Episode 109: Ambition on Hold

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

 This time…renegotiating your relationship with ambition and success…

“Why can’t I take some time now and just be? And just explore options, explore the world…what’s wrong with that? Why do we have to constantly have ambition? I don’t agree with that anymore.” 

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The most successful episode I have ever done was called Redefining Success. In it I talked to two women, Whitney Johnson and Tess Vigeland. Each had made a break with their past work life. They were embarking on new ventures and thinking about themselves and their careers in new ways. But Tess, especially. She and I used to work at the same public radio show. Tess was a host – a great job. A prestigious job. A well paid job. And then, several years ago, she quit. With nothing to go to. She wrote a book called Leap – about leaving your job when you don’t have anything lined up. And when she and Whitney and I spoke that December of 2015, Tess was about to leap again. She and her husband had split up, sold the house. She’d put her stuff in storage, left the dogs with her ex, and she was setting off to Southeast Asia – on her own, for at least a year.

“I've certainly traveled before but I have not traveled alone like this, so solo traveling is a whole different ballgame.”

More than 18 months later she’s still on the road. She’s based herself Bangkok.

And I know few of us are able to do this – up and leave our old lives and go and live on the other side of the world for a while. Still, I really wanted to check in with Tess and find out how her experiment was going.  

I wanted to know how this experience had changed her, a very career-minded person – the way she thought about herself, her career, and, of course, her future.

I started by asking how the travel plan has unfolded so far.

“It has unfolded in ways I could never have even dreamed of. You know as I as I've told you before I lived the life that was very planned, that was very goal-oriented. You know I set out what I wanted to do and then I would, as a general rule, accomplish it. And that went 100 percent for my career. And so the whole idea of essentially moving quite literally halfway around the world and having no idea what I was going to do once I got there was anathema to my very being. But that’s exactly why I wanted to do it. You know I had just gotten divorced and sold my house and I didn't have a normal regular job that I was going to. So it was really kind of a perfect time in my life to make that second leap.”

She landed in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. She spent four months there and says Vietman was a hard place to live. It wasn’t just the language barrier, but the heat, and the fact she had no real friends. But she says Vietnam was a great base, and a good place to get used to this new way of being.

“…for someone who didn't have a plan I did pretty well, I ended up visiting what five countries while I was living in Vietnam. And then after that I moved to Bangkok which is where I've been since April of 2016 and now I've been to 13 countries in the last 16 months. And it has been extraordinary and I have I still don't have a plan. I don't know what I'm going to be doing next month much less a year from now. But I've gotten used to that and I'm absolutely thriving on it.”

She says she’ll go to a new place with an idea of the kinds of things she wants to do, but she doesn’t plan anything concrete before she leaves.

“So I'm very seat of the pants now and that is, that is just night and day from who I used to be. And I really like it, and it's hard to describe why that is except that there is a freedom to it that is so fulfilling to me at this point in my life. I don't know that it would have been the same had I done this 20 years ago, even 10 years ago. You know I'm 48 years old right now, and I feel like I'm actually in the prime of my life because I'm doing this freeform life that is not anything that I ever would have seen coming down the pike.”

AM-T: “That so good to hear because I remember when I spoke to you just before you were about to leave, I remarked that in some of your writing even though you were writing this book about leaping, I could feel some of your uncertainty about your decision coming off the pages sometimes. You had days when you were like oh my God, what have I done, have I made a huge mistake? And that has all gone away, it sounds like.”

“Well… I don't know if I would say I would say it was all gone away. I certainly, yeah I certainly have those moments where I'm like, What are you doing? What are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere where you don't have any family around? I do have a lot of friends now which makes a big difference. But I'm in a completely foreign land, I'm in a completely foreign region. It's not even like I'm in Europe or South America. I'm in Southeast Asia and it doesn't really get more different than that.

And there are times when I'm both homesick and I also wonder, I often wonder if I'm doing permanent damage to my ability to go back into what people would think of as a normal life. Now I don't necessarily know that I want to do that, but if I would decide to do so, say come back to the States, get either a journalism job or a job in some other industry where I'm working you know a regular workaday life, I wonder if I have been gone so long now that that is going to be difficult. Not only have I been gone so long but I'm aging. You know I am getting to that point where at least you read in the articles, it can be hard for people to get back into the workforce. So those are the kinds of things that I ask myself every once in a while.

But that is far, far outweighed by my sense of self-satisfaction and my sense of adventure and my sense of taking advantage of a time in my life where I can do this. And you know to me as a woman, I've been I've been a liberated woman for he's going on well let's just say a very long time since they went to college. I lived alone in my 20s. And you know I've always had a sense of self and a sense of being an individual but you know I think as a woman when you leave what's really comfortable and you go out and go on and really epic adventure like this that doesn't have an end date, it's given me a sense of self confidence that I never had before.”

I loved hearing that because when I started traveling alone I felt the same way. And I’d been nervous. But there’s something incredibly satisfying about knowing you can cope. Knowing you don’t have to have a friend or partner with you to get where you need to go or just to eat in a restaurant.

“You're right. You know I think for the most part we all spend a lot of time around other people, even kind of an extroverted introvert like me. You still do go to the movies with somebody, you still do go out to dinner with other people. But for the last 18 months or so a lot of what I've been doing has been by myself, and people will often ask me do you get lonely? You know, do you do you feel alone? And what I say is there's a big difference between being alone and being lonely. And learning the difference between those two things has been invaluable to me…and I'm not encouraging everyone in their 40s to do this but there is something to being in the mid-stride of your life and having time to yourself, to get comfortable with yourself again.”

Tess and her ex-husband didn’t have children so she wasn’t getting used to being an empty nester – just to being on her own again after 15 years or so with another person. But staying abroad as long as Tess…that’s unusual. And at this point I had to ask her about money. She told me her house had sold for a lot, and she’s still living on the proceeds of that sale. Southeast Asia is a cheap place to live compared to the US and Tess hasn’t worked much at all since she’s been away.

“But there's part of me that is anxious to be productive again. For a while I berated myself for not being productive. I felt really bad. This is I think a very American thing to feel bad because you're not doing something even though you don't have to. And I got over that a while ago and have simply just enjoyed this life that I have. I think we may have talked about this when you and Whitney and I talked. One of the big things I struggled with when I quit my job in public radio was how to define success for myself when I didn't have an audience anymore, when I didn't have you know people who recognized me when they heard my voice in the elevator. And now I've really relaxed into the idea that I don't care anymore.”

AM-T: “That was gonna be my next question…we discussed this idea of not just success but ambition and you’d been so ambitious…and you said you’d questioned yourself and you’d talked to your parents, and your dad said when you were a young girl you didn’t like yourself very much and everything you’ve been doing since is about proving you’re valuable and that you mean something in the world.”

“Wow. I need to go back and read my own book.”

AM-T: “But it was so interesting – because it is a huge thing. You were so defined by what you did and now you’re out there on your own, traveling around a huge part of the world. So how do you think about yourself? Do you think of yourself now as a valuable person outside of your work?”

“Yes. And it’s because I really have tried to stop measuring my own value, worth from what other people think. I think that is a life struggle for almost everybody. I wouldn’t say I’ve conquered it, but I have come to a place where I’ve stopped feeling bad about not having ambition right now. I worked for 20 plus years and I worked my ass off, and I reached close to the peak of my industry. So why can’t I take some time now and just be? Explore options, explore the world…what’s wrong with that, why do we have to constantly have ambition? I don’t agree with that anymore. A lot of people won’t agree with me. But I feel so much satisfaction every time I land in a new country and am able to function and can find my way around and figure out what to do, where to go, who to talk to. That to me is a life skill.

One thing I do wish is that I had more self-discipline. I will say that. I think self-discipline is a part of ambition. I wish I had the ambition to write a second book. I have the material for it. I think I will at some point but have I started to do that 18 months in? No. have I kept good enough notes on all my travels, no. Do I wish I had a little more ambition in me at this very moment in time so I could get done some of these things I know I have in me? Yes. Am I frustrated by that? Yes. Do I have a little self-loathing about that sometimes? Yes, but that said, I am so happy Ashley. I love my life right now. I cannot imagine it being any different right now.”

So Tess is living happily in Thailand at the moment. She loves the people. Loves the apartment she’s renting in Bangkok. She’s grateful for the career success she’s had…

“And I now I let myself be content with that for now. And I don’t worry about what things are gonna look like in 5 years, and that’s really freeing.”

AM-T: “Yeah, I was actually gonna ask is it almost a relief not to think about yourself in career terms?”

“Yes, yes, it is a huge relief. There are parts of me that do feel like…and I may have touched on this last time we talked…I do feel I had a position of responsibility and a high level position where maybe I should have stayed there to help other women get to that place, but I didn’t. And I guess now I hope that I will find the self-discipline sooner rather than later to write about this experience, to talk about solo travel as a female – to talk about being out on your own, to talk about being comfortable in your own skin and being with yourself, and nobody else for a while…I think that’s just as valuable as being somebody, as a woman, in a normal career.”

AM-T: “Obviously this experience has changed you as a person, you’re thinking in new ways, it’s opened up your world hugely. Do you think when you do eventually begin to work again do you think it’ll be, you’ll be more divorced from the yukkier sides of work life like office politics and general workplace dysfunction? I mean do you think this experience has lifted you above all that? Or…”

“Mmm…wow. Great question, that’s a really great question and I’ll be honest with you, it’s not something I’ve thought a lot about, again because I don’t see myself going back to that. Despite the fact that I miss what I used to do and I still love it, I mean if I were offered my dream job back home I’d probably be on the next flight back. Now if that happened would I be better able to function, to…I think what you’re asking is let more things roll off my back, I think so. I believe that I would. I’m generally more relaxed now, as I said earlier I’m not as concerned with my own ambition and related to that what other people think of me and my ambition. So I think when you feel like you are working in a job to bring some self-satisfaction for yourself, and hopefully do some good for others, always, but when you’re not so worried about all the noise…I’ve really separated myself from the noise. I’ve even separated myself from some of the political noise happening back home…I’m horrified by what’s happening back home but I’ve separated myself from it to a large degree. I think all of that means I have coping mechanisms that would serve me well if I re-entered the traditional workforce. I don’t know that but I also think my level of confidence would make a difference. I think I’ve been very insecure my whole life and you touched on that with the conversation I had with my dad. And it’s not to say that I have no issues any more with insecurity, but I’m certainly more self-possessed. And the confidence – if you’re confident in your own abilities and in what you do then it’s a lot easier to turn off the noise, and I wish I’d had those skills prior to quitting my job.”

She says she would have handled her departure quite differently if it had happened today, and the events leading up to it.

“I think first of all, I would have spoken up more for myself. I did not do that enough in the workplace that I was in and I look back and I’m really bummed out about that. I think I had more power than I both realized and used. Now I see that I do have power. I have the power to speak up.” 

But at the time, as she said, she was riddled with insecurity.

I think I had imposter syndrome my entire career. That I didn’t believe I was good enough to have the job that I had. Which is absurd. There are so many other people who could have had my job but I got it and kept it for a really long time so I must have been doing something right. But I never believed that…and particularly not to enough of an extent that I was willing to push back on what I considered poor treatment in my workplace. I wish I had made much more of a case for myself, I wish I would have fought for myself harder.”

AM-T:I think that’s an excellent point and I’ve only started to practice in recent years as well…it’s almost like you’re nervous about standing up and saying certain things, but it’s only when you say those things that they really respect you.”

“Yes! Right. And why is that so hard to learn? I mean frankly I don’t think it should have to be that way. If you’re doing a good job at something you should just plain get the respect that you deserve, but if you’re not getting it then for God’s sake stand up for yourself and demand it…absolutely demand it. And if you’re not getting it go somewhere else where they will respect you.”

Tess Vigeland, speaking from Bangkok.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.