Have you ever had one of those moments? You know the ones that slap you in the face and you realise there’s a choice to be made. This was me in terms of my job last year. So, what has running taught me?
It had been brewing for a while. I was walking down a nondescript corridor in Whitehall and the thought entered my head ‘I can’t do this anymore, something’s got to change’. And the thought stuck.
I was lucky. This happened in the early stages of a radical restructure where my Department was being reduced by a third. I put my hand up and got a voluntary exit.
I decided on the route to take after much soul-searching and with the help of a career change coach. What became clear is that the most sensible option, though perhaps the most risky, was self-employment. I’m now a strategy consultant – Keyah Consulting. While my focus is health, I’m branching out into other areas and putting my writing, research, and analytical skills to good use.
It’s not easy and I finding this all a little terrifying and nerve-wracking, but very exciting.
On being self-employed and what running has taught me
It’s a steep learning curve
I remember that very first mile I ran. It sucked and I hurt for days. I had no idea what I was doing. Sometimes I still don’t.
The same goes for being self-employed. I started off with little idea of what I was doing. I’ve spoken to lots of people and read a lot. I’m the first to admit I love a bit of research.
But reading and research could only take me so far. So I’m ‘crafting experiments’, new practices and tests to allow me to test out new versions of my professional self on a limited and tangible scale without committing to a single direction*. It’s like learning to run – testing, what works, what doesn’t.
What this means in practice?
- Going to events – from events for start-ups, to pitches on new health technologies, to hearing about the future impact of AI, sessions on health innovation, to talks on economics. The key here is not to just sit and listen but to push myself to ask questions and speak to people.
- Testing my offer – I learned very quickly that saying I’m setting up a business/consultancy doesn’t really do it. Instead, I now say I’m a consultant with particular expertise in strategy development, risk analysis, stakeholder relations, and equalities. Each conversation is a little different and I test and test again.
- Asking questions – I’m nosey. I’m interested in what people do and finding where we might have shared interests. This sometimes leads onto other conversations.
The main thing I’ve learned is to make progress, I need to experiment, try this new self on for fit. If it works, great. If it doesn’t work, I think about why, and tweak or try something new.
Things rarely go to plan
I need to remind myself of this when things don’t work out how I expect them to – when leads go cold and follow-ups fail to materialise. This is where my head and heart are a little in conflict. My rational self knows that people are busy, that pieces of work sometimes stop or change, that people change their mind. The emotional bit of me finds this frustrating.
This is where running comes in. I’ve learned that training and races rarely go to plan. So what do I do instead? I decide beforehand on a number of scenarios. For my 50k earlier this year, it went a little like this –
Scenario 1: Best case – finish in under 6 ½ hours. It became clear pretty early on and with the number of hills (this was in the Chilterns) this wasn’t going to be the case.
Scenario 2: Finish within 7 hours – was on track until about half way through where I hurt a muscle in my arm. First it felt like an insect bite. But within a few miles the pain started radiating through my shoulder. I couldn’t use my arm and instead rested it on my shoulder. This changed my running gait.
Scenario 3: Finish within 7 ½ hours – Yep, by the time I was standing in the middle of a field sobbing in pain, I realised this was not achievable but I would finish.
Scenario 4: Finish within 8 hours – I was a the top of the second to last hill. I remember seeing a distance marker. I thought it said a mile and I knew I couldn’t cover a mile in less than 10 minutes or so. As I got closer, I realised I was wrong, it said 1 km. I ran. It was probably more of a stagger. I finished. I got a print out of my time, not knowing if I’d beat that 8 hours. The final time – 7:58:26!
Thinking through the range of possible outcomes helps me manage and adjust expectations and how I feel when things don’t go to plan. I’m applying this to my new working life.
On the importance of tribes and networks
Embarking on any new business brings into stark relief the importance of networks and tribes.
I’ve been building my running tribe. Via my club, through social media, and as part of the Racecheck crew, I’ve found myself part of culture with a similar set of values – it’s friendly, supportive, encouraging. I listen to advice I’m given and I share some of what I’ve learned along the way. I hear about races I might be interested in and meet up with people when I go to those races.
But it’s interesting how my running life and working life converge. Moving away from the civil service, with no background in business or consultancy, means I have had to negotiate and build different networks of peers. There are people I know through running with a set of experiences and work lives entirely different to mine – so I ask questions, get to understand how things work, and then try them out.
This, and the events I attend, means putting myself in the right place to meet the people I need to be meeting.
In running, this has been easy and a lot of fun!
The importance of patience
To improve at running takes time. While it’s possible to see bits of improvement in say a 5k time in a few weeks with the right training, this needs to be built on a solid foundation. It’s taken 5 years of running, 2 marathons, and a 50k to feel like I could run – that it feels natural, like breathing. These days on some of my runs my mind wanders. I’ll look down and suddenly realise I’m running – it’s not something I need to think about.
And so it is with changing careers. This is where it’s been so helpful to read and speak to people who have made the shift. I know someone for whom it took a year to get their first paid work, and someone else who took 3 ½ to 4 years for things to finally settle. Knowing this helps me at those moments late at night or early morning when my thoughts can go into a bit of a panic spiral.
Running has taught me some important lessons about setting up and running a business, and about myself – I’ve got a lot to learn, plans need to be flexible, I need to be patient, and at the heart of all of this is people.
*Herminia Ibarra, Working Identity: Unconventional strategies for reinventing your career, Harvard Business School Press, 2004.
If you’ve set up a business or been self-employed, I’d love to hear about what you’ve learned along the way.