I’m not sure about all the men reading this…but most of the career women will know—all too well—that dreaded illness: The Imposter Syndrome!!!  And trust me, if you don’t know it, you are very very lucky indeed.

I never asked Carol whether she suffered from it, but I am 99.9% certain, she wouldn’t even know the term.  And I say that with a tremendous amount of R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  Acting as an amateur shrink here (with absolutely no credentials at all…), I would say that this single fact is one of the key reasons that she’s been able to move from that uber-high-powered A-List Designer job to a very comfortable and happy sort-of-retired person.  Admittedly, you do have to add in the fact that she hasn’t totally “retired.”  She’s still able to take on a few projects and have a toe…or a foot…or, if she wanted it…a leg in the door.  “Design will always be part of my life” she says forcefully.

She summarized her current state of mind so beautifully: “There comes a time in your life when you can actually say to yourself that–“I am f-ing good at what I do. With all the holes that I climbed out of in my life, I really accomplished IT.  I feel like Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat up in the air and saying…’I made it after all.’”  “That self respect,” she summarizes, “allowed me to accept retirement.”  And as I listened, I sat back and applauded that she could actually give herself that often elusive “A”.  As she talked on, I thought of something she said during our conversation about why she was so frequently featured in all the decorating magazines– “I gave good quote.”   

Carol didn’t start out life wanting to be a designer.   I mean…if you were a woman graduating college in the late 60s, many people substituted the word BA …with an M-R-S.  There was a belief that College was a way to get a husband. She didn’t just do that.  She had a child as well.  Stifled in that role, she found her calling at design school.

Her career just mushroomed…exponentially to a 10-person firm with huge projects around the globe. And for about 15 years, Carol just loved what she was doing. The satisfaction she derives from her ability to actually change people’s lives for the better is immeasurable—and it should be.  Of course, to achieve that kind of success, her hours, travel, attention to innumerable details and overall commitment were all consuming, but she didn’t mind.  “My career was MY identity” and she loved it. “How much did you have to sacrifice to skyrocket?”,  I wondered. “I would say that I sacrificed nothing…not a bit…although others might disagree with that assessment”, she murmured.  And then she rethought that response, asserting that she absolutely did sacrifice something…eventually: “Peace of Mind.”

It wasn’t her lack of interest or burnout our diminution of success that prompted her to shut down her successful business.  If you are on top of the world and love what you do…then why in heavens name would you do that? I wondered.  Here Carol launched into a sort of diatribe into the changing nature of the design business. The new world of design that she faced in the late 90s transformed those “not sacrifices” into “sacrifices”.  With the enjoyment gone, she shut down the business.

And she shut down as well. …cold turkey.   Her reactions?  First, she admitted, “I felt so much relief that I didn’t have to put up with that aggravation any more.”  Second and more pernicious, “All I wanted to do for 6 months was to stare at a wall.  I was in a sort of a coma.  The last few years in my company felt like en elephant was sitting on top of me and then the elephant got up.”  

Not surprisingly, she snapped out of that coma to ease back into the design world. It was the introspective look at “who am I” that was the catalyst.  “If I’m not a designer, I don’t exist,” she admitted so she started to put her life back together and take on assignments SHE wanted and with people SHE wanted to work with.  Who was her first client, apart from some consulting?  Herself!  

So, she’s now in that enviable middle ground, where she can have her design identity, select clients who she wants to work with, operate with low overhead and importantly control her own destiny.  The beautiful thing is that when I ask her whether she prefers this life to her past frenetic, top of the A-List life…and she pauses, thinks and admits: “I don’t really know…there are plusses and minuses to both.”  Of course, she regrets that the old days of her business which gave her so much satisfaction have gone the way of the do-do bird…but she accepts the new reality and has adapted to it, in her own way.  How many people can do what they love…but maintain the ability to control it.  That’s so rare today, when so many people have to make a choice between the stresses of work and whatever we decide to make of our retirement.  

Interestingly, she doesn’t miss the incredible “busyness” of her old life and she marvels at what her younger self was able  to accomplish.  She revels in the control and structure that she now imposes.  Here are her “rules” :

  • Never set an alarm clock…well she admits to 2-3 times in 6 years
  • Don’t get up until she feels like it
  • Don’t do ANYTHING she doesn’t want to do
  • Only socialize with people she wants to be with…not the clients who she didn’t want to entertain
  • Don’t be addicted to the computer—it goes on at 10 and shuts down at around 6 PM

Our conversation about what makes her happy today was incredibly moving, so I’ll just quote her: “I am definitely a happy camper.  I wake up in the morning, open the draperies and I have wonderful views.  I just sit there for a few minutes and I am very grateful for all that I have done and when it’s dark out, I close the drapes and feel the same way.  I did it my way…and I did it all by myself.  I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and know that I lived a really good and productive life and that there a lot of lives out there that I touched and changed for the better.  That knowledge gives me the freedom to do what I want.”  With that, we ended our conversation…and there’s certainly nothing I can add to those words.  

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