but empathic? That meant thoughtful, sensitive, compassionate didn't it?
Anyway, what did she know? I already knew myself deeply. I was the product of a global company that relentlessly developed its people – I was an ENTP (borderline J), I knew my Herrmann Whole Brain profile, my Signature profile, my Gallup strengths, my PRISM colours. I followed habits one to seven, ran leadership programmes and new hire colleges and Learning & Development for the UK. I threw myself into the bi-annual appraisal process, gleefully harvesting every opportunity for personal growth.
In 2008 my husband phoned to tell me my mother had taken an overdose.
That this was the catalyst for the wheels to properly come off my life was a surprise. That day I’d walked calmly out the office, caught a taxi to the hospital and tracked down my dad working in Ethiopia. Landing in London the next morning, he scooped up my broken mother and I fled back to the Mayfair office where I was busy doing important work.
That I might have unravelled at some point should not really have come as any surprise. As an undergraduate studying English Literature I fell in love with women on the edge: Bronte’s Cathy Earnshaw, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. “The Trick is to Keep Breathing”? Yes, it is Janice. I devoured the thinking of Jacques Derrida and Lacan, Roland Barthes, Toril Moi and Helene Cixous. My dissertation was titled “A Psychoanalytic Perspective on the Work of Toni Morrison”.
Naturally, I then became an accountant. Just like my dad.
French psychoanalytic feminist theory wasn’t taught at the school I attended in the 1980s. “Forries” was no place for an aspiring post-structuralist existentialist feminist, as clearly that would have made her a snob and / or a lesbian.
I chose instead to be a truant. School was tedious, often dangerous and I spent hours outside the classroom in corridors or washing dishes in the staff room for serious transgressions such as not paying attention or giggling with Sarah. The only class I enjoyed was maths because it was taken by a teacher who sang David Bowie songs. And he’d played football with my dad – there was a photo of the team framed behind his desk. Bob was cool.
However, I went right off him the day I told him I’d been absent the previous week because my mother had been sectioned under the mental health act following a diagnosis of acute paranoid psychosis. His face told me that the subject of my mother’s unravellment was not one I should speak of again.
And so I didn’t.
Of course, I unraveled discretely, making sure almost no-one noticed. Nevertheless it was a very painful time for me; I began to question everything; I felt too much, and not enough; I felt painfully self-conscious; there was an endless conversation in my head; I felt anxious and had panic attacks. I stayed out late and drank too much. My marriage was on a shaky nail. And as I unravelled, I worried that genetics meant there was only one way this would end for me.
I read Victoria Coren's book For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair With Poker, a very honest, funny and moving book charting her journey from playing poker as a teenager with her brother Giles, to making history by becoming the first woman ever to win a European Poker Tour main event in 2006.
However just a year earlier, she had lain on the bed of her Vegas hotel for a long time musing that “the thought of waking up tomorrow, and the next, makes me feel tired and sad”. Having been diagnosed as clinically depressed, she was heartbroken following the end of a love affair. To top it all she’d just gambled (and lost) all three of her emergency envelopes of cash and her increased overdraft. She wonders if it is possible to rub herself out and start again. I was not alone.
Bat-shit bonkers as I felt on the inside, the story I presented to the world was a highly-functioning, red-soled, and swishy-blo-dried one. In 2010, I was on the front page of The Financial Times, courtesy of an innovation related to how equity analysts' forecasted earnings contributed to a company's consensus earnings estimate. Handy timing too, as the article appeared the day I was interviewed to head up the Investor Relations and Communications function at a company which had been newly promoted into the FTSE100.
In 2012, I left the FTSE100 company, exhausted, but with a compromise agreement in hand, allowing me a bit of breathing space to spend time with my mum, who was terminally ill with cancer. In 2013 I joined a UK retailer as finance director. In 2014 I left the UK retailer, exhausted, but with six-months gardening leave and, discerning a pattern, with an idea to work with two experts in transformational change to pursue my thing.
I hired a coach, Cynthia Morris of Original Impulse to "become creative" (aka someone who could design a logo). It was Cynthia who said writing would be a key way I would bring my work to the world - I'd "forgotten" I'd studied English Literature at university. Not forgotten of course, it was on my CV, but after years of writing jargon-riddled business gobbledegook, I'd become disconnected from what I'd loved about my undergraduate studies: writing for the sheer joy of it.
And so began the long, slow process of re-connecting to that literature-loving, post-structuralist, existentialist, feminist girl. I read and read and read and read….and then connecting the dots as I went, I read some more. Returning to my undergraduate days, I read and made notes and wrote them all up, until I felt I’d sufficiently answered the question: “Victoria Ferrier: What the f**k?”.