Poorna Bell (Photo: Poorna Bell)
Poorna Bell (Photo: Poorna Bell)

LIFE HONESTLY

A lesson I learnt in 2017? Quitting your job can lead to a successful life

At the beginning of the year Poorna Bell left a high-powered job in London to hit the road aged 36. The benefits have been huge, she says

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By Poorna Bell on

At the start of this year, I found myself circling the block around my office in the cold, crying on the phone to my sister. I rarely cried at work; normally I was known as the person who kept calm even when everything was in chaos. Through the corner of my eye I saw a male colleague sneaking out for a cigarette. He took one look at my face, and the sight of him scuttling in the opposite direction as fast as he could made me pause long enough to notice where I was standing: the UCLH Macmillan Cancer Centre. I was metres away from where life pressed so closely against death, where people fought so hard – not for a promotion, more pay, a better job title, more power – but for their survival. It was a necessary, sobering moment because I had forgotten I had something in common with these people. Not cancer, but re-evaluating your life in the presence of death.

A lot of people – especially those of us in urban bubbles – live our lives believing we have no choice in things. It may sound harsh but there tends to be an inertia around making proper changes because it’s easier to moan about what’s wrong, rather than taking action to make it right. But death cuts through a lot of that.

My experience of death, at that point, was that I had lost my husband Rob to suicide 18 months previously. I remember a clear moment when I saw him in the funeral home, and understood that when it comes to the bones of your existence, you’re not going to think about that shitty meeting you had, or the times you lost sleep over work. You are going to think of things you wished you’d done only when you are stripped of a currency you no longer possess: time. Despite knowing this, I still ended up at breaking point. As someone who talks about mental health a lot, and speaks out about the need for people to be kind to themselves, I wasn’t doing a very good job of taking my own advice.

The year before, I wrote a book about Rob and our life together, which meant that for six months, I worked a busy day job and then on weekends I would lock myself away and write. Writing was a godsend, but it also took a lot out of me emotionally. I also did a lot of public speaking around mental health. On top of that, I didn’t just have a job, I had the most powerful job of my career. I worked as the UK Executive Editor for HuffPost, which meant being number two to the editor-in-chief and also working across the rest of the business. I loved my job, and I liked the people I worked with. But I also knew I had to quit.

Telling people I was going to leave my job earned a lot of raised eyebrows. “You’re leaving this amazing job to go… travelling?”

One of the benefits of working on wellbeing content in my job was knowing how to recognise the signs, and I was fast approaching burnout. I didn’t want a medal for it because the structure of work saved me, but I returned to my job three weeks after Rob’s funeral. Most people who had been through what I had took six months to a year off work; I hadn’t given myself a break. Plus, there were things I really wanted to do with my life. Having never undertaken a gap year or career break, I wanted to travel for about eight months, and along the way spend some proper time with my parents, and Rob’s parents. But telling people I was going to leave my job earned a lot of raised eyebrows. “You’re leaving this amazing job to go… travelling?”

It seemed mad to other people that aged 36, I would leave London and my career, to go off and do something as trite as a journey of self-discovery. But I wasn’t doing an Eat, Pray, Love. I didn’t want to seek the solution to my sadness elsewhere or bonk my way across Asia. The fact is, that I was so defined by my job that I wanted to see who and what I really was when I stripped all of that away. And at a time when everyone around me seemed to be popping out babies or getting married, I needed to remove myself from my slightly stifling personal life to work out what I actually wanted.

But it’s not like I fell into my new life screaming “Yippee-ki-yay motherfuckers!”. The doubts of other people really got to me in the first few weeks. I was gripped with a fear that I would never be able to get another job when I returned, that this was a terrible idea. And even though I had a second book deal, without my job title, I felt like a nobody. The problem was that I was still clinging onto my old life, too afraid to free fall. It reminded me of that moment when you’re learning to dive, and you have to do a backwards-roll from the boat into the water. It feels counterintuitive but you have to trust that your regulator will kick in and help you breathe. Yet here I was, holding my breath. If I didn’t learn to let go, this whole thing would be over before I knew it.

So around month two, I stopped taking on so much freelance work. I stopped checking the news for a while, and I noticed how intensely people reacted to things that were actually pretty insignificant. I couldn't check my phone all the time because I didn't have roaming data on my phone, so I actually saw things, made conversation with people. Although the journey is still ongoing, I’ve figured out more than enough to have made this decision worthwhile. I’ve learned that I can’t control everything, nor would I want to. That it’s OK to let go and make mistakes. That I loved my job but I am not my job. (Which, let me tell you, is a solid lesson if ever you lose your job.) That spending proper time with my parents has been more valuable than any amount of money.  

So as I reflect on where I was 12 months ago, I realise how far I’ve come, and not just geographically. Whatever the outcome of this, and whatever I learn, it will always be the time when I overcame everyone’s doubts to fulfil a promise to myself. And in future, whenever I feel like I don’t have a choice, I’m going to remember the time when I created one for myself, took a deep breath and entered free fall.

@poornabell

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