The Call, The Clarity and The Compass

On the edge of transformation

December 1999. On a chilly morning I was sitting in my doctor’s surgery as she scribbled out a prescription for antidepressants.

It certainly wasn’t the outcome I thought my career would have. After nine years of organisational life, I had succumbed to the fact that my job was making me ill. The prescription was a sign. It was time to quit and work for myself.

We’ve all had moments like that when our trajectories shift. Whether we want them or not. And thus begins a journey of transformation. This particular incident that prompted a shift in direction for me was painful. But they’re not always instances of trauma or difficulty.

December 2014 and I was flying to Switzerland for the final stage in a job interview. The opportunity was coming at a good time — after 14 years going it alone I was tired of working for myself and hungry for change. As the plane touched down at Geneva airport, I looked out of the window. The vast lake with the mountains behind was stunning. I was excited. I thought, could this be my new home? I was on the verge of a new adventure.

When the call comes

January 2021 and I’ve just read a blog post by Jim Marsden — part of the team at the leadership and development firm Reboot. In his post published on the On Being site, Jim describes what happens when ‘the Call’ comes — that point in our life where a journey of transformation begins, just as it had for me in those examples above.

“This event occurs as if life, or our soul, is trying to reach out and grab our attention. It can arrive subtly… or it may come as a sudden event, unpredicted and possibly unwanted. In any case, the Call offers us an opportunity to lean into the unknown and to explore the unforeseen. It is a portal to adventure that lies ahead filled with opportunities …and the potential for a more fulfilling life yet to be lived.”

Reading Jim’s words has helped me look back over my career, and to confirm what I have believed, and lived by, for some time: that following You — making sure your choices are aligned with who you really are — is the path to that more fulfilling life.

A pizza and Peroni

Six weeks after that flight to Geneva I was sitting alone in a Pizza Express in the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford. I’d just delivered a guest lecture at the University of East London, and figured I deserved a late lunch of pizza and a beer.

It was the first presentation I’d done in a while. I’d got out of the habit and had lost my confidence, but doing this talk for a group of students brought it all back to me — how much I loved speaking on a stage. How much I enjoyed sharing my knowledge and expertise, and inspiring these young people to reach higher.

So, what happened to the job in Geneva? I’d been offered it, but turned it down. While it would have offered me security, I realised I wouldn’t have been able to bring all of me to the role. And that was a deal-breaker.

In many people’s eyes it might sound a crazy thing to do. I had very few projects lined-up; at that point in time, 2015 was pretty much a blank canvas. I rejected a life of certainty for one of uncertainty. I chose instead, ‘what the f**k am I going to do next month?’

And I had turned down a well-paying job for what? Well, on this particular Tuesday in February 2015 it was to deliver a guest lecture for a fee equivalent to a couple of Pizza Express lunches. The tutor apologised at the low fee but it didn’t bother me. I wasn’t doing it for the money after all.

So maybe some saw me as foolish. But not me. Because this speaking gig was another Call. It spoke to one of the most essential parts of me, my desire to lead and energise, something that had been lacking in my work life recently. Sitting there in Pizza Express I wrote in my notebook: “I loved it. I need to do more of this. Walking up and down, getting fired up, firing others up.” I knew I needed to overcome my speaking fears and launch myself back out into the world again.

The small speaking gig on a nondescript campus in east London won out over a role in a global organisation on the banks of Lake Geneva.

A barn in the west of Wales

“So, I wonder whether you wanted to come down and erm, do a talk?”

It was a typically understated phone call from the wonderfully down-to-earth David Hieatt, legendary entrepreneur and co-founder of The Do Lectures. An invitation to speak at the 2015 event that summer.

What do you want me to talk about? I asked.

“Tell a story you’ve never told before. Just be really open.”

It was a sunny Friday afternoon in June. In a former cowshed on David and his wife Clare’s farm, 120 people were waiting for me. With butterflies in my stomach I walked on stage, took a deep breath and told this story for the first time (‘Finding your purpose, your story and your compass’): about why I really quit my job in 1999, the doctors’ surgery anecdote included. It was a story of getting lost. And of finding myself again. I had never talked about that period of my life with such honesty before.

Telling that story changed something in me. Opening up and being truthful about the lows, being vulnerable and talking about overcoming those challenges tapped into something deep. Standing on stage that day was a game-changer. It peeled away the layers and revealed something of myself, not only to everyone there, but also to me. It was time for me to lead again. My path ahead was clear.

Setting my compass

Jim Marsden writes that when we experience, feel, or sense the sudden break in our own lives’ trajectories, that’s when we hear the Call.

“We’ve grown in self-awareness and are now on a discovery-oriented path with life, as we try to bring our new insights to life, seeing life anew from our new center of gravity.”

In that Do Lectures talk I had grounded myself, and in so doing had established my own centre of gravity. And that’s provided the clarity of where I’m headed.

It’s been six years since I disembarked that flight to Switzerland, before I walked into the east London lecture theatre, before I walked on stage in an old cowshed in Wales.

And the last six years have been about alignment, about being laser focused on really matters, and sticking to that path. Listening to those Calls and tuning in to their message. No matter what.

Now I’m on a journey where there’s still some uncertainty and instability in what’s coming next. But I have utter certainty in where I’m headed because I have the Calls as my compass, guiding me to my North Star.

Being in this new center of gravity comes with a revitalized sense for who we are… it also involves doing in ways that … are aligned with our new sense of identity. We’re pursuing a life well lived, having come through the journey of transformation,” writes Jim.

Looking back to reflect on the choices we make and why we make them helps us joins the dots — like a string of lights — between those Calls in our life.

Having come through my own journey of transformation, I have figured out the meaning of life, as it relates to me. The best way for me to thrive, do great work and be happy is this: to know what matters most in my life and live true to that. It’s about making the right choices every day. Tuning in to those Calls. Being and doing me, everyday.

Ian Sanders — Energising Teams. Lighting Sparks. Crafting Stories

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IanSanders

IanSanders

2.2K Followers

Sparking change through story. Energising people at work. Author of 365 Ways to Have a Good Day (out Nov 2021). Fuelled by coffee, curiosity, walking.