An Ode to the Working Life I Thought I Hated Pre-Pandemic

It turns out I miss conference rooms, water coolers — and even networking

Photo: Thomas Barwick/Stone/Getty

I used to be proud of being a cactus — a woman who was prickly, hard to know, content in my reclusiveness. After 16 years working in an office, surrounded by a constant stream of chatter, personalities, and politicking, all I craved was quiet. I wanted to focus on the work. Instead of having to work with brands that didn’t align with my values, I no longer had to smile through gritted teeth. In 2013, I left full-time life in favor of building a business on my own terms. No longer was I tethered to vanity metrics; I had the ability to finally educate my clients on playing the long game rather than be forced to gravitate toward the next shiny object.

In before-times, I’d planned a yearlong journey to explore my adopted home of Southern California. I’d travel through the mountains, the sea, and the high and low deserts. In the midst of pandemic lockdowns, I found myself trapped in Palm Springs where temperatures climbed to 118F on a good day. The air was bone-dry, everything was on the verge of kindling. The heat had a way of swallowing you whole.

For the 90 minutes a day when I left my empty house for an empty road that stretched four miles, I kept telling myself, “You’ll get through this.” Far more monstrous things have happened in the world where people have suffered immeasurably. What I hadn’t noticed was I started to say the words out loud. Spoke them through a cloth mask perhaps as a clarion call or prayer because I’d never felt so lonely. I wanted someone, anyone, to hear me.

I actually missed conference rooms with their tepid trays of miniature muffins and soggy, second-tier fruit (no one ever ate the cantaloupe!).

I never had a problem with being alone — I preferred the quiet of my own company even as a child — but the loneliness had become palpable. I’d forgotten what it was like to hold people. Smell their hair. Wonder which shampoo they used.

I actually missed conference rooms with their tepid trays of miniature muffins and soggy, second-tier fruit (no one ever ate the cantaloupe!). A month before lockdown, I took a trip back to New York for a three-day brand development workshop. Had I known about the days and events that would soon follow, I might have lingered longer. Held on to the recordings of our conversations to remember what it was like to share space with curious, smart people.

It’s funny how we took sharing the air we breathed for granted. All the minor idiosyncrasies and annoyances, water coolers and coffee dates, office yogurt thievery, and meetings that could have been emails — it’s strange to feel nostalgic for our most-recent life. We don’t think of what we’ve taken for granted until we’re forced to reckon with its loss.

Back in Palm Springs, where daily, open-mouth sobbing had become a constant, I had an experience that altered me. On my daily walk, I encountered a cactus with pale white flowers in full bloom. The petals were thick and soft, like cashmere, and I leaned in because I’d never seen this before. I’ve either been a cactus or killed them. Here was this plant towering over me at seven feet, teeming with blooms. I realize the metaphor is captain obvious, but still, I hadn’t conceived of something so hard and sharp awakening to a beautiful bloom.

On the way back to my apartment, I stood a few feet away from a coyote. It stared at me, curious, and I know I was supposed to wave my arms and shout it away, but I quietly walked away and, as the space between us widened, it walked away too.

I always thought I didn’t need people until I did. And in those early summer days of 2020, I made a series of small shifts that caused seismic changes in me and my business. I texted a friend: “I’m going to try on this ‘people thing’ for size and see how it fits.”

First, I made a list of former colleagues and peers with whom I haven’t spoken in at least a year. This wasn’t about crass networking or working my contacts; rather, this was about talking to humans and asking how they were holding up. Creating space to share how the personal impacted the professional since it felt as if there was no distinction between the two. Zoom and Crowdcast allowed people into the intimacy of our homes and private lives. How we all create imaginary, constantly shifting lines between work and life in our homes, wondering when one will end and the other will begin to realize we’re flailing in the darkest sea of the two.

I listened to friends whose children I mostly saw in text messages talk about how they were barely holding their shit together. “I don’t know when to breathe” was the refrain. “When will this be over?” everyone whispered aloud. I never had an agenda for these chats other than to be in the company of humans. However, one of the byproducts of cultivating meaningful connections is the fact people have you top-of-mind when a colleague asks for a referral.

Soon, my inbox was flooded with opportunities which had not previously existed.

It took me seven years to design a set of one-and-done productized services. Having suffered New York agency PTSD, I eschewed retainer relationships and long-term engagements in favor of the 6–8-week project. I get in and out before the terror ensues.

Those coffee dates with old colleagues and friends made me revisit my core. My why.

I realized my human-based branding business had a human deficit. I still offer productized services, but I’ve shifted it to include more coaching engagements, longer-term advisory roles, and courses. This shift happened over a period of nine months, and I recently joined a private network for additional support through the transition. A private network also gives me the freedom to road-test ideas, ask for help, pose sensitive questions where I couldn’t have on LinkedIn or anywhere else publicly. I’ve also met a slew of shy introverts going through the same tension — needing people while still safeguarding our recharge time.

I like to think of my transformation from misanthrope hermit to semi-sociable entrepreneur in three phases: First, connecting with people I already know to rejuvenate relationships. Next, shifting my business to include more “people” time, and making space for longer relationship cultivation because projects tend to be more successful and meaningful if both parties are deeply entrenched and invested. And lastly, finding a support network beyond my circle of friends — peers from various industries, ages, and backgrounds who are there to listen, be a cheerleader, or lend a hand.

Covid created a new reality where there was no escaping my rejuvenating time; our default state was loneliness.

No one is more shocked than me by how I’ve changed over the past year. The specter of Covid-19 constantly hovering in the background and the tremendous strain everyone has to endure in varying shapes and degrees has made me more compassionate, empathic, and patient.

It’s easy to believe you don’t need people; you can go at it alone and work in solitude. But Covid created a new reality where there was no escaping my rejuvenating time; our default state was loneliness. Once I allowed people into my life, not only has it rooted me in the world, but helped me build a stronger, more sustainable, purpose-driven business. One rooted in cultivating meaningful relationships with people beyond the final invoice.

I’m not the person I was five, 10, 15 years ago because I care less about success and more about the relationships I’m able to build and grow through my business. The beauty of it is, when you nurture the latter with intention and purpose, the former tends to bloom.

Marketing Exec/Author. Work in Human Parts, OneZero, Forge, Index & Marker. Hire me: t.ly/bEnd7 Brand & Content eBooks: t.ly/ZP5v List: https://cutt.ly/9j7Ngvz

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