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Welcome to the Real Humans series, the place to read untouched, authentic, uncensored stories about career lessons and life choices. We provide full anonymity to our guests to make sure you get the most unfiltered story possible... Politically incorrect guaranteed!
This episode features Gwen, a successful Senior Scientist and Team Leader in the R&D department of a very famous, world leading company listed in European and US stock markets, who took a decision that some of us only dare to dream about: to leave the comfort of an enviable life behind and throw herself in the unknown.
In this interview, we talked about making the most of where you are in life, about learning by getting out of your comfort zone, about finding the courage to do the unexpected. We explore the true definition of what it is to be a Millennial and we get her uncompromised insights on the good surprises and the big disappointments of being a young professional in a large company.
Regardless if you’re working in a large company or not, this conversation will give you something to think about. So, here it is...
Preparing for the unknown
We are catching up for this interview between your farewell and your departure. How do you feel today and what did your last week look like?
Gwen: Ok, so to give you some context: minutes ago, I was on the line with my bank to sort out the delivery of my credit card. Today is Tuesday, I take the plane on Thursday – this needs to be resolved quickly! I am in the process of checking whether I have all the documents I need, all the stuff I need. I hope I haven’t forgotten anything!
I thought I would have enough time with one week between my farewell and my departure to maybe brush off some Spanish or do more things, but in the end, all my time goes to admin stuff: paying the last bills, getting my apartment deposit back – btw I still need to call them back!
Oh and I still need to sort out my travel insurance. I haven’t packed my first aid kit, I still have an electricity bill to pay, I haven’t tried yet to pack my luggage so I am not sure how much fits in…
So right now, time goes by really fast and I wish I would have more time to be more comfortable and enjoy more – but it all needs to get done!
Concretely right now you have a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires. What's waiting for you when you land?
Gwen: I step out of the plane on Friday morning. I know where I am going to sleep for the first two weeks – I have booked a room in a Youth Hostel. and I am registered in a language school to learn Spanish.
So the first two weeks are well-organised. Now I haven’t checked out in detailed how to organise transport between the two places but I’ll sort that out there. After that, I don’t know yet!
Generally, I like when things are well-organised. In the past I have organised holiday trips where I would organise everything – each day was prepared, I had an excel file with all details, the inbound flights were booked ahead etc.
This time is voluntarily different. I have read a lot of blogs where the advice was to not prepare as much in order to be free, free to follow other people and free to do what I fancy doing at any given time. So I thought I would organise the first two weeks but nothing else.
I still have a sort of timeline, with the idea of one location per month to try to reassure me and to calculate how much time I wanted to stay in south America. It’s the first time I am travelling like this and the intent is to go a bit against my nature and let go. Let’s see if I manage to!
Right now, I know inside of me that I took the right decision, for my personal development but also for my career, because I really believe that when you can get out of your comfort zone and adapt quickly to a new environment, this is much more valuable than any hard skills or training, especially in the fast moving world we are now.
However, because of my upbringing and the pressure of society, sometimes I think I might be making a mistake because I am 35 years old, and now I have no job and no fixed address. You know how you introduce yourself with “my name is Gwen and I work for XYZ company” – well right now I can’t say that anymore and that’s a weird feeling!
Can you help us understand your life and career so far? How did you get to where you are today?
Gwen: I come from a small city and a modest family. I did not have the possibility to go to exotic destinations on holidays as a kid. And I realise now that my career choices and my decision to leave and travel are probably coming from this.
I realise now that my choices, my need to travel comes from how I grew up.
I remember I chose my university because there were lots of internships, and some mandatory time abroad - for me it was a great opportunity to travel alone for the first time in my life! I went to the UK and to Thailand thanks to this university and I really liked it. It helped me become more confident for sure.
Then I completed my final year internship in the company that all of us were dreaming about. I managed to get a permanent contract and I stayed there for 10 years.
What are the successive crossroads along the way and how did you decide your course of action?
Gwen: I was first in a local team for 5 years, very close to the factory and to the business. It was great, but I was longing to have experiences abroad and to travel.
I had a short mission of 6 months to the UK in the middle but it did not unlock any change in my job upon my return. It’s the opening of the global center which created the opportunity of many job postings – I applied and I got a job there!
But all these moves have only been possible because of my network and my determination to apply and go through interviews… not thanks to my HR partners or offers from my managers to make me grow. Despite what they promised, HR did not really help.
What do you mean?
Gwen: When I got the internship, I got invited for an “induction day”. They gathered us students in the corporate headquarters and they made us dream! The HR told us we would be well-taken care of, there would be great opportunities, changing job every 3 years, possibility to move abroad etc.
In reality, no HR ever came to tell me there was a great opportunity for me somewhere!
I had the chance that someone in the UK I met through working together on a project, who helped me organize a 6 month mission with her, which was great. But I came back to my old job and nothing changed, nothing happened.
I had given signs that I was mobile and interested in moving abroad and taking exchange missions. In the end, I applied to the open positions at the global center out of my own initiative.
HR is so distant, that when I applied for a position in the new center, I expected HR to look at my previous performances reviews, to ask my manager for feedbacks… they did not! I did 2 interviews, with HR and my new boss - but they did not anything about my previous experience, performance, team fit. In fact, it was like applying for another company!
Leaving big corp system or searching for purpose?
What were your expectations when entering the corporate world and what were the surprises you faced, both positive and negative?
Gwen: There is this attempt at attracting people and wowing them, but afterwards there is nothing, nothing at all. It’s very disappointing. I would have preferred for HR to be more transparent about the fact that it was up to me to drive my career. It took me 3 to 4 years to understand this.
In the end everything you hear in the beginning about being taken care of, accompanied – well – it’s all a lie. How can I say this? I understand today that it’s up to me to sort out my career. But what I don’t get is why do they tell us otherwise in the beginning? Tell me upfront that I need to create a network and scout my opportunities.
HRs, don't make me dream that opportunities will come to me. Tell me upfront that it's entirely up to me.
One thing which really positively surprised me is the fact that I was expecting trainings on hard skills, but I was positively surprised to have trainings on personal growth and soft skills. All that I have learned about growing personally I did through company trainings and they were all of very good quality.
My first training was 3 days on leadership – and it was an eye opener. I really changed after that, understanding the power of communication in the workplace. I also applied it in my private life and it really made a difference.
What were the best moments in your career up to this point? Why did they count so much for you?
Gwen: Looking back at the first 5 years in my local team: it was a small team, and a big factory with lots of different manufacturing processes - we had to be multi-skilled and multi-tasking, from hand-on work to designing experiments to presenting to the board of directors in the leadership team. I learned a lot. We were like a family, we were helping each other, it was very tight-knit.
In the global center: I loved working with international people and it’s very interesting to learn about so many cultures. I learned the importance of communication: do not hesitate to repeat, make others repeat, take proper meeting minutes…. Very important when you work with different cultures.
Thanks to all these experiences, I realized the importance of changing and stepping out of the comfort zone in order to learn even more, to be more confident and clearer about what we want to do…
And which aspects of the workplace disappointed you - either about your own career or about the corporate game, or both?
Gwen: I did not feel the company really “cared” about me (and all the employees in general) - although they try to make you believe it. Sometimes, I really had the feeling that the “people review” / performance review / career evolution were not fair… It seems to really depend on your manager.
And I don’t think it is specific to this company by the way, I am pretty sure it is probably the same somewhere else. That’s why everybody really need to think about their own needs, their desires, their health… instead of feeling “guilty” or beholden to a company.
With your decision to leave everything behind, you are spot on the stereotype of the unpredictable Millennial. How much is fulfillment, purpose, mission, your why, a part of your decision?
Gwen: First of all – it’s funny that you talk about Millennials because I don’t see myself as one. For instance, I like things to be organized, I am not a technological geek – I’d love to be more digitally fluent actually!
I learn as I go but I am by no means spending all the time on my phone, I have the feeling there is a massive gap with the generation of my nieces!
So right now, I have some concerns and questions about my trip, while my image of the Millennial is this carefree, cool, chill person that is good at letting go. This trip for me means getting better at letting go!
You were working for a company with a very inspirational mission, which was alive and acted upon – and not just words on the wall. Your division was bringing product to markets which aimed at a vulnerable population; your function had a great deal of influence on the products. How did that play on your motivation? How did that measure against some of the other aspects of your job?
Gwen: I remember that everybody in my class at Uni want to get into the company and we were so marveled at the mission!
But now 10 years of career later and going through the websites of many other industries to prepare for interviews, I realise that all companies have more or less the same mission. It’s all about health, making the world a better place, being sustainable… All the same!
All companies have more or less the same inspiring mission on making the world a better place. The reality is that we are here to make business.
I mean they are very well written and very inspiring. But the reality is that we are here to make business. We are looking at our profit margin, for instance I have been very busy with cost saving projects in the five first years. At the beginning I was giving it a lot of value to the mission and to working in a big company; and nowadays it matters less.
Now I realise that the most important are the people you work with and the work environment – that I feel well at work and that people trust me. I hear that from many people around me as well.
My sister from instance – she has recently moved from a company which was an iconic symbol in its industry but the atmosphere was crap and people were tough on each other. Now she is in a team that’s much more human, there is more trust, she can work from home and so on. And she loves it.
Within the same company the atmosphere can be very different depending on the location. In my local team we were all the same nationality, people had homes built close to the office, were talking to each other about their kids, that was super nice. At the end of the day - that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning, that’s people.
A major life decision
What is your biggest driver for change? What is the motivation behind your decision to resign, buy a one-way ticket and pack your bag?
Gwen: This year I celebrated my 10 years in the company in February. This was a trigger – 10 years and 35-year-old, it made me realise it was the year to change. My first thought was to find another job in another company. I knew it could only be beneficial for me - for my personal development and for my career - to move to another company.
I started doing interviews back in my home country and it released a lot of questions. Do I really want to go back home? Is it what I am looking for? Through talking to others, people made me realise I am single, I don’t have kids, I don’t have a mortgage, I don’t have furniture, I don’t have a car. I am free!
I always wanted to take long holidays in order to travel, but I was waiting for “the right moment”, “the right companion”... The idea started to emerge - Why not take long holidays and think about what I want instead of rushing to another job and get really busy again? At first, the thinking was 3 months of holidays and not yet a year.
The one thing that I was concerned about was travelling alone. But again through talking to others and reading a lot of blogs of women travelling alone, it completely change my opinion about it.
I understood that in fact, it was probably the best because in fact you are never really alone, you meet a lot of people like you so you can travel together… and if at some moment you want to be alone or meet other persons, you can do what you want! The best option in fact!
This was really the argument which made me believe “I can do it” - take long holidays alone to travel. Then, I really thought about it as a life project to grow and learn and pile up new experiences.
I wanted to go to South America for a long time. But alone, I knew I had to learn Spanish, so I decided to start with intensive Spanish lesson before travelling. Then I looked at all the countries in South America I wanted to visit - of course, almost all of them! - and I did not want to be in a rush.
I did not want the kind of travel “tick in the box - move on”. I estimated 1 month per country, 2-3 months for the big ones like Argentina, Colombia and Brazil… So finally, this is how my long holidays became a 1 year traveling project! I thought I should enjoy this experience/opportunity to the max.
Did you weight pros and cons, or was it more of an intuition?
Gwen: Yes, I did a list on paper of my pros and cons !!! And added in front of all my cons an action plan in order to prevent it - and this idea came after the training “boost your performance mindset” that I attended in February or March. How ironic! hahahaha!
How did people react to your decision? Your family, your friends, your boss?
Gwen: My mum and my sister - at the beginning, they were really scared that I would leave such a large, famous company… Being without a job, without the comfortable situation of a predictable salary.
But I explained everything and that I was confident about the fact that I would find a new job when I come back, that it was even a “plus”... Also my mum talked about it around her, and I think she has been reassured by having an external opinion on this.
My boss reacted very well! And it reassured me a lot. I think it is possibly because he is culturally more “open minded” than in my home country for instance. All the colleagues from this nationality told me that it would be a great experience and that I could contact them again after my trip if I am looking for a job. I really felt that my decision showed them that I was someone determined…
On the other hand, above my boss, very few leaders have been in contact with me. No senior leader attended my farewell drink and I don’t think they understand where I am coming from.
My friends are very enthusiastic, saying they are “jealous”... I know some of them will do the same one day. I think it will become more and more common for people to take sabbaticals and companies need to be more prepared about it and propose flexible solutions, like working while traveling… I have asked for a sabbatical initially and it got denied.
Do you look at this new period more as a "coming of age" or as a "you only live once" move?
Gwen: Neither really. I want to see it as a present I give to myself, a present I think I deserve, as it is paid with the money I earned myself, working hard!
I want to be confronted to new experiences. I want this trip to be rich of experiences, rich of meeting people. In a new experience there’s always positive and negative. But in the end there is actually nothing that is negative, because from experiences you always learn.
There is something about having nothing to lose
in trying something different.
What I am looking for, to grow, is to have as many experiences as possible in my life. I’d love to see a lot, to do a lot, to meet many people, to be inspired. That’s my life philosophy – life has to be rich of experience.
What I would also like from this trip – because for 10 years I have been with sort of the same people all the time. You know within the company, within our little world, we are all the same – we are all expats, we all have the same background, we all do sport in the week-end etc. I am looking forward to meeting people with very different ways of thinking, ways of living, different trajectories to figure out “what else is out there?”.
I also want to take my time and be more picky about the new job I want to apply to after I return in terms of what and where. I don’t want to take the first job I find. So I will keep an eye on the job offers “half way”.
A bit of a tough question - what do you think you will miss from your previous life?
Gwen: My twin sister and some of my friends - but I repeat to myself that it is only a good bye, and now with WhatsApp, it is like they are with me!
Then my routine: swimming - I know there is not a lot of swimming pool in South America -, my sport club, triathlons, cooking! But that is also why I am doing it!
I think it is good for me to see that I can adapt quickly, and discover new things, new routines. You don’t know what you miss until you discover it!
How will you know you have found what you are looking for? What does success looks like?
Gwen: I do not want to set up objectives or expectations to my trip because I do not want to stress myself out or be disappointed… There is no failure, only experience, and this trip will be very rich in experiences! So it can only be successful!
For my final question, I'd like to ask you for one piece of advice to people who recognize themselves in your story?
Gwen: Something I repeat to myself often, in order to try to let go, is something like: "OK it’s new, it’s something I’ve never done before, I must try it."
Sometimes I need to push myself to go for it. Because It’s so easy to stay in your routine. That’s comfortable, that’s things you know. But it’s good sometimes to try something new because you never know in advance what you are going to encounter and what you get to do. Maybe you’ll love it.
That’s the way I look at life: collect experiences to know what I like and what not, what I want to do and what I don’t want to do.
So if I had to give a piece of advice to someone, it would be: try to not be afraid and to get out of your comfort zone, to go for it, to experiment. Worse case scenario – you don’t like it and you come back! Best case scenario, you will find something you’ll love and where you want to head in life!
Key insights of Gwen's story
- Expect to have to drive your career yourself - be clear about what you want and talk about it formally and informally.
- Companies are locking you in with beautiful, inspiring missions - the reality is still that the first priority is to make money.
- Search discomfort if you want to grow - if your career becomes predictable, it may be time for a new challenge.
- Personal motto: "Try new things to experience whether you like them and not - and let yourself be surprised by what could unfold"
I know how fast-paced life is, so thank you for dedicating some of your precious time to read this.
If you liked today's episode, please help me out by leaving your honest comments below. The more constructive feedback we get, the more we can improve, and the more these real-life stories will reach others who might benefit from it.
Until next time, take care and be the best human you can be!
The second part of Gwen's interview, 4 months after her departure, can be found here.