career

"At 28 years old I felt I was going on 100, washed up, already over my career."

I first decided I wanted to be a lawyer when I was in year 8 and quite funnily, we had been asked to write our autobiography for a school project. If I can recall correctly my “life story” at age 13 was a rather lengthy litany of my life’s achievements to date. It was written with only the arrogance that one can have at 13 when you see the world in black and white and anything feels possible.

At the time I thought my said achievements were quite significant. Maths prizes, history essay competition winnings and so forth. What more could there be in life that one could aspire for? 13 year-old me wrote “I hope to be a lawyer. No correct that. I will be a lawyer.” The black words stood alone at the top of a blank white piece of paper. The most embarrassing part is I actually kept the line “No correct that…” for dramatic effect as a show of my determination.

Fast forward 15 years and the arrogance and self assuredness had drained out of me. Having studied for 6 years at university, only to work 4 years I felt 28 going on 100, washed up, already over my career and caught in the current of what felt like an endless stream that was taking me to a destination I no longer cared for.

This is not to say anything bad about the firm or the people I worked with. At that time as a lawyer I simply did not enjoy my work.  And when you are at work more than 12 hours a day not enjoying it, you’re basically not enjoying life. What was I going to do now?

By this stage I had tried so hard to fit myself into the idea of being this perfect commercial lawyer that I had already worked at a succession of 3 different commercial law firms in only 4 years. I kept thinking that maybe I would find my place at the next firm, or maybe the next, or the next one after that… But I was starting to feel on an instinctual level I was a square peg in a round hole. Yet somehow I felt this outward pressure to stay and try to make being a commercial lawyer work.

Zoe always dreamed of being a lawyer. (Image supplied)
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Having realised so many of my contemporaries had struggled to work out this whole career thing, I started a women’s business and professional network group called “Women’s Nexus” with a former colleague.

Currently women’s networking groups seem to be a dime a dozen out there. So why start yet another one? My hope for the group was that it would not just be about cross referrals but rather it would be “career therapy” and inspirational. My co-founder and I committed to sourcing inspirational speakers who would be willing to talk about the real stuff of how they built their career.

We wanted to create an informal, supportive and authentic space where women can come together and vent, talk, laugh and network over some wine and cheese.  Somehow thanks to the wonderful women that came, this is the exact environment that was created.

Only one meeting in and I am already certain I have found that sense of community, where we can each be the cheer leader for each other’s career.

Some of the gems of career (and life) wisdom that I have taken away from the first meeting are:

  1. Take risks – “Just do it”.
  2. Trust your gut. (In your career and in choosing a partner).
  3. As much as you can follow your passions, but also make sure you put food on the table.
  4. Relax. It will all work out – you won’t actually implode when you have children (Well maybe you will, but that’s ok too because then you will rebuild again.)
  5. It is all there waiting there for you. Be patient.
  6. You don’t have to be a girl forever. It’s ok to be a woman, to be older, to have lived, to have some wrinkles.

The most resounding message from our meeting was to trust your gut. This is particularly interesting when the career is often regarded as the domain of rationality and logic. And trusting one’s intuition in career could be regarded as a flippant way to make career decisions.

However, one member, a Sydney based lawyer spoke of how she had seen an advertisement in the paper for a job in Perth. At that moment the hairs on the back of her neck stood up and she knew she was meant to take that role on the other side of Australia. At the time colleagues thought this was nuts. However this move worked out best for her both personally and professionally and when she returned to Sydney having had interstate experience made her stand out from the crowd in her career.

Saying goodbye to your current career can be hard, but also cathartic. (Screenshot via 20th Century Fox)
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The message from some of the members who had divorced was also clear; follow your instincts both with work and apparently choice of marriage partner. On this note many of the members who were divorced spoke of how at the time when they married their gut told them this was not the right person, even though they were good on paper.

Which brings me back to my own career crisis I was having 4 years in to my career as a commercial lawyer. I was good on paper, but bad in reality... married to my job in commercial law. Objectively, there was nothing wrong with my job. I worked for a lovely boss, in a nice office with nice colleagues. But I had this nagging, gnawing feeling that I was not where I was meant to be, that I was somehow meant to be doing something else. And the feeling would not let me off the hook.

As fate would have it a colleague mentioned a role in a family law firm. My heart skipped a beat, my stomach churned, not dissimilar to that feeling of love at first sight. I had a strong intuition, without ever having worked in family law that this career change and this job was meant for me. At the time just about everyone thought I was crazy to leave commercial law, which is a higher status job, but I felt in my heart this was the right change.

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As Rumi says, “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love” because “It will not lead you astray”.

It was at that time that I gave myself permission to let go of the “idea” of myself as a commercial lawyer that was no longer serving me. I allowed myself to choose to change careers and leave because the feeling of wanting to leave was enough.

Despite the lovely boss, nice colleagues and great offices my yearning to go was enough. I did not need to rationalise leaving beyond this.

Some of my colleagues have asked how do you even know what your gut is telling you? They feel so dominated by their mind, probably due to being lawyers, they cannot even feel what their gut is telling them.

There have been times I felt consistently physically sick in a job.  Listen to your gut, or any other part of your body for that matter.

I would dare to suggest there is a place for rationality and the explicit but also for the hidden, the felt and the magical in how we live life, including our career.

Zoe Durand works as a family lawyer at Armstrong Legal in Sydney. She is also a co-founder of Women’s Nexus a women's business and professional networking group.

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