I never really planned to go into banking. To be honest, I never really planned to go into anything. Whilst my more motivated friends spent their university summers doing internships or getting work experience trying to build up their CV ready to jump straight into the working world, I was swanning off travelling or falling in love with French boys who woo-ed me with their pain au chocolats & afternoons spent wandering french villages drinking rosé. Suffice to say, I graduated with next to zero idea of what I wanted to do next. After an uninspiring discussion with a Careers service advisor who spent 20 minutes unhelpfully regurgitating the proportion of Chemistry students who had gone on to do Accounting, Finance, Research, Consulting, Law, bla bla bla rather than actually listening to what I was saying, I left University potentially even more lost than I was when I’d arrived, fresh faced & less booze bloated, 4 years earlier.
Chemistry, as much as it was interesting and all that, was probably not the most inspired decision for me as a degree. As most of my friends will confirm, I’m slapdash at best. I can just about get away with it in baking (bar a couple of weird looking thiswasmeanttobeacakeandisnowmoreofaflatgoosituation) but there is slightly less room for error in Science it seems. I’ll never forget the panic, a year in to my degree, when I read the last line of our synthesis for the week (basically a recipe but a chemistry one) where it stated… the final product is a crystalline white powder & mine looked more like Olive Oil. Or the time that I actually managed to make the orange powder we were meant to but then dropped it on the floor so scooped it up WITH MY HANDS and put it back in the tube hoping nobody would notice. Turns out they actually test what you made to check it is the right thing, go figure, mine was… ‘impure’, snooze. Any small chance of me going into research Chemistry was swiftly squashed after a year working in a research lab in France where I managed to break a gas canister outside of the fume hood (like an industrial kitchen extractor fan) and breathed in a load of dimethylamine and was left with a voice like Darth Vader for 3 weeks. Great degree and all, but for slapdash, not really into it people, like me — it didn’t really give me the clearest vision of where to go next.
So I left uni without a clue of what was ahead of me, my only real goal was to get a French passport (strange, yes.) After a few failed attempts at getting a job in Paris that would actually pay enough for me to be able to afford the metro ride to work, I, very randomly, found myself with an interview for a big US bank where they needed someone who spoke French (tick tick tick, closer to passport success). I got hired as a temp, with a plan to head off somewhere to find my French passport 3 months later. 9 years later, I was still in it. People never believe me when I say I fell into finance, it’s not usually the type of career you just fall into. The thing with falling into a career, is it always left me with this idea of never really belonging. Never really having commited to the same extent that everyone else did. Not having been born with the same insatiable desire to sit on a trading floor…it kind of just… happened. Over the years I spent in it, I used to dread the moment an intern would come and sit with me to ‘shadow’ what I was doing. I’d give them my usual schpeel about the job & what I did & who I spoke to etc. etc. and then there would come a point in the conversation where they would tell me about their experience in finance: enter inferiority complex..I still don’t understand how they had all done so much, spring weeks, summer internships, masters in financial markets, quantitative strategy and other things I’d never heard of whilst also learning the violin, teaching children how to read, volunteering all over the world & learning to speak 7 languages. I would smile & nod and pretend as if I obviously had done exactly the same until they asked me how I got the job. Erm… I just.. erm.. fell into it. My ‘finance boss lady (LOL) mask’ had been ripped off & I was naked.. they could all see that I had no idea what I was doing and I was 100% a fraud. I spent most of my 10 year career in finance with horrendous imposter syndrome which I genuinely believe came in part from how I initially got the job. Not coming through the graduate programme from the start & therefore lacking the prestige of being ‘chosen’ in that way kind of left me feeling like I didn’t really belong. My temp role was in a client & sales support, I spent most of my days in the job being shouted at by French sales people or French clients for things that were 99.9% of the time nothing to do with me; as is the case for a lot of people in sales support jobs, I became a figurative punching bag for anyone and everyone I had to interact with. I got pretty good at it, but after 2 years of being shouted at, I was kind of done with it so decided to leave and do something else. Over my years of being shouted at, I’d become pretty good friends with some of the sales people in London & when I resigned, one of the MDs sponsored me for a place on the sales graduate scheme. I went through the interview process & (somehow) got the job. I’ll never forget finding out they were giving me an offer & being so proud of myself until it all came crumbling down & the imposter syndrome came tidal waving back when I overheard rumours that the only reason I had been offered the job was because I had apparently slept with the boss (just to clarify, this is NOT true). So in short, I guess I never really felt like I properly belonged & that it was just a matter of time until the powers that be worked it out & fired me.
Despite imposter syndrome being incredibly uncomfortable, it did, in part, propel me through much of my career thus far. My terror of being found out & never feeling like I properly fit in meant that I built an incredibly strong work persona, it was so strong that I genuinely think I scared a fair number of my seniors with my unshakable poker face. I seemed to build up a reputation of knowing what I was doing (despite the internal monologue screaming THEY ARE GOING TO FIND YOU OUT) & did pretty well whilst I was in it.
If the imposter syndrome was 50% of my motivation, the other 50% came from a deeply rooted desire to prove that I wasn’t stupid. For as long as I can remember, I have always thought that I was maybe a little bit stupid, or at least not as clever as I should be. The thing that’s the most ridiculous about all of this, is the huge dichotomy between my internal reality (the annoying voices telling me I was stupid, or that I was about to get ‘found out’) vs. the external reality that everyone else saw which was a someone that was actually damn good at her job & had never really failed anything (I was an annoying ‘I’m going to fail, I’m going to fail’ and then get straight As and a 1st type of girl…soz). Banking, with its ‘high power’ label, gave me something to hide behind — my (flawed) rationale being that if I did an ‘impressive’ job, there was no way people would think I was stupid. Hilariously, I also somehow managed to use this label to protect me from all the other things in life that I felt that I was failing at, like dating.
I can only speak from my own experience, but through my 20s, I always felt that unless I was dating someone, or preferably in a relationship, I was somehow failing at life. I spent 99.99999% of my 20s single. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure this was my own choice but I definitely created some kind of internal victim narrative that somehow I just wasn’t quite good enough to be ‘chosen’ by someone (probably the same gremlin hijacking my brain that told me daily that I was about to be fired). Unsurprisingly, because I believed this, every time I started dating someone, I would unconsciously self sabotage (or chose entirely emotionally unavailable men) to ruin it & therefore reconfirm my belief that I wasn’t good enough. Annoying how the brain works isn’t it? Anyway, despite being totally unaware that I was entirely responsible for creating the state of my dire dating reality, I used to dread the inevitable question from my loved up friends & those random family friends that you only ever see once every 5 years & who seem to presume they know everything about you.. ‘so, Luce, anyone special on the scene?’. Wall comes up. Total disconnection. The shame would sweep over me in a microsecond, blanketing me in a boiling hot freezing cold cloak. ‘nah, not really dating at the moment, you know — I’m so busy with work’. My auto-response would cut the discussion before it had even begun & would quickly divert it onto a new track of just how busy I was at work, how I was travelling the world, how I was up for promotion, how I was so ‘successful’. My ‘success’ and high flyingness gave me a nice little mask which allowed me to hide from the genuine shame that I felt for not having been good enough to be ‘picked’ like all my pals had.
As women, and I can only speak for myself before I piss anyone off, my experience thus far in life is that however much we achieve at work, however many marathons we run, or charities we support, or countries we visit, or promotions we get, we aren’t really given our seat at the metaphorical table until we have a man in our lives. There is something missing from our identities until we can be placed neatly in the societal box of ‘engaged’ or ‘married’. My get out clause of all of this, however ashamed I was internally (I’m actually smiling as I write this realising just how far I’ve come), was to put myself in the box of ‘career woman’. It’s a little bit further down on the shelf but it’s a box nonetheless & it protected me from feeling like I was somehow failing at life. Maybe if I just kept on climbing the ladder & kept doing all the stuff I was doing, I would be ‘successful’ and find some form of contentment with it. The problem, was that the work itself, didn’t make me that happy — the bigger and more luxe life my ‘career woman’ box became, the emptier and emptier I felt. Luckily, despite my generous salary, I never got into the ‘I deserve all this cash because I am just great’ headspace which does seem to infect some people. Most likely because I was always terrified I was about to be fired but it did mean that I started to use spending money as a way to fill the emptiness I was feeling every morning. It’s been proven, god knows how many times, that having ‘stuff’ doesn’t make us happy because of hedonic adaptation which basically means we get used to all the ‘stuff’ around us & then just have to buy more to get that little kick again. I know this cycle well — I’ll never forget one particular morning when I spent £300 on the tube on my way to work on the Sézane sale. Anyone who travels on the Jubilee line knows that this is no mean feat, the internet is TERRIBLE & meant that every time we got into a station I had to refresh my wifi to keep scrolling desperately through dresses, selecting them, then losing internet, having to reselect, then find I had two in my basket… don’t even get me started on the payment situation. Anyway, despite my efforts & feeling great when I got to work #bossladywithfrenchclothes, when the stuff arrived, all I felt was guilt & that little pang of emptiness, so off I went to buy something else. The thing is, we are actually pretty simple creatures & it doesn’t take much to make us pretty happy — we’ve just got so disconnected from what actually matters that we end up searching for fulfilment in the wrong places. You know what feels better than buying £300 of french clothes on the tube? Having a really open, honest, vulnerable conversation & finding that the other person is really listening to you. What about walking in the park when Autumn is around the corner & there is a bite in the air and the leaves are just turning. What about reading a book where you get so engrossed in it that you don’t notice the time & suddenly you’ve been reading for 2 hours non stop. It took me a loooong time to realise it, but eventually I figured out that it really takes very very little to be happy once you’ve done some work on yourself to figure out which gremlins hijack your thoughts periodically & how to kick them out.
When I decided earlier this year to call it quits on my city #highflier life, I had so many people tell me how ‘brave’ I was, how they had thought of making that big life shift but couldn’t somehow work up the courage to do it. I guess it’s easy to forget when we look at other peoples lives, the journey that has taken them to where they are now. I knew probably 6 months into my first job that finance probably wasn’t for me..I’ll never forget when I left the metaphorical punch bag job my boss telling me that me & finance was a square peg, round hole situation, I might be good at it, but it would never really fit. I carried on for so long because my identity was so deeply woven in being an achiever & my work helped me confirm that to the world. Side note, I also carried on because I loved the people & I did find some of the work pretty stimulating, as was being surround by lots of really smart people, but that wasn’t enough for me to ignore the incessant murmur telling me that I was destined for something else. Unwinding an identity as deeply entrenched as mine was takes a lot of hard work & I’d be lying if I said I was ‘done’. That said, I am far enough down the road that I’ve realised the extent of my obsession with achieving to prove worth & the huge difference between my internal dialogue and what people see on the outside. I’ve realised that I have a tendency to ‘perform’ to get people to like me. I’ve realised that I like to feel approved of so can sometimes make decisions that aren’t necessarily my own, but are formed on the basis that someone else will like them & therefore, like me. The power of uncovering all this stuff, is that I suddenly found the agency to not follow what my head was telling me all the time. To maybe question doing something on the basis of someone else wanting me to. To really sit & work out what would make MY LIFE feel like a success rather than what society would deem a success. It’s a bit like unpicking one of those necklaces that as soon as you put in a bag with other necklaces get all tangled up together. It takes a lot of patience to try to understand where it’s got tangled, whether it’s tangled up with another necklace or it’s just tangled up with it’s own tail. Knot after knot, you start to see it loosening up, little parts of it becoming freer and freer until eventually you’ve undone all the knots & the pendant can flow freely around and around without getting stuck on a gnarled up piece of chain. I think I was stuck on a gnarled up piece of chain for a while.
We all have the power to make choices in our lives which feel right for us. What I think makes making those choices difficult is all the stories we tell ourselves about what making that choice would ‘mean’. For me, it was what it would ‘mean’ to step away from the rat race, whether by doing that somehow I was a less of a person, less of a success. What it would ‘mean’ for my relationships, whether people would accept my choices. What it would ‘mean’ to not be earning as much anymore, how I would survive without the salary & whether I’d miss the financial freedom of a well paid job. I found answers to all of these & answers that felt right for me — of course I still have doubts, of course I still wonder what I’m actually going to be doing with my life a year from now or if I’ll go back to my old world at some point. I question myself all the time, especially when I can sense other people judging my choices but the freedom, alignment & energy I feel waking up every morning, working on projects that I love & spreading the work which has completely changed the way I view life is so inspiring that I can’t help but feel an immense sense of gratitude for being where I am right now. I never planned to go into finance, just like I never planned to quit a job with nothing to go to at 31 in the middle of a pandemic, but I have this everlasting spring of trust deep inside me that everything is working out exactly as it should & that I’m exactly where I need to be.
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