I came across Laura Gwilliam in the Escape the City Facebook group, where I instantly jumped on her post to get her to share her “lawyer to exciting new things” story here on the blog. It’s another insightful example of a high-powered job not bringing the satisfaction and meaning that she had expected, with her body ultimately telling her to stop and re-assess. The interview is packed full of insights and I would encourage you to watch the full video to hear about Laura’s experience first hand.
One of the areas that particularly resonated with me was the continuous search for fulfilment by achieving and accumulating things. You define yourself by your career, by your job title, with certain expectations also regarding your salary, where you’ll live, and so on; when you take that away, what is left? You have to start again in defining who and what you are.
Instead of focusing on job titles and things and ticking boxes, a more fulfilling approach could involve looking at how you want to feel – rather than what you want to have. Tools like Danielle LaPorte’s Desire Map, and the Wheel of Life that I often use with clients, are helpful in understanding your goals in terms of those desired feelings and experiences. So instead of going after all those things that you want to have, get, or accomplish, hoping that these will bring you happiness and fulfilment, clarify and focus on those deeper desires in the first place.
Read on or watch the video to hear Laura’s story!
Job-related stress and burnout
Laura Gwilliam was a lawyer in London, specialising in dispute resolution for international law firms, for three years. Last September she went to India for three months to qualify as a yoga teacher, and she’s now working on a new project that brings together her passions of yoga and food – while telling people that she’s taking a year out to pursue happiness!
1) At what moment did you decide it was time for a change?
It was like a slow unravelling: there was a niggle, a voice in my head. My husband was based in Northern Ireland and I would be getting up at four o’clock in the morning on a Monday, flying to London, working 12 to 16 hours a day in the city, living in a tiny bedroom in someone else’s house to make it financially viable, and flying home to Northern Ireland on a Friday completely wiped. I did that from the age of 26 and within months, unsurprisingly – except to myself, you always think you’re indestructible! – I felt ‘done’. There was no life in me at the weekends, and I didn’t have the energy to do the things I used to love doing. That voice, my intuition – soul, spirit, whatever you want to call it – was saying: “This isn’t right. This isn’t living.”
Not to sound too idealistic, but a lot of what you do should be driven by the love of what you’re doing; and I just felt very unhappy and deeply unfulfilled. You’re spun this story that it will all be worth it, and you come out the other side of all your training – for me that was six years of legal training, law school and a training contract – and ask yourself: “What now?”
I started to realise that the sacrifices I was making were having a massive effect on my relationships, my lifestyle… and then it started to affect my health. I’d always been healthy, I’d run marathons, my hobby was mountain biking, and I began to do that less and less, I started to suffer with digestive health problems… A lot of it was being caused by stress and mental health and depression. It wasn’t the law, it was the lifestyle that I was leading.
Being married to someone in the army, he couldn’t change his job and one of us had to change. I had been fighting that for years and years, saying, “I will never give up my career for you!” But there is a point when either your marriage will fail, or your health, or you’re going to have to make some big changes.
So it started with this niggling feeling and then I had a horrible moment at work one day a couple of years ago. I felt like somebody had switched off a button and I just had zero energy. Being a freelancer, I had the autonomy to take the afternoon off. I got on the tube and fell asleep, in the middle of the day, went past the stop where I was staying, somehow managed to get back to my lodgings, and at three o’clock in the afternoon passed out, fully clothed, and woke up the next day! It wasn’t until six months after that that I had a breakdown, in November 2015. Thankfully, I was at home in Northern Ireland when it happened and I didn’t return to work for five months. It took a lot of resilience – and I don’t know where that first spark came from, but thankfully it did.
I eventually went back to London but I knew that it wasn’t forever, it was just to earn a bit of money; and by then my trip to India was booked.
2) What was the biggest challenge you faced in making the change?
The uncertainty! Having very much had a life so far of school, A-levels, university, training, applying for jobs… there was always this element of structure. As a constant high achiever, I once led a group of people up Kilimanjaro – so you tick that box – and then I ran the Paris marathon, and it was always “achieve, achieve, achieve”. Although a lot of it felt quite empty and it was always, “what’s next?”, looking back it was also providing a lot of structure: there was always something on the horizon that I was working towards. When you step out of that and have a blank canvas to create something that will hopefully lead to fulfilment and happiness, and a healthy lifestyle, there’s a lot of self-doubt. There’s also a lot of responsibility for you to get out of bed in the morning! As a lawyer, I would be working on a case and every six minutes would be a unit of time that I would record and work towards billing. Now I’m creating my own to-do list and some days that’s great, and I’m really inspired and motivated, and then every so often I’ll ask myself, “What am I doing? Where is this going?”
Everyone has energetic peaks and troughs and when you’re working in a team, you know some days you’ll have lows and someone else will drag you up so that you even each other out to get the job done. When you’re doing everything yourself, it’s a lot harder on those days when you’re consumed by self-doubt or uncertainty, and the mountain you’ve got to climb seems overwhelming – it’s really hard when you don’t have others to encourage you.
So it’s exciting but at the same time it can be really difficult.
3) Where did you get the support you needed to make it happen?
My marital home is where my husband works, so when I removed myself from my friendship group in London and my work colleagues and my career, the life that I lived Monday to Friday, he was my main day-to-day support. It was through his stubbornness – he wasn’t going to let me lie in bed and wallow for five months! – dragging me out, trying to get me back into things that I used to love doing, trying to get me back on a bike, or going for a walk on the beach even when it was raining, trying to encourage me; aside from financially supporting me throughout that time. Just being a really good friend, and also accepting the huge shift from when he met me as a high-achieving lawyer and realising that I was probably never going to go back to that role and that I was turning into someone else. That can break relationships but thankfully – although it hasn’t been smooth sailing – it’s about accepting and supporting me in working towards something; he says he admires it. The easier route would be to just return to what I was doing and just wait to unravel again, because I know what I’m doing in my legal role, I’m comfortable doing it. Trying to create your own business, or work on your own project and get something launched, takes a lot of courage and putting yourself out there. You get a lot of knockbacks and you have to be really resilient.
I’m also part of a group called Boost Women, we met just over a year ago when I went back to London, at Google Campus. They’re all entrepreneurs trying to create their own careers, or businesses, or paths in life. It’s grown from six women to about 20. There have been a few occasions when I’ve put a little message in the group – “What am I doing?!” – and you know you’ll get a Skype call to reassure you. I just think it’s an incredible thing: people that you’ve known for a year, from all over the world, helping each other to really succeed, and believing in one another.
4) What’s the best part of your lifestyle today?
Being able to spend more time outdoors. I love visiting cities, and I find them really inspiring places – but I’m from Derbyshire, near the Peak District, and I’ve always been more of a country person. I dream of living in the mountains one day… I’m super excited because I’m off to Switzerland in the Alps this summer for a project that I’m working on. It’s being around greenery; going for a run but rather than it being on roads and having to stop at traffic lights I can just take off and run through the woods or fields. That’s been amazing.
Also spending more time at home; and having more time overall. Time is in such short supply, it’s consumed by so much and we all have so many pressures, so to have this time to spend on figuring out what I’m doing, and then throwing myself into what I want to do, has been a really good change.
5) What one piece of advice would you give to someone who is considering making a big career or lifestyle change?
To trust their intuition, because I think it’s the best guidance that we have. You just want someone to come and tell you what to do – you’re not afraid of the hard work or making the change, you just want someone to say: it’s okay, this is what you need to do instead. But there isn’t anyone who can help you! Life coaches are great, career coaches, counselling… but no one can really know whether something is right except you. So if you’re sitting at the desk and you know that it doesn’t feel right, you just need to trust in yourself; and try – and it’s so difficult – to make decisions based on that instinct, your intuition, and what you want (rather than what you think you want), rather than fear.
I used to think: “What if it goes wrong?” and someone in India said, “You’re still a lawyer, you’ve still got great experience, and no one can take that away from you” – so after a year, you just go back. A lot of these people who are contemplating leaving what they do to pursue something that they really love, or even if they’ve just got an inkling – they’re really intelligent, successful people with a lot going for them, and even if that thing doesn’t work out, something else will happen along that journey and they’ll end up where they need to be.
A lot of the things that we dream of doing aren’t new anymore, a lot of stuff has been done before – and if someone else has done it then there’s no reason why you can’t. That’s quite an empowering thing to bear in mind when that voice with the doubt is telling you that you shouldn’t do it.
Follow Laura’s blog, where she hopes to inspire people who are going through mental health problems, in particular depression, to see that you can come out on the other side.
Have you made big changes in your life and want to inspire others to do the same? Get in touch to share your story!