A journey from the outside in

Funny how you can happily build a successful career over 20+ years in a top class organisation and then, when you stop doing doing doing, you come unstuck.

Joining the Royal Navy straight from university seemed like an obvious step. As a linguist with a thirst for travel, I was looking for opportunity and adventure. I launched myself into Service life, embraced the ethos and worked hard for 23 years until I reached the rank of Commander and became the first working mother the Navy had known.

And then, with a sense that there was something else I wanted to do but with no clear idea of what that was, I decided to leave. It felt like another obvious step.

I hadn’t foreseen that it was actually a huge step into a purposeless void.

After a year of painful reflection, I realised that I’d been so committed to my work, so absorbed by its clear, collaborative purpose, that my work had become my identity. When I moved on, it felt as though I was leaving an essential part of me behind. I had come unstuck.
So before I could figure out “what next?”, I had to answer “who am I?”

I wrestled with this question for a long time. I martialled my strengths, my weaknesses, my skills and my experience. I created a compelling CV and landed a great job as the first business manager of a rapidly expanding international school in Kyiv, Ukraine. Yet again I threw myself into the sense of purpose that this provided. In one year I and my Ukrainian team of 60 battled through the challenges of creating a stable platform from which the school could function and grow.

More doing, more achieving, more observable success. But still no real answer to my question “who am I ?”

A turning point was discovering the writing of Thich Nhat Hanh. On my first mindfulness retreat at Plum Village, there was a lightbulb moment when I realised that I’d been chasing ‘out there’, instead of looking ‘in here’ — to the voice within me that had the answer all along.

I learned how to be still. I learned how to connect with my breath and follow its gentle flow in and out of my body. I learned how to observe my random thoughts with curiosity rather than judgement. I learned how to be truly present and aware, to accept and be grateful for what is. I learned how to create the space in my everyday life to tune into what really matters.

With practice, patience and time, my purpose became clearer. The work I now do as a coach is to help leaders make sense of themselves, find the deeper meaning in their work and enable success and wellbeing for themselves and others. In this way I contribute to a more compassionate, enlightened world.

In helping others, I know I am helping myself. And with what I call ‘mindful command’ (more on that another time), I am able to sustain this through its inevitable cycle of dark and light.

Want to know more? Check out my website

This blog is adapted from a talk I gave for purpose-driven entrepreneurs at this year’s Happy Startup Summercamp