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Getting to the Other Side of a Life-Changing Experience

Illustration by The Project Twins
Getting to the Other Side of a Life-Changing Experience
Published May 7, 2019 by Tina Essmaker

We all go through times that deeply challenge us—moments that rattle us to our core, turn our day-to-day reality upside down, and force us to redefine what really matters to us.

For me, one of those moments came when my marriage to my husband ended in January 2017. As co-founders of The Great Discontent, our lives had been enmeshed for a decade—we had lived together, worked together, created together, and socialized together. Work and life had loosely overlapped, free of boundaries.

Compelled to find a new identity outside of my life and business partnership, I chose to transition out of our business, even though I was unsure of what was next professionally. Initially, I was tempted to catastrophize. I imagined the worst-case scenario compounded by feeling groundless and directionless: I would be unable to provide for myself financially and be forced to leave my community in New York. Around that time, my new roommate gave me Pema Chödrön’s book, When Things Fall Apart, and this quote helped me reframe my situation: “When we think that something is going to bring us pleasure, we don't know what's really going to happen. When we think that something is going to give us misery, we don't know. Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all.” I promised to stop imagining negative outcomes and remained open to whatever was next.

"What is it really like to finalize a divorce, give birth to your first child, care for an aging parent, celebrate your company going public, or survive a cancer diagnosis?"

My openness led me to freelance for a period of time while I began to rebuild my life. I slowly explored potential career paths, and nearly eight months later my “a-ha!” moment came when a friend told me he was working with a life coach and found the process helpful, but wished the coach had a better understanding of the creative world. In a flash of insight, I decided to combine my social work background with the six years I spent interviewing artists and creators for The Great Discontent to be trained as coach and open my own practice working with the creative community.

Through conversations with my coaching clients—who range from independent creators and entrepreneurs to employees of creative companies and leaders and executives across the industry—it’s become increasingly clear that it’s impossible to compartmentalize our lives into personal and professional. While we may have clear boundaries related to personal versus work tasks or how our time is allocated, we are whole people who bring our whole selves to work and our work selves home. This can be disorienting in the midst of a crisis, or even a wild success. In both scenarios, we may be forced to pause, re-evaluate our work and lives, redefine our metrics for fulfillment, and rediscover who we are. Often, the old frameworks, platitudes, routines, and resources we relied on are no longer enough.

At The Great Discontent, I interviewed creators with a certain level of success and platform about their work and creative ambitions. Now, I’ve launched a new inquiry into the stories of creators whose life-changing experiences have shaped how and why they work. What is it really like to finalize a divorce, give birth to your first child, care for an aging parent, celebrate your company going public, or survive a cancer diagnosis?

With this in mind, in March I tweeted to ask people to email me with stories about how their life-changing experiences shaped their approach to work or their career altogether. In less than 24 hours, my inbox was full.

Here are a few of their stories.

Photographer Andrew Cenci lost his dream job, but found opportunities to trust his voice in a new way.

One individual who wrote to me was Andrew Cenci, who lost his dream job after the agency he worked for pivoted and let go of half the staff. An African-American artist and self-taught photographer based in Louisville, Kentucky, Andrew was unemployed for months trying to make it as a freelancer. He credits his wife for supporting him, noting that he wouldn’t have had the freedom to create without her—she believed in his photography and encouraged him to continue making it.

Now Andrew is pursuing photography as an art form, was selected to be part of a creative residency by the Community Foundation of Louisville, and is creating a body of work for his first book. He says of his experience: “At that moment I would have never thought that I would be here. But that moment really changed not only my resume but my the trajectory of my creative career,” and adds that, “It is a reminder that even out of challenging times good things can grow. I’ve learned to make the work I want to make and trust the voice I have been given.”

Designer Sarah Lawrence began to invest in her future after being treated for a rare medical condition.

Another person who emailed me was Atlanta-based designer Sarah Lawrence who reached out about how her brain tumor changed her outlook on work. In 2017, she found out she had an extremely rare tumor where the spinal cord meets the brain. She said this of the diagnosis: “I'd been going to orthopedists for four years with symptoms that I thought were carpal tunnel and each time was told that I was imagining it, that I needed to take ibuprofen. My right (dominant) arm was going numb, and I was having trouble gripping pens for long. I finally went to an orthopedist who identified the tumor and sent me to a neurosurgeon. I got the tumor removed and was out for a month recovering. They told me if I hadn't found it when I did, I wouldn't have been able to walk in as soon as 5 years.”

When asked how her work has changed after her experience, Sarah reflected that she had a nihilistic attitude before diagnosis and surgery because she thought she’d eventually lose her ability to design as she lost feeling in her dominant arm: “I was spending all of my time trying to advance myself and my career as quickly as possible, to essentially work myself out of needing my hands or a computer. I thought if I was able to get to a management role or become a professor, I wouldn’t need fine motor skills to design every day, but could still teach and talk. I was really scared, and just trying to plan ahead.” But after surgery, it was different than she expected. She described the immense relief she felt wash over her and noted that she was no longer racing against the clock—she came out of her shell and began to intentionally invest in herself and her future.

New York-based author and journalist Rachel Hills realized her work couldn’t save her.

And what about life-changing experiences that we aspire to, like publishing our first book? New York-based author and journalist, Rachel Hills, reached out to share her experience of writing her first book and what she learned about a process we may be tempted to romanticize, unlike being laid off or going through a medical crisis. Rachel Hills’ book, The Sex Myth, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2015 and received a plethora of press, including a review in the New York Times.

Of her expectations, Rachel said, “Releasing a project you’ve spent the better part of a decade working on is a weird, intense experience. I spent the first few days around publication in a state of fear, bracing myself for waves of social media hate that never really came. I quickly realized that this thing that was all-important and all-encompassing to me was but a small grain of sand in the world of everyone else...The wave of validation I had been hoping for and anticipating never really came.” Rachel chose to accept her reality and said it was freeing—she stopped looking to her work to save her and be the sole source of happiness and fulfillment. Now, she says, her happiness is “contingent on creating and watching people create in return, on building friendship and community, and in finding joy in life even in those moments when I don’t feel like a success.”

It’s an ongoing conversation...

The emails I’ve gathered into a folder called “The Other Side” bear witness to our hunger to have meaningful dialogue about how the personal and professional intertwine. As we forge ahead in our careers, we will all encounter life-changing experiences that lead us to reevaluate, redefine, and reconsider how and why we work. In an age where we are inundated with the highlights of others’ lives that make our own processes look messy, in jobs where we feel pressured to be perfectly put-together, and in a society where there is limited space to be vulnerable, it is vital to make room for conversation that explores the nuances of our experiences and champions the ways we can transform and thrive on the other side.


More about Tina Essmaker

Tina Essmaker is a New York City-based coach, writer, and speaker.

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