Starting Over

Daunting, discomforting and daring … those who are forced to change career after a setback deserve recognition says SARAH HARTE


Lives can change overnight. Some changes are swift, brutal, foisted on us. Death of a loved one, divorce, recession, redundancy, are challenges that can come from nowhere leaving us eddying in their wake, causing us to begin new lives. The global economic meltdown in 2008 was like a tornado blowing through lives, flattening and destroying. I remember it as being in a highspeed car-crash. There was the last minute cartoonish delay as you watched, waiting for the awful crash of metal on metal, unable to avoid the crunch. Then waking up, dazed, bruised, pinned under the smouldering wreckage, trying to figure a way to crawl out from underneath.

“It’s only money,” a friend said not understanding that when the dominoes fall, many areas of a life are affected. When you lose your livelihood, there are stark new financial realities. Complicated emotions arise too, there can be a sense of failure, of shame, most of all of fear. Women often seem hardwired to sacrifice themselves, to shield their kids, to look after those around them who may need shoring up, to keep the home fires burning. You may be putting one foot in front of another, dragging a comb through your hair, but psychologically a boulder has been rolled in front of the mouth of the cave. One of the first things to do is to bin negative assumptions and self beliefs which are damaging.

Psychoanalyst Patricia Stewart says that “women tend to underestimate their talents and exaggerate their faults. We don’t know for sure why this is. It takes courage to start all over again. But being aware of this tendency, joining a group of similarly situated women and – I have to say this – talking to a therapist, which by the way is not the same as talking to your friends and family, can help you during the early days of upset and self-doubt.”

When others suffer far greater blows, when people traverse continents with their kids strapped to their backs, fleeing conflict and environmental disasters, you may feel no right to articulate worries and fears. Feeling isolated, and suffering from a lack of self-belief, can impede clear thought when it’s most needed. Regardless of what precipitated the crisis, it can be a challenge to figure out how to transition from a life that no longer exists to building a new one.

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist, survived a concentration camp by finding personal meaning in the experience. He details his belief in his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, that people are motivated to find “meaning” even in the most difficult circumstances. “I wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.” Frankl’s core point was that you always retain the freedom to determine your own attitude, everything can be taken away, except the ability to choose how you will react. If I was in the market for a tattoo, this idea would be emblazoned on my arm. How we define that meaning or hang onto a sense of purpose may vary. Frankl was careful to avoid prescribing a one-size-fits-all answer.

Looking at loss, from a bigger perspective, you begin to realise that success in life isn’t measured by the things we’ve done but by how we respond to setbacks. The way we define success enters the equation too. Stuart says “What is success in life? It’s a big question, success. The most important thing is that your success is on your own terms, not those of society or other people. We learn far more from our setbacks than from our successes. The crucial thing is to try not to lose hope and be crushed by the setbacks that are part of everyone’s life.”

Jane Downes, life coach, says that while psychotherapy deals with healing, from a career perspective, a significant life event can go negatively or it can present the opportunity to refocus. “It’s important to compartmentalise, not to bring your wounded self to work. You risk taking things too personally and too seriously. You can educate bosses about personal circumstances but you do so in a way that communicates that you can still do the job.” Practical advice includes looking for a mentor, taking a moment to consider your skills. “It may be the last thing you think you need but addressing gaps in your skills can help you feel more in control and more confident.” If you are made redundant, Downes advises not taking it personally. “Remember it’s a business decision, about maths and the bottom line.
Try and see this as an opportunity for a fresh start in a new environment.”

“I could never do that,” a friend said when speaking of another’s husband forced to work abroad for protracted periods during the recession. Of course it was a luxury to say that, she’d no idea of how she would manage if her mettle was tested. People show great resilience adapting in the face of trauma, tragedy, hardship, sometimes emerging stronger, treading paths they never imagined.

Thirty-six-year-old Alison De Vere Hunt found her life tragically upended when in December 2012, her beloved father took his own life, on the day a legal case over a debt owed to the banks was due to be heard. Although she’d worked “on and off” between studies and travelling, at the busy cattle mart owned by her family in Cashel, Tipperary for a number of decades, she suddenly found herself catapulted into a management position at the age of 30, “with little time to grieve properly.”

“Rumours were swirling, we had to open the gates and show people we were open for business. I went from being a happy-go-lucky individual to a serious business woman with a lot of responsibility, working much longer hours, seven days a week, while mourning my father.”

Two evenings a week she drove to Dublin for lectures because before De Vere Hunt’s father died, he’d requested she get her auctioneer’s licence. This meant that three weeks after his funeral she found herself sitting her first set of exams. “Incredibly, I passed,” she says. “I took on extra lectures so I could finish the course more quickly to concentrate solely on the business.” She acknowledges that while juggling all these balls was necessary, “in some ways all of this, was a distraction from Dad’s death, so that I was repressing my feelings.”

The good will and support of those who knew her father was “a huge source of strength at a very difficult time. The high regard my father was held in by those who did business with him was shown in the years after his death by the support shown to us,” she says.

To survive mentally and physically, De Vere Hunt made changes to her life, giving up alcohol for a period of time and taking up running. “I ran every day for about half an hour — the benefit both physically and especially mentally was enormous. It was half an hour when I didn’t answer the phone, just for me and my thoughts. This helped me massively in the grieving process.”

As we age, we gain wisdom that comes from life experience, but often we lose that reflex to dive in. When forced to jump tracks particularly after a hiatus at home, putting yourself out there can be daunting and discomforting. In her 40s, Grainne Wynne had been a stay-at-home mother for seven years when her husband’s family business closed after 47 years.

“I had to go back to work to help support my family. I’d worked for years in restaurants when I was younger so I decided to waitress. I very nervously did a trial shift in a local restaurant thinking I worked my section well, getting on with the customers, getting some nice tips, so I was gutted when I didn’t hear back. My confidence was really knocked,” Wynne says. She was then lucky to get a job in a local boutique as she had “absolutely no experience. I’d always loved fashion, enjoyed styling people, so I took to it like a duck to water. I loved every minute of it.”

She learned a lot and later considered opening her own boutique. Beautiful South was born, when driving past the Swan Centre in Rathmines, she saw a retail unit to rent. She made a pitch, secured the lease, and cobbled together the financial backing from a patchwork of sources. “If a year ago anyone said I would own my own fashion business I would have laughed.” Wynne’s advice to anyone thinking of doing something similar is to go for it. “Never doubt yourself, because plenty of other people will tell you otherwise. Stick to your guns and stay strong in your vision.” I struggled to understand my mother’s mantra “the winners in life are the ones who navigate the downs”. I used to mouth the words to myself, I finally get it. It’s a mistake to prejudge talents and strengths, we are capable of things we never thought possible.

Maya Angelou, the American poet and civil rights activist wrote On The Pulse Of The Morning, for Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. It looks back into darker times, before urging us to push on into a hope-filled future.“Each new hour holds new chances, For new beginnings. Do not be wedded forever To fear, yoked eternally To brutishness. The horizon leans forward, Offering you space to place new steps of change.”

About Turners

Sive O’Brien “I worked in magazine publishing for 14 years. I knew I could create all kinds of content, and I knew I worked well with brands, but I wanted a job with more flexibility to see more of my children. It took three years of precise planning to eventually run my own consultancy business from when I had that first niggling feeling that I needed to sidestep in my career. I went back to study digital marketing at night; then I sought out a job in digital publishing. Two years later I felt confident I had all the necessary skills to make the leap into consultancy. It’s five years since I had those first thoughts about making a move, now I work with brands on their content marketing strategies and work to my own timetable. I haven’t looked back.”

Lucinda Chambers It took unexpected redundancy for the former stylist of Vogue to launch her fashion label, Colville, with designers Molly Molloy and Kristin Forss.

Suzanne Monaghan After raising her family and working as an interior designer for several years, Monaghan decided she wanted to flex her creativity further. The iconic family business and Ireland’s oldest retailer – Monaghan’s Cashmere (Dublin’s South Anne Street), provided an oulet. She now has her own best-selling brand “Suzie Monaghan Cashmere” with a baby range planned for next year.

Lisa Unwin’s book Starting Over is a must-read for those returning to work after a break. She co-runs, with Deb Khan, a practical support group.

Pamela Walsh After many years in the corporate world, Walsh now makes low-alcohol vegan wines with her husband from juicy Irish berries. Her advice; “Get off the treadmill if you’re unhappy. Know your strengths and weaknesses and work to those strengths. Don’t be constrained by convention. Be brave and open to opportunities arising from unexpected places. Think about the resources you’ll need and find support. Don’t be afraid to start again.”

Gillian Halpin Just launched her luxury fragrance brand Jane Darcy – named after her daughters – after years of dreaming. Her advice: “The most rewarding journeys are the ones that are new to us. Dare to dream.”

Rosanne McDonnell Turned her hobby for art into creating the Art Business Summit, which took place at Adare Manor this June. “Over the years I travelled to various art fairs and conferences. Unfortunately, it felt like I was the only Irish person attending these events. It was at that moment that I thought ‘let’s bring the world’s leading experts to Ireland’ and so I did. I recall telephoning Mary Rozel, Global Head of UBS Bank’s Art Collection [sponsors of Art Basel] and leaving a message. Mary rang me back two weeks later and two years later she participated at the Summit and was the star of the show. We are now friends. My advice: be true to yourself and it will feel easy. Show respect, it’s a small world and karma is a powerful thing.”

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