'It takes courage to grow up and be who you really are.' -- e.e. cummings
About six months ago, I decided to quit my very good job at Google to explore a different way to live life. I had a loose plan of how I wanted to spend my time, but the main reason I left was that I couldn't stay. I couldn't put it into words at the time, but something inside of me was telling me I shouldn't continue down the career path I was on. I felt strongly that it wasn't getting me closer to where I wanted to be, though that destination was largely unknown, and I had to get off that road. Each month I stayed, I grew more anxious and, in turn, resentful. I could wait until I knew exactly which exit I was supposed to take, but I knew it would be harder to turn around as time went on, and what if I never knew which exit was right? The only thing of which I was certain was that no one was going to tell me how to get there; not my manager, not my co-workers, not my friends, not my parents. I envisioned an older version of myself with a wonderful husband, beautiful kids, a mortgage and a crippling sense that I had missed my opportunity to dig deeper into what I really wanted out of life. So I swerved in January 2013 and took the next exit.
When people ask me what it was like to leave, I liken my experience of leaving Google to breaking up with my college boyfriend. He was brilliant, good looking, respected, and everyone loved him -- I even loved him -- but he wasn't the one. It used to catch up with me on long bus rides my senior year, staring out the window, and I'd get a knot in the pit of my stomach. Realizing that I had to let him go was a slow and difficult process, but it was the right thing to do and I eventually mustered up the courage to break both of our hearts. I wasn't sure I would ever meet someone like him again, but leaving that relationship opened me up for so much more later on, and I continue to think of that decision as one of the most pivotal in my life. It took me several years to reach the same conclusion about corporate life at Google -- it was almost unimaginable to give up a salary, a manager who treated me like family and co-workers I genuinely considered friends. I had worked so hard for it. I couldn't let it go, even though I was in many ways unhappy.
When I sat down and really thought about why I was resisting, I realized something about myself that I didn't like, something that I'm ashamed to even admit now. The main reason I was resisting was because I would be giving up the safety and prestige associated with life as a Googler. When I reflected more, I realized that external recognition had unfortunately become a primary motivator for me. It started back in kindergarten when Mrs. Money told my Mom I was the brightest student she'd had in 40+ years of teaching. All my friends have stories like this -- we were all those kids. Over time, being recognized for what I did became more exciting as the stakes grew higher (honor roll, getting into prep school, getting into Wellesley, getting an award in college, getting a prized internship, getting a job at Google). The problem I now faced was what to do when what I wanted to do next (give it all up) didn't come with many brownie points at all, except maybe that I was gutsy. Nothing had prepared me for that. In fact, the need for recognition was still so engrained in me that I leaned on my start up as a crutch during my exit from Google. "I'm leaving to work on my start up idea." That was shorter and more palatable than "I'm taking time to slow down and better understand myself and what I want out of this life."
It was during my last promotion at work that I realized something was really off, more so than the dull anxiety I felt pretty consistently after Year 1 post-college. Year 1 was too much of a whirlwind to stop and think about what I was doing, between making money for the first time, meeting my incredible start class, going through training, being thrown into the deep end with clients. I fell in love with Google that year and I also fell in love with a Googler, so I was pretty distracted from asking larger questions about life. But what I noticed, years later, in my last promotion at Google, was that the incremental gains I was making in my role weren't making me incrementally happier. If anything, the promotion made me less happy because it made me feel like I was putting all my energy into something I wasn't even sure about. The money was nice, but it didn't change my lifestyle. I felt really guilty almost all the time. Wasn't Google supposed to be the best place to work? Wasn't I supposed to cherish my six figure salary, free meals, massages, etc.? I did feel incredibly thankful, but I also felt like a jerk. The truth was I felt unfulfilled and I was scared to tell anyone.
I wish my own inner voice had said, "Hey Elle, this gig does have a lot of great things going for it, but maybe it's time to leave." Instead it said, "Hey Elle, everyone wants this, so you probably should too. Find a way to love it. Be good at it. Stop complaining." And so I did -- I worked hard, I got sent to Tokyo for three months, I worked with exciting clients like Square, I led diversity initiatives in my office, I trained new team members. The truth is that I grew up at Google -- it's where I learned to do good work. It was my MBA. But my heart wasn't in it anymore. I knew it, but I still couldn't leave. I had the power to change my life and I wouldn't do it. It wasn't my parents -- my parents had always been supportive of me doing whatever I wanted, even if that meant leaving -- it was me. It was my fear of failure that made me stay, my fear of what people would think. It was no one's pressure but my own. And that was the worst kind because it never went away. It was with me from the time I woke up to the time I fell asleep, and sometimes in my dreams too. For years I had a recurring dream that I was being chased, jumping through windows and doors, but never getting further away from my chaser. In real life, I asked myself every day, why am I here? What am I doing? I felt like an impostor in my own life.
My anxiety peaked at the end of 2012 and I decided to take a month off work around the holidays to see if simply not working would help me get clarity. It threw everyone off that I hadn't planned an elaborate European vacation with the four weeks I was taking. I told everyone I was staying at home in San Francisco to just "live life." I went to ballet most mornings, I went to the grocery store and cooked for myself (a novelty for Googlers), I started baking again, I read, I ran, I played guitar, I neglected email. Quite simply, I spent more time enjoying the small pleasures in life I never prioritized when working, hoping that a light would go off. I had fun, but there was no light much to my disappointment. Maybe I should have gone to Europe after all, I thought.
And then, as my month off came to an end, I decided on a whim to go to Joshua Tree for New Year's with one of my close college friends, her boyfriend and a collection of their friends who lived in LA. As we were huddled around the campfire before midnight, in 20 degree weather, one of their friends began to ask me about myself. Almost everyone there was an artist of some sort, so I remember feeling shy about the fact I worked at a huge tech company. It was almost like admitting I worked for the IRS. He asked what I did for work and how long I'd been doing it and I told him. His response was, "So you must really like it then to be there for so long. What about it? What's it like?" It felt like so many questions, so intrusive, but he was just being conversational. I remember saying something nice (most likely I said "the people are great" which is true), but I remember feeling defensive, like I was being tested. In reality, that was all in my head, but that was my light going off... for the first time I was recognizing inauthenticity in myself. I couldn't stand it.
After that conversation, I wandered away from the campfire for a few minutes to get a better look at the stars. The moon had never looked so big. I could hear old-school hip-hop from our camp in the distance, but I was surrounded by absolutely nothing and no one, and I felt free in the universe. It was that moment that I realized I was truly free to do whatever I wanted in this world and it was completely up to me to make it happen. It was my life, and I had to stop caring what people thought about it. If I wanted to bake, I should. If I wanted to write, I should. If I wanted to start a company, I should. If I wanted to do nothing, I should. If I wanted to fuck up for once, I should. I was probably only out there for a few minutes before someone tapped my shoulder to go back to the fire (it was so cold that night your pee froze as soon as it hit the ground), but it felt like an eternity. Maybe I would have reached this conclusion had I stayed in San Francisco, but I really believe it was the magic of being nowhere that did it. Being nowhere forced me to stay silent long enough to hear what I hadn't wanted to admit: I wasn't living authentically. When I returned to work, I gave my notice immediately. My explanation of what I was leaving to do (explore some hobbies, work on a few projects, bake more) confused everyone, but they were all fully supportive. Ironically and quite magically, the day I returned (which was also the day I gave notice), an award was sitting on my desk that I had won while I was out: "Most Likely To Build A Start Up In The Next 5 Years."
Fast forward a few months and I'm still constantly bombarded with questions from family, friends, old co-workers and strangers about what life is like now. Sometimes it's glamorous; most times (like when I'm calculating how much time I have left before I run out of money) it's not. The truth is that going off the rails into the complete unknown is terrifying and it's lonely -- some days I'm so paralyzed with fear about everything I can hardly do anything, but the other truth is a really important and big one: for the first time in my life, my identity is not 100 percent tied to my accomplishments, I care less about what people think of me and I spend more time on work that feels right. I am improving my ability to listen to my inner voice and not judge what it wants. I can question myself and answer truthfully.
For me the answers to those questions led me to make some big changes in my work life, like giving up the job, exploring projects I used to think weren't worthy enough of my time (baking) and building a start up that is risky and deeply personal (Mend). In my personal life, it meant learning how to say no and better balance social obligations so that I could spend more time alone. It also meant making a physical move to Venice (the one in California, not Italy) so that I could fulfill my dreams of a spacious 1 bedroom apartment to myself (which I couldn't shell out $3,000 for in San Francisco), running on the beach every day and slowing down my pace of life from the frenetic and get-acquired-or-die San Francisco of 2013. It was hard to leave behind my best friends and give up the dizzyingly engaging Peter Pan life the Bay Area offers to 20-somethings, but when I walk along the beach alone on a warm summer night and watch the sunset behind the Santa Monica mountains, I know I'm finally home. Though I still only have vague dreams about the destination, I'm no longer constantly looking for the exit and that's how I know I'm on the right road. The caveat here is that studying hard my whole life and saving for almost five years afforded me the opportunity to have this time completely off payroll, but I think that everyone has the right and responsibility to go to Joshua Tree, metaphorically speaking. Everyone can dial everything back; the hard part is listening to what you have to say and doing something about it.
Oh, and, by the way, that chasing dream finally stopped.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power," which took place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.