In the late 1990s I lived in a pretty little mews in south west London. I loved my house, with its open-plan ground floor with a spiral staircase and the community spirit that existed amongst myself and eleven neighbours. When I first lived there, work was going well. My teenage dream to have a career in TV and radio had come true and by the time I was thirty I was managing director of a radio studio business. I had a good disposable income, I had no dependants, I enjoyed good holidays, I went out to fashionable restaurants. On the face of it, I had “made it”.
But underneath the surface, cracks were starting to show. I found the more success I had in my job, the more projects landed in my lap. I was a rookie MD, with no previous management experience, suddenly responsible for a young, hungry team. The pressure was on. Every quarter I had to forecast the profit of the business upwards and somehow I had to meet those targets. I was overwhelmed, I had too much on and no-one to delegate to. The job wasn't me anymore.
And life back home in the mews was starting to have its own aggravations. My house was at the end of the mews and abutted a railway embankment - the site of East Putney station - and one day I returned home to find a team of hard-hatted engineers outside my front door. They told me that the embankment was cracking under pressure, the station platform was sinking.
The attractive trees and plants on the embankment were soon replaced by scaffolding, steel and cranes. London Underground started to pile drive the embankment and rebuild the platform. I was now living on a building site. In order to keep the station open during the day the decision was taken to carry out the works at night, between 2am and 4am, six nights a week. As I tried to sleep, workmen walked along scaffolding inches from my bedroom wall. Cranes swung overhead. Drills vibrated, generators whirred. During the eighteen months of works I logged one hundred and thirty interrupted nights of sleep.
The railway embankment had cracked and now I was cracking under the dual pressures of a stressful job and a stressful home. I couldn’t cope. My life was making me ill. I was stressed and depressed. At the end of 1999 I quit my job.
Unlike my nocturnal neighbours in their high visibility jackets, I lacked my own hard hat. I’d been vulnerable and left to cope alone. I didn’t shout for help until it was too late, when I found myself sitting in my doctor’s surgery as she scribbled out a prescription for antidepressants. A specialist diagnosed my condition as a ‘chemical imbalance.’
Imbalance. “A lack of proportion or relation between corresponding things.”
That’s when stress gets dangerous. When there is imbalance.
So for the last nineteen years I’ve been working for myself, which is of course an experience that is in no way stress-free. It’s stressful living with the uncertainty of what’s coming next. Some of my day to day working life can be stressful. But I’m comfortable with these kind of pressures. Sometimes I thrive on them. How dull would life be without challenges to get your teeth into? After all, how can navigating this crazy new world of work and all that the adventures that come with it *not* be stressful?
I can deal with it all, as long as I look after myself. Ensuring I don’t have too many late nights, that I can pay attention to my well being, get some exercise. That I’m in balance.
We all need some kind of protective clothing and a metaphorical hard-hat. Whether it’s finding a supportive partner or turning to family and friends, or just knowing when to say ‘enough’. Listening for those warning signs, checking in on that canary in your mind.
That’s why I started my ‘Good Times ‘habit where I keep a weekly list of the experiences that fire me up and give me pleasure. Whether it’s the satisfaction that comes from giving a talk to an audience, or the pleasure of sitting in the sun enjoying the first coffee of the day, five years’ worth of Good Times lists provides me with the data to know what fuels me. It’s given me a different metric for success, and it helps me measure my relationship with stress. When I feel stressed or start feeling ill, I take a look at my Good Times and know what I need to do in order to get back on track.
...I like to think of it as my hard hat.