Case

Tyra Hilliard
Living with a Professional "Itch"

Please don't ask me what I do for a living, Tyra thought as she was introduced to the woman at the reception. She knew it was a routine small-talk question, but Tyra could never figure out how to answer it and dreaded trying. Invariably, she would sigh and then offer a litany of things she did: "I teach part-time at George Washington University, I do consulting and training for the meetings industry, and I'm an attorney." The list was sometimes reordered depending on who she was speaking to. People rarely wanted more detail than that, but if they did, she would explain that she did a lot of traveling and public speaking on legal and risk management issues for the meetings industry. That was usually enough to make their eyes glaze over or dart around the room, looking for someone else to talk to.

 

Tyra wanted to have a simple answer to the question "what do you do?" like "I'm a professor" or "I'm an attorney," but no one answer was either accurate or truthful. In fact, any given week involved teaching online graduate courses, preparing training presentations, reviewing contracts, and writing articles or working on her book. She wished she could settle on one career or another, but no one thing seemed sufficient.

 

Background with "Aha" Moment

 

Even as a child, Tyra had always gotten bored easily. Her mother used to get exasperated with her constant sighs of "I'm bored" and it became a teasing refrain wielded by her parents, aunts, and uncles. As an adult, her tendency to get bored translated to holding a succession of different jobs and moving every two or three years—often to a different state. By the time she was 30, she'd lived and worked in six different places, held twice as many jobs and was working on her third college degree.

 

Setting and achieving new goals defined Tyra. If she wasn't working toward a goal, she felt an "itch" that made her uncomfortable in her own skin. In the seven years between college and law school, she worked at four jobs in two states and got a master's degree. She loved the challenge of finding and getting a job and always experienced a feeling of accomplishment and achievement when she was hired. Then she would get settled into a job only to almost immediately get bored.

 

Tyra was sure that once she finished law school and became an attorney, the "itch" would finally be satisfied. She waited impatiently for the word on whether she passed the state of Georgia bar exam, confident that once she did, she would finally be able to settle into domestic bliss with her new husband, satisfied with her law practice and the one course she taught as an adjunct at a nearby college. Her "aha" moment came when just 18 months after she was sworn in as a lawyer, she found herself downstairs in her home office saying to her husband, "Honey, look at this teaching job at GW—should I apply?" And she realized the "itch" wasn't going away.

 

Professional Challenge

Satisfying the "itch" was a full-time job that caused Tyra to make some impetuous decisions. For example, she spent three years in a full-time faculty position and left (rather suddenly) when another university offered her what she perceived at the time as a "better" faculty position. Of course it entailed a move across the country, her husband having to look for a new job, and selling her home…but it seemed well worth it at the time.

Tyra was frustrated and disappointed when the new city, new state, new university, new job, and new home didn't curb the "itch" for more than a few months. Worse, she and her husband didn't like the new city at all. About this time, Tyra's mother got cancer and was given a short time to live. It was a real wakeup call--a reminder that life is too short and that running to the "next" thing was interfering with forming and nurturing relationships and living life to its fullest. So Tyra did what Tyra does best, she left her job, sold the house, and moved back across the country. The only problem—she had no job.

For the first time in her life, Tyra punted. She closed her eyes and made a leap of faith. She put the word out that she was available for consulting, training, speaking, and practicing law. And work rolled in. It was hodge-podge at first, but the year-end balance sheet the first year was in the black. And the second year was better by 20%. More importantly, she loved the variety of the work. Doing several different things all at once kept the "itch" away!

The only problem was now she didn't know how to answer the question "what do you do?" And after a while she was having a hard time doing any of it well when she was on and off of airplanes on a weekly basis. The traveling was interesting and the public recognition was exciting. It made her feel successful. But it was exhausting.

Personal Challenge

The "multipreneuring" approach to work also made Tyra lose sight of one of the main reasons she moved back East, which was to have time for the important relationships in her life. She had even less time for a personal life as an entrepreneur because she felt she had to take every piece of work that came her way—who knew when it would dry up?

She rarely got away to see her aging parents, except for her mother who was still fighting cancer nearly three years after she was first diagnosed. She teasingly told her husband he was an "enabler" because he was so understanding when she spent evenings and weekends in her home office. He took on more than his fair share of household responsibilities like pet care, cooking, and home maintenance.

When she complained about not having time for a life, her husband suggested she take up a hobby. He bought her a beading kit for Christmas one year. She made one pair of earrings and then put the kit away. He bought her a meditation book, but she couldn't stop the thoughts in her head long enough to meditate so she put the book on a shelf. He suggested yoga to help her manage her stress, but the CD he got her was never even unpackaged. His last kick was that she should learn to knit—something she can do on an airplane or in front of the television. At least he didn't bother investing in that idea.

She knew she should have more of a personal life, but she couldn't think of a single current friend who hadn't started out a professional colleague. She didn't socialize on weekends, preferring to catch up on work or school. Her "community" was online professional groups.

She thought about her brother who called her a "human doing" instead of a human being. She realized sadly that she didn't know how to just "be."

Wrap-up

Working for the "next" goal and accomplishment, Tyra had three professional goals: (1) to be named "one of the 25 most influential people" in an annual industry list, (2) to be given the Professional Achievement Award by a prominent industry foundation, and (3) to complete her Ph.D. She received the first acknowledgement a few years ago, will be honored with the second next year, and should complete her Ph.D. next year as well. The problem is—what then? She has conflicting feelings about her achievements. As proud as she is of them, as good as they make her feel, there's also that nagging feeling of "is that it?" Has she reached the pinnacle of her career at 41 so that it's all downhill from here? Are there no significant goals to strive for?

To complicate matters further, Tyra recently decided to apply for a full-time faculty position. She has mixed feelings about the job. On the one hand, having a full-time job would give her more security, more time at home, allow her to spend less time on planes and presumably allow her to take weekends off—at least most of the time. She would have a simple and straightforward answer to the question "What do you do?" She might be able to devote more time to her family and friends…and yes, even hobbies.

On the other hand, she has a paralyzing fear of being forgotten, of disappearing, of being a (gasp!) has-been by 42. And she worries about whether there is enough variety in the faculty position to satisfy the "itch." Her fear is that she may find herself with a full-time job taking on outside work in the never-ending quest to keep the "itch" at bay.