Devan Bailey, as told to Katie Thompson
I can still remember how it felt. The moment everything changed for me and my career. I was in the stairwell of my office building, heading back to my desk after snatching a few brief moments to myself. I’d been working non-stop for months, barely sleeping, only thinking about what I had to do next and how I was going to do it.
I was living in a permanent state of stress; I’d been feeling it in my stomach for weeks, but now suddenly it was rising up into my chest too and I felt like I couldn’t breathe, that I couldn’t see straight. The next thing I knew, I was in a taxi with my head stuck out the window gulping down the cool air. And then I was at home, lying in a ball on the floor, wondering what was happening and how I’d got here.
I wanted to be someone with a big, impressive job
Back when I was finishing my masters degree in Chemistry I’d been faced with a choice. I could continue in academia and study for a PhD or I could become what I rather vaguely termed a ‘businessman’. It was a dilemma. On the one hand I really loved the rigour of learning, the intellectual challenge of science; but on the other I wanted to make money, be someone with a big, impressive job.
I chose the latter, thinking that to be worth something in the world, I needed to measure up to my own perceptions of success. I opted for audit, seeing it as the best way to understand the primary functions of business, and I got a prized role at a Big Four firm, quickly earning the requisite letters after my name and setting my sights firmly on the partner track.
Ten years later I was burned out; utterly broken down. I’d wholeheartedly committed to my choice of becoming a ‘businessman’; so wholeheartedly, in fact, that I’d pursued my idealised version of success almost at the expense of everything else. I’d become the perfect embodiment of corporate achievement. I worked harder than anyone, I took on more projects, more responsibility, anything to prove how good I was, how worthy of promotion.
More, more, more!
I moved continents, crossing 3,000 miles of Atlantic ocean from my London home to the always-on, beating heart of ambition that is New York City. I worked harder than ever, but thanks to the way NYC is geared for convenience, I actually had more time. My commute was shorter, my personal admin was outsourced via takeouts and concierge services. And I filled that extra time with more work: always the first one in the office, the last to leave. More, more, more!
I loved America instantly and I knew that I wanted it to be my home for the long term. But with that realisation came a new pressure. Failure was not an option; my visa was linked to my job; I was caught in the expat trap of my life being subservient to my work. So, I leaned into the trap and my goal crystallised further: I was going to out-American US corporate culture! I was going to make partner early, I was going to prove how worthy I was so that my time-limited visa would become a Greencard, and my residency would be secured.
Flash forward to being curled up in that ball on the floor. It was as if the music had stopped all at once. In the lead up to this moment I’d worked and worked. I’d said all the right things, impressed all the right people, regardless of the toll it took on me and those closest to me. I’d been living in a whirlwind of crisis for years, largely of my own making. I could have said something, I could have asked my employer for help. But that would have meant acknowledging weakness, admitting that I wasn’t perfect partner material. The anxiety and dread had become unmanageable but still I’d kept cranking the music louder, kept taking on more.
And I’d felt ashamed to admit that I couldn’t cope. I didn't know who to turn to for help or advice; I’d convinced everyone around me - co-workers, friends, even my partner - that I was a huge success; that I could take the pressure, however tough it got. It wasn’t that I’d alienated my support network, it was that I hadn’t believed I’d ever need one, so I hadn’t invested in trying to find those who might understand and be able to help me when things went wrong. I naively thought that everyone around me shared my results-focused worldview and wouldn’t be interested in discussing things like personal growth and mindset change.
But changing my mindset was what needed to happen. Once I’d managed to uncurl from the ball - and that didn’t happen overnight - I started piecing things back together. At first, I assumed it was just about ‘recovering’. Maybe taking a bit of time off, trying to get out of work at a decent hour, that sort of thing. But thanks to the help and advice from others that I finally sought, I realised that something more fundamental was necessary. I had to make real changes in my life and my career if I was going to avoid ending up back on the floor.
What got me here wasn’t going to get me out
I came to realise the importance of looking outside your direct sphere of influence. Don’t get me wrong, my employer was incredibly supportive and stood by me while I picked myself up and got back on the proverbial horse. But the reality was that the behaviours that had got me to that place were not going to get me out of it. I needed different perspectives, different opinions about what success means, different approaches to how I viewed work in the context of life.
I also realised the importance of not caring so much what people thought about me. I know that’s easy to say, but when you’ve hit rock bottom, your perspective really does change. I was suddenly open to admitting what I didn’t know, to asking for help, to projecting a new, more vulnerable version of myself.
Interestingly, that new vulnerability made me more effective when I returned to my job. I was better equipped to recognise that how I felt was the result of what was going on around me, rather than something innate within me. And knowing that made me react in a more measured, thoughtful and authentic way; more disconnected from myself even. I didn’t strive to always say exactly the right thing or impress the right person out of fear of looking stupid or doing something ‘career limiting’. To be honest, the five years after my breakdown were probably the best I had in the corporate world. But I came to see that my own version of ‘best’ no longer aligned with the aim of becoming a partner; of climbing the big ladder I’d originally envisioned.
Turning ‘career limiting’ into a new vision of success
So, in effect my old career path was limited but in the best possible way. I knew I no longer belonged to that world or to that vision of success. I still passionately believe that corporations can be great places to do great things, that they serve a vital purpose and people can build happy careers in that setting. But I’ve now learned from my experiences and have carved a different path for myself. A path that builds on what I went through and what I learned about myself, and lets me help others navigate similar circumstances.
Striking out on your own - especially after the security of working for a big global firm - is scary. There are more unknowns, more challenges, more uncertainty. It’s incredibly tough. But it’s also empowering and intoxicating and I’ve never felt more alive. I’ve also realised that my Big Four ‘pedigree’ is actually not that relevant to running a business day-to-day! Instead, I’m now learning something new every day, and I’m in control of my own agenda and my own time. It’s exhilarating!
Yeah, there are big pressures - we all need to earn a living after all - but doing that on my own terms makes me feel so much more successful than I did when I put on my expensive suit and headed out for my 14-hour day as a ‘businessman’. For me, my career has become a choice not a ladder, and I’m pretty happy with that!
Advice to my younger self
You have so much more time than you think you do. Try everything, don’t think there’s only one path and you have to stick to it rigidly. Take risks and challenge your own perception of success and happiness. Things might take a while to fall into place, but that’s ok.
Back yourself - you’re your number one fan after all! And do something every day that proves your own worth and value to yourself. It doesn’t have to be big!
Care less about what other people think of you. Don’t make decisions based on what others expect of you; or worse, what you think they expect.
And know that others will be there to help and offer you alternative viewpoints. You only have to ask. That’s why I joined Voco, to create a trusted network of people I could turn to for different views and perspectives. It’s what I needed most in the eye of my own personal storm, and now it’s what’s helping me build the kind of career I want, on my own terms.