Endings, beginnings, and change: Being a planner in times of crisis

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” — John Lennon.

Don’t mind me as I get a little personal here.

This has been an upside-down, crazy year for everyone, myself included. And as I embark on a new, unexpected chapter of my life, I wanted to reflect on what it took to get me here — and on what might lie ahead.

In Tarot, the Death card represents endings. But it also represents change, transformation, the kind of new beginnings that are only possible by letting go of the past and starting fresh.

This can be a painful process. It so often is. But as I’m trying to remind myself, new beginnings can be hopeful, too. It’s a feeling I had nine years ago, standing on the precipice of the last new beginning. And it’s a feeling I have today, as I embark on this next one.

2020 wasn’t supposed to be like this.

This was going to be my year. The year. As I kicked it off in San Diego at a brewery NYE party, we shouted the countdown knowing that, as Penny Lane would say, it’s all happening.

But it didn’t quite work out that way.

I turned 40 in May. The plan was to usher in my fifth decade of life in epic style, celebrating with a big trip across Scandinavia, dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant, tasting craft beers, gawking at scenery. It was meant to be an “I’ve arrived!” trip. I was on top of the world, after all. I had a great job that I loved, as director of strategic insights for the agency where I’d been working for more than 8 years. I’d built a practice and a team I was proud of. I had a fantastic life, with family, friends, hobbies and passions that brought me joy. Unlike many women who panicked at the thought of turning 40, I was going to embrace my success and my happiness.

Instead, as everyone knows, the pandemic hit. And everything turned upside-down. My epic trip got cancelled, as did the rest of our year’s travels. My fiancé proposed to me, not on a Norwegian fjord as he had planned, but in his pyjamas, at home on lockdown. The next day, he lost his job in a flurry of pandemic-related layoffs. Two weeks later, I lost mine.

To say I was devastated was an understatement. It was cold comfort that it happened during a global pandemic. I knew and understood the reasons, and I certainly hold no grudge towards my company for making the tough decisions they were forced to make under the circumstances. I wish my former colleagues well.

But there I was, facing down 40, unemployed, and staring at an industry that had been financially decimated by the crisis. Everyone in my network was either in the same boat as me, or clinging to their life rafts amidst industry-wide salary cuts and hiring freezes. And I had no idea what to do next.

The anxiety of uncertainty

In a recent article for Wired, Stéphanie Thomson writes about how people who try to regain control of an uncertain situation by planning or scenario forecasting tend to struggle:

“Knowing what we’re dealing with, even if it’s crappy, gives us some agency. Uncertainty leaves us scrambling to regain an element of control. [ . . . ] Dwelling excessively on what could have been and what might be—ruminating, to use the technical term—is exhausting, and unless it is brought under control, can trigger depression and anxiety.”

Instead, those who have more of an ability to live in the present, by practicing mindfulness, or, as the saying goes, taking it one day a time, tend to cope better with periods of uncertainty.

But that’s never been my way.

Being a strategic planner in a crisis

I’m a planner, both by profession and by nature. That’s what I do. It’s how I relate to the world. I’m a strategy director in marketing, sure, but planning is more than what I do; it’s who I am. It’s how I take control of my own destiny. I turn my dreams into plans, and my plans into action. It’s how I relate to the world.

And the one thing I couldn’t do in this crisis was plan. For anything.

Overnight, life became about day-to-day survival. How would we access groceries? How would we pay our rent? How would we get through to next week? I’ve been all over the world, but for the first time in my life I couldn’t plan my next trip. Heck, I couldn’t even leave my house. I had no plan A, B or C to navigate unemployment in the biggest worldwide financial crisis of the century. It was just not something I could cope with in my usual ways. And it damn near drove me crazy.

Learning to embrace change

But here’s the thing about big changes: Sometimes they can be unexpected blessings in disguise.

I loved my nearly 9 years at my previous agency, and was fortunate to grow my career while working with an exceptionally talented group of people. But agency years are like dog years; nearly a decade at an agency is like a lifetime at any other type of company. To keep learning and growing in this industry, I was probably overdue for a new environment. New clients, new approaches, new ways of thinking. My brain was hungry for new challenges. And as long as I was comfortable in my workplace, I lacked motivation to actively seek them out.

So I did what I do best: I made a new plan.

I threw myself into the project headfirst. 40, epic and awesome was my mantra. Despite the economic crisis, as well as the ageism that is sadly all too common in our industry (and will be the subject of a future post), I knew that my experience and knowledge was valuable. I was determined to find the best fit for me.

I took on contract projects on both a freelance and a full-time basis. I reached out to the people in my network who I trusted the most. That’s one good thing that comes with experience: You learn that sometimes who you work with is more important than what you do. I had a couple of false starts, some good experiences, and sewed the seeds for some interesting projects that I’m really excited about for the future.

And this week, I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve just started a new role as Planning Director with Tank Worldwide. It’s an opportunity I may never have known about if the events of this year hadn’t happened. But it’s a perfect fit for my background, skills, experience, and career aspirations. I’ll get to work with an incredible group of people and some very exciting brands, doing what I love to do the most: Plan.

It’s not where I planned to be at 40. But in some ways, maybe it will wind up being better.