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Jessica's Career Journey

Jessica Manca, Certified Life Coach

How Jessica found her Passion

I felt like an impostor. I was lost, and I had lost touch with myself. Deep down I knew it was partly my own doing. How did I get here, and how could I get free? The circumstances at work and at home forced a conversation that I had long been avoiding. I didn't know how to ask myself what I really wanted for my life and career. I just knew this wasn't it.

My experience losing my way was so transformative that I had to write a book about what I went through. In the process of writing this book, I've had colleagues whisper, “Jessica, I had no idea this happened. I thought I was the only one.” One colleague said life had passed her by. Another said he had reached his limit and thought work would kill him.

I wrote this book to help others learn what they really want to accomplish in their careers. I remember how much energy I spent thinking about what to do before taking action. I know how dire it feels to want answers now. I know how constant stress can cloud your judgment and keep you feeling stuck.

I believe that you can live your ultimate future, and that the career crossroads you face is just a temporary hurdle.

Whatever brought you to this crossroads, trust me when I say you're not alone. In this book, I'll share everything I know to be true about resolving inner conflict and making lasting personal change. I'll reveal my innermost thoughts and expose information that I've never shared before. Through my courage to write these words, I hope that I can inspire you to follow my example and set yourself free.

I want to share how I found my Passion. It's because of this story, I'm able to reach you now.

The surprising event that got me here

I was at the top of my game. My consulting career was in hyper-drive. My experience had grown tenfold in the last several years as I worked on technology implementations with increased accountability. I had such a sense of belonging with other like-minded, high performers who delivered quality and value. Work was my identity.

I was rewarded well for my effort. Performance review feedback each year was outstanding and often tops within my level of the firm. There were substantial bonuses for outperforming my peers. I drank the corporate Kool-Aid and morphed into the ideal employee. Without a mid-career female role model similar to me, I developed an unrealistic picture of what I should be within the company.

In my experience working in IT, there aren't many examples of those who can sustain the pace of consulting work during the early years of starting a family. I did have two male mentors whose children were older and had a healthy work/life balance. The equivalent female mentor didn't exist in my office. Women typically move to part-time, step away for a few years, or dread that starting a family will make their career come to an screeching halt. I wanted to figure it out. Just as when taking on a complex project, I wanted to step up and show everyone that I could have both career and family.

When the time came to come back to work from twelve months of maternity leave in Canada, I didn't expect life to change much. I expected to get my next promotion to senior management rather quickly. Major miscalculation on my part. I forced an outcome without fully understanding the role my identity would play.

The most difficult experience of my career

Five months after returning to work, I was pleased things were running smoothly. My schedule calibrated into a new daily routine. My workweek was around forty hours per week, which was a nice pace. Still I felt guilty for the time lost while away. Others had gotten promoted in the meantime, and I felt behind.

My opportunity to catch up came when I was offered a role on a long-term project with a respected and relentless leadership team. Three partners asked me to do the firm a favor and fill the position. The role tested my ability to manage a very sizable contract. I remember thinking, this is the kind of opportunity that would test anyone to the limits. My competitive side gladly accepted the role.

Not only had I set the expectations that I liked challenging work, I arrogantly asked my leaders to push me to grow even further. I wanted to fully seize the opportunity in front of me. The challenge, the expectations, and the upcoming promotion created a perfect storm burnout. Within less than two weeks of being assigned to the project, I found my work was anything but smooth. I thought I thrived under high pressure. I began feeling very overwhelmed. I couldn't escape that feeling each day.

That early stage of burnout looked like this: I felt uneasy every day, unsure of what was important or a priority. I second-guessed myself. I was what I used to call beyond stressed. I was “crispy-fried.” My energy levels and focus were completely absent, and I couldn't manage my time anymore. I developed a shorter fuse, to put it nicely, and the smallest of things would set me off.

There was another change happening. I lost my ability to speak up. Careful not to draw attention to my feelings of inadequacy, I rarely shared my opinion. That was a big shift. I used to be an employee you could count on for speaking the truth and telling it like it is. My confidence was slipping.

It was a large workload and a project that required more like a fourteen-hour day, with occasional weekend work as well. Within such a short time, I felt as if I were weeks behind schedule. It was a constant feeling of catch-up to establish consistent team performance, quality controls and reporting to the degree that was expected. I was stuck in the fear that I needed to ask for help, but couldn't. Reaching out for help would have made me look as if I couldn't handle it.

The time I spent at work was taking a toll on my family. I leaned on my husband so much. I barely had energy left to spend quality time with either him or my son. There was no time, really, for my personal life other than eating and sleeping in order to gear up for the next day at work. This feeling went on for nearly nine months. My performance in the role kept unraveling me. I was dropping the ball all over the place. I butted heads with one peer in particular so often, that it felt as if I was at war.

All eyes were on me—the leadership, the team, and the younger women with whom I worked with closely were all watching me. Female colleagues would tell me that if anyone could make motherhood and a consulting career work while making the next level, I was the one to figure it out. I didn't have the courage to admit that this could end my career in consulting altogether.

Before I knew it, I stopped functioning and completely shut down.

Doing as instructed like a robot

I held my head up high, thinking I'd just try harder. Unsure if it it was just work/life balance, I went on autopilot. I did whatever was asked of me. Like a robot, I suppressed all feelings and intuition to get the work done. This horrible shell started to build around me, protecting me and hiding the fact that I was miserable. I was putting on the biggest show of my life.

I tried other things too. I tried saying no to new assignments, but then gave in to doing what I was told. I tried to delegate and leverage the skills of my team yet micromanaged capable team members. I was conflicted, and my actions showed it. I can see now how hard I used to be on myself. In my journal, my fear of being exposed showed through. “No mistakes,” I wrote.

The more I tried to resist the pressure, the more burned out I felt. In the past, it wasn't uncommon for me to experience burnout as a consultant, but the quick wins and short-term nature of the work would get me over that feeling quickly. I'd forget the pain and start the cycle again. In another entry I vented, “Extreme rage. 'K' volunteered me for something new...but feel really good overall. Getting on track, meeting deadlines. I like my job again.” As with a yo-yo diet, I was in a love-hate relationship with my job. “Long day. Trying to step up. I think I've been too lax on myself, and it's not working either,” I wrote.

Zombie-like numbness

I worked with one of my male mentors to discuss ways for finding balance, assuming this was just a passing phase. I recall saying that I wanted to harness my energy, and I felt scattered like I was pulled in too many different directions. He wanted to know my hobbies outside of work. I gave him a wide-eyed, blank stare.

I'm not supposed to be doing this,” I thought. I was tired of the charade. By month seven, I had drastically cut my hair short, and my stylist asked about the sudden change. He said that usually when people cut their hair, something major's happening in their life. It was a great question, but I stubbornly dismissed the comment. “How dare he assume he knows what I'm going through.

I felt broken, as my mental exhaustion turned into physical exhaustion. I was sluggish, gaining weight, and numbing myself with drinking daily. I no longer recognized the person I saw in the mirror. Worse, I would dream about work. The key players in the project would show up in my sleep when I was trying to rest from it all. I'd wake up exhausted with no desire to go into the office. Work was toxic to me, and I didn't understand how a job that had worked so well for me in the past could give me such an intense anxiety attack.

I've referred to my journal several times in recounting my story because even to this day, my mind protects me from these highly emotional experiences. Right before the annual performance review, I wrote, “I didn't act my best today. I just feel defeated. Nothing can save this other than to get away.

My feedback was much different that year. It was the first time that I didn't get high marks. I was warned I had almost received the mark “IPR” for Improved Performance Required. Human Resources spoke with me, and there was some talk of an action plan to get me back on track, although it was never determined what exactly that plan needed to be. Without a straight answer on what I could have done to improve, the feedback reinforced my belief that I was forever broken.

Mortified and devastated, I confided in my loving husband, who expressed how much this job was affecting the three of us. I was giving so much to work and leaving nothing for my family. I was a zombie of my former self, and I grew resentful of the burden of being a mother trying to keep up a career. I was so stressed out that I was starting to not care anymore, and it was getting scary.

I remember my husband saying, “Take ten seconds and tell me what you want to do.” I told him I wanted to move back west to where we'd met. I also knew in my heart I wanted to leave the company. This conversation cemented my commitment to freeing myself.

My turning point

We began planning our move west, and I began planning my departure from the firm. Once I admitted there was a big problem, I realized that I needed outside help to make it through the ordeal of telling my partners and deciding next steps.

I first hired a therapist who helped me cope with the situation I was still working in. She helped me to look back at what she called “triggers” while at work. We talked extensively about my emotions, replayed key events, and unpacked the parts of me that emerged while defending myself at work. Our goal was to understand the anxiety in a way that I could better self-manage in the future should the pattern come up again.

With each new piece of understanding and self-awareness, I began to smile more. I began to feel more myself in my own skin. Little sparks of the happy person I used to be would come out. There was much healing to do, the therapist and I worked together for several months on rebuilding my trust in myself to manage my actions. “I am my own light,” became my new motto meaning that I'm always there for myself no matter what.

As we completed our work together, I had learned how to cope and thought I needed help in figuring out what was next for my career. Working with someone who could provide an outside perspective moved me forward faster than I could move alone. Asking for help felt so good because I knew I was doing something about my situation and not playing a victim. Why didn't I ask for help before?

Proud that I was able to leave on good terms and move to a less intense project during my final weeks, I researched a professional certified coach in the Vancouver area. I wanted to find the answers about what people in this situation do with their careers. What were my options? What would make me happy?

Could I ever trust myself?

Trusting myself was the biggest shift I made in my thinking. I knew upfront that the project role was demanding and maybe more than I could handle. My actions and intentions helped create that toxic environment, and I made so many choices that made the situation awful. After the first coaching session, I felt capable of bouncing back to achieve even greater things in my life. I would be my own role model moving forward. Had I not gone through these experiences so intensely, I would still be in my corporate position, trying to make it fit my new lifestyle and wondering why I was working my life away.

The unlimited rewards of finding my Passion

During the process of figuring out what I wanted with the help of a coach, I found so much more. I found my Passion. I reunited with my true self again. I rediscovered the things that excited me. I felt happier, lighter. It was as if I had learned a little secret for getting unstuck, and just the thought of it made me smile. My husband said that I was reminding him of the person he met a decade ago.

A few other things changed as well. I found my voice again. My decision-making ability and confidence improved. My judgment was much less clouded by what others thought or by trying to say the “right” answer. I harnessed my energy toward what's important for me, not what was urgent for others. I started to live in alignment with my values on a daily basis. I started to be more present and alive when spending time with my family.

So when friends were surprised that we sold our dream house and moved cross-country without jobs, this leap of faith felt so right to me. I knew I'd land on my feet after I took that leap.

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