Background Note: If you have not watched the 1999 sci fi action flick titled The Matrix, you may not understand some of the references in this article. A segment of avid fans of this film look beyond the fun action and (at the time) ground-breaking special effects to see many philosophical and spiritual themes about how we are all trapped inside a false reality in our lives. [For true fans of this movie, you know this statement is an over-simplification of the many rich themes, symbols, and analogies in the film.]
The first month after I resigned my corporate job in 2004, I remember stopping on the street near Washington Square in Philadelphia and looking around in wonder:
“What on earth are all these people doing? Don’t they have jobs? What are they doing walking around the city in the middle of the day?”
It was one of the first moments when I began to realize how small a world I had lived in during my time working for an international consulting firm. My world had been comprised of the 14,000+ colleagues in my company and the clients inside the primarily Fortune 200 companies in which we consulted. And my foundational world view had been formed by the environments in which I grew up: a small American Midwestern city with 110,000 population, a small liberal arts college campus where my father was a professor, my own experience attending another small liberal arts college, and my experiences living in the major cities of Washington DC, Nanjing and Shanghai China, Chicago, and eventually Philadelphia.
In my view of the world at the time: people go to college and most of them go on to attend graduate school. They all get jobs as either teachers or working inside companies that provided salaries, benefits and 401(s) with desks inside offices or cubicles. Some others worked inside not-for-profit organizations with similar working environments and similar, if less lucrative, compensation packages.
My experience in society had taught me:
Go to the best school you can get into, get a job with the best company with the best ranking, negotiate a great salary with excellent benefits, and you will be happy.
It took me the full length of the final year working in my consulting firm to wake up to the reality that my life inside my version of the matrix was making me sick. It had actually been making me sick for more than 5 years, but I did not know how serious that was until I left. And because I had loved the intellectually stimulating nature of the work, had loved working with incredibly bright and caring people, and (I believe) because I had been cocooned by great pay, spot bonuses, free lunches, creative benefits and other cushy perks (another version of what some call “golden handcuffs”), I had been lulled to sleep inside of my own life. For me, it was a health diagnosis that woke me up and forced me to summon the courage to resign. And so it was in the Spring of 2004 that I voluntarily, though with trepidation, left the matrix I had been living in.
Since 2004 I have been coaching other professionals on how to advance their career, how to thrive within the complex demands of life in the 21st century, and also how to transition out of a long-successful career to do something new and more meaningful later in life.
Looked at through the lens and theme of the movie The Matrix, I could re-write a version of my work with clients since 2004 as follows:
I coach others on how to advance their career within the matrix, how to thrive within the complex demands of the matrix, and also how to exit the matrix to discover how incredibly free and rewarding life can be outside the matrix.
I can tell you from my experience that there is a vast world of possibility that exists outside the version of the matrix you have been living in. Yes, you may be afraid to explore and learn more about what exists outside the boundaries of your current reality, but just imagine what else is waiting for you!
Once outside the matrix, I learned there are…
…thousands of types of work in the world that people are doing without an advanced degree
…thousands of lifestyles people are happily living that involve work NOT done inside an office or sitting in a cubicle
…thousands of versions of independent or entrepreneurial ways of engaging in work and earning a living.
And all of this had existed all along outside the version of the matrix I was living in. But I had not been seeing it.
What is life like on the outside of the matrix?
You won’t know until you open your eyes, step outside the daily patterns you’re walking and living in and begin to talk to people who are not within the 1st or 2nd degree circle of connections you already have.
How to Exit the Matrix – Step 1: “Be curious and learn about others”
Learn about a “day in the life” of people who do nothing like what you do.
You can begin by intentionally and curiously dipping your toe in the ocean of what is outside your current reality. I believe a fantastic way to do this is by talking with other people to gain a first-hand view on other ways of living and working.
First, how do you find these “other people”?
Go to a totally different place for lunch. Who else is getting their lunch there?
Or, change your mode of transportation and stop looking at your smartphone. If you drive to work, then instead take a shared Uber or Lyft ride. Or ride the public bus or subway or commuter train to work. Or walk to work.
Once you’ve changed your environment, look up and around: Who do you see? What type of clothing and footwear do they wear? What type of bag are they carrying? Where are they going? BE CURIOUS.
Second, be friendly, smile, and introduce yourself to someone who looks different in dress/attire from the people in your own matrix
“I’m curious, what type of work do you do?” And then ask: “What’s a typical day or week like in your job? What do you actually do at work, who do you work with, etc?” Then, ask a couple more questions to learn about their experience such as: “What do you enjoy most about your work? What do you like least?” Then, thank them: “Thank you, I didn’t previously know much about that type of work and I really appreciate you telling me about it.”
If the other people ask you why you want to know, be honest: “I’m trying to learn more about ways of working and living that are different from my own.”
And if the idea of doing this is terrifying, you can warm up by typing into your web browser’s search bar the following words: “day in the life of…” [and fill in any job title that you honestly know nothing about] and see what you can learn. Consider this a warm-up before you talk to real, live human beings to learn more.
In my first year living and working outside of my corporate matrix, I started doing this regularly when encountering someone new: after a yoga class, waiting in a long line at a retail store, when at a social event with people I did not know, while waiting at the dentist’s office, and so on. These conversations began to change how I viewed the world and what I saw as possible.
Here’s the good news: People are (for the most part) much more friendly than their “out in public face” suggests. Most people are open to a 2-to-4 minute spontaneous conversation. And you will learn that they are living lives you may have never previously thought about.
How would you describe the matrix you live in? What are the layers of perception that shape your view of the world and what is possible for you? And how might the boundaries of your current matrix be limiting your ideas about what you can create for yourself in the future?
In our Executive Career ReinventionTM program, we do not explicitly talk about the movie The Matrix. We do, however, take steps to build clients’ self-awareness about who they are, what experiences have shaped their view of their life and their career, and bring to light the beliefs they hold that either limit them or propel them forward. Once clients know their purpose, their sweet spot strengths and career values, they analyze the strength and diversity of their network so they know how to best leverage their 1st degree connections to meet 2nd degree connections and others in their research and exploratory conversations. These conversations are a critical step in seeing beyond the boundaries of your matrix and activating connections to co-create your career reinvention!
To truly reinvent your career and not keep doing the same thing, you must break down the walls of the box you currently live in and see what exists on the other side. Do the research, talk with new people, visit new places, experience different kinds of work.
And if you need a partner to help you exit the matrix and reinvent your career, let’s talk!
Here’s to your reinvention!
Erin Owen, MBA, PCC, JCTC
Executive Career Reinvention
To start your Executive Career ReinventionTM program, apply for an initial call with me here.
Let’s talk! https://calendly.com/erin_owen/30min