For 11 years I worked to build a non-profit organization in service to helping immigrant and refugee women start their own businesses. They faced systemic challenges in getting their businesses up and running - mostly due to language and economic barriers. In 2010, I took a sabbatical from my organization to recover from burnout, and to figure out what was next for me. I took a break from the everyday hustle and bustle of fundraising life and burning the candle at both ends. I was relatively free of stress during my sabbatical; it gave me the opportunity to really experience life in a way I had never been able to in my adult career, and to really realign my passions with my work.
What became clear to me was my commitment and support to women’s empowerment. I also valued freedom and independence greatly. (Yes, I was the type of kid who would look at our shed outside my suburban NJ home and wish I could live in it by myself.) I wanted to empower and work with women, regardless of whether or not they were immigrants. When I came back from sabbatical, I realized my lie was that deep inside, I believed I was not the one who should be running this organization. Somewhere in me I felt that it should be led by the people it sought to serve – by fellow immigrant women in the community. Only they really knew and understood their circumstances and challenges and could organize and represent themselves in a way where they shared power and were the ones making change; not in a model where they were receiving “charity”.
We had developed an innovative curriculum in the process, and I believed that could be spearheaded independently of the organization, by a motivated entrepreneur who could build it to its next level. At first, I thought that entrepreneur was me. Upon further reflection, the thought of raising capital and driving forward another start-up, which would take everything I had in me, made me cringe.
This realization only came to me after stepping away from what I was doing, and giving myself a break. I actually had no idea about the amount of financial stress I had been under all those years to run the organization. Don’t get me wrong; we did AWESOME work. The team was even more AWESOME, and our clients – amazing.
When I started working with low-income women entrepreneurs and was thinking of starting the organization, the focus on immigrant women initially came from the suggestion of an early donor, who herself was an immigrant. With that suggestion came a donation. She hadn’t seen anything substantial being done for the community in this way. In some way, it had felt as if I had been partially carrying someone else’s agenda all these years, and not one in which I felt my full authenticity. There were elements I felt I owned, but in the spirit of a non-profit, at the end of the day, I worked on behalf of the interests of donors and institutional funders. I never felt stuck, per se. The year upon returning from my sabbatical, I knew it was time for a change. I knew what my “lie” was and what the right decision for the organization was.
Getting clear with myself on what I really wanted to do was key. It took time and space to figure this out. But when I figured it out, everything seemed to flow like a river. No more getting sick. No more stress. No more feeling like I was pushing a boulder up a hill. I could just flow, knowing I was set forth on a path to live my truth. That truth was to work deeply one-on-one with successful women and leaders, in service to their personal and professional transformations, and to guide them to use their success toward making positive social impact on individuals and the planet. Whereas all these years I had dedicated myself to working on behalf of women with few resources, I knew my calling was to somehow work with women who had resources, in service to adding value to the planet.
Sometimes we do good work, and it is not exactly the path that we know will most fulfill us. Sometimes we do work that sucks the life out of us. It’s what Greg Levoy, author of Callings calls a parallel path. It’s like the dancer who becomes the dance critic, or the novelist who instead ends up in journalism. Don’t get me wrong - sometimes parallel paths are very necessary. But what is your truth that keeps popping up in the process? What are you avoiding that keeps showing up? What parallel paths do you keep creating for yourself to avoid your real path? You have to give yourself space and reflection to ask yourself if you are living your truth. When you don’t, it leads to feelings of stuckness, lack of motivation, and even sadness.
I was fortunate to have the time and space to figure this out. I was able to explore and make so many different discoveries about my next steps. If you cannot make physical space, or take time off, it’s critical to make mental space. Journaling and adding a self-reflective process to your regime will help immensely with this.
If you are feeling stuck, take the time to reflect on this question: What’s your lie? Really mull it over, and journal on this point. See what comes to you. You may be surprised at what pops up and how this bit of information can help ignite momentum for your next big leap, whether it is a career change, or new business idea. The other way to explore this (also great advice from Greg Levoy) is to have someone ask you over and over: “What do you KNOW to be true?” Have them keep asking it, and see what it uncovers in you.