If you’ve ever gone to the beach and waded into the shallow part of the ocean, there’s a good chance you were standing in the littoral zone. This transitional area between dry land and open water is rife with sunlight and nutrients, making it an ideal ecosystem for plants to thrive. To step into the littoral zone is to enter a dynamic, in-between space, one where the security of solid ground is behind you and the promise of wild possibility is ahead of you. I recently found myself caught in the corporate-world equivalent of the littoral zone, standing between the familiar ground of an old job and the uncharted waters of a new opportunity.
About a month ago, I decided to leave a job that I mostly loved. I’d been a senior marketing manager for a health information company for just under three years, two of which were spent working from home because of the pandemic. During my tenure, I helped grow the brand’s digital footprint and I got to work with a lovely team of people who, in the end, felt more like friends than anything. But in my last year at the company, things started to feel stagnant. The parts of the role that once presented healthy challenges for me had become uncomplicated, routine matters. I found myself feeling bored and boxed in, stuck on dry land and struggling to see a path for growth.
So when a public media organization I’ve admired for years approached me with a more senior job opportunity, I agreed to interview. They were looking for a director of digital engagement, someone to lead audience growth across digital platforms. Months of interviewing led to a job offer one Wednesday morning in February and I was delirious with joy. I was getting the chance to lead a team and be the true owner of a digital-first strategy, a tremendous step for my career. After what felt like two whole years of living the same day over again, I was being offered a drastic and exciting change, a chance to be in fresh waters. I accepted the next day and put in my notice shortly after.
Goodbyes, bliss, and an anxious spiral of self-interrogation
I spent the next few weeks transitioning out of my company and saying a thousand farewells over Zoom, which, although far less intimate than in-person goodbyes, still left me with a sharp sadness in my throat. My company was big and my teammates were spread across various parts of the world. But there’s a particular kind of bond that forms between the people who survive a pandemic together—even the ones you never meet in person. These were the faces that greeted me in isolation. We were all in our separate corners tiptoeing through crisis together, and in the process, we’d become one another’s constants.
The first several days following my last official sign-off were drenched in life-giving sunlight. I had a little less than three weeks off between jobs and spent my early newfound freedom drifting through a dizzying spell of possibility. I read; I hiked; I traveled; I did house projects and napped in the bald afternoon. I was in the grips of a sweet kind of thrill that I knew would slowly dwindle once I transitioned back to work, but I was steadfast in my enjoyment of it—at first.
By day nine, the bliss started to wane. The auspicious glow that initially beckoned me toward the new job began to fade and harsher realities came into focus. After nearly three comfortable years at my former company, I was about to be the new person again, faced with learning the ins and outs of a fast-moving organization—but this time with more senior responsibilities and the invisible pressure that comes with being a BIPOC, female director.
It wasn’t long before I found myself in an anxious spiral of self-interrogation. Do I really have it in me to take this on? What if I disappoint them? What if I made the wrong choice? The more I dwelled on the comforts of my last job coupled with the what-ifs of the future, the more one-dimensional the view ahead grew.
It wasn’t long before I found myself in an anxious spiral of self-interrogation. Do I really have it in me to take this on? What if I disappoint them? What if I made the wrong choice?
As I inched closer to my start date my anxiety became more pronounced. I realized that in my transition to a new company I was leaving behind not just a job, but a way of living, one with hard-earned grooves I’d relaxed into. The new role required me to be in the office two days a week, which would mean commuting to San Francisco again after a two-year hiatus. Prior to the pandemic, I’d been taking BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) into the city, which always felt like spinning a giant wheel of misfortune before each ride: What experience awaits me today? Would I be yelled at by a belligerent stranger? Faint into the arms of fellow commuters due to lack of airflow? I’d been through both and more during past commutes. Needless to say, I wasn’t too keen to go back.
Although working remotely had its monotonous moments, I loved the flexibility it added to my life: the freedom to travel or toss in a load of wash between meetings, to work on the patio or take my dog to the park during lunch. I knew I didn’t have to give up these freedoms entirely, but I expected many of them to shrink in light of my commute and what I anticipated would be heavier meeting days as a director. Thanks to the pandemic, I had been sheltered (perhaps even coddled) by sameness for two straight years—and any change to my daily threatened to throw me off my axis. I didn’t know how to deal.
I barely slept the weekend leading up to my first day. Whenever I did manage to drift off, I’d often awake and instantly panic, my slumber having rendered me more vulnerable to the pointed worries that stalked my waking hours. I tried to keep the panic at bay by taking slow, calming breaths and telling myself that I was going to be OK, this would all be OK.
If all of this sounds dramatic, that’s because it was at the time. There isn’t an instruction manual on starting a new job after living through (OK, during) a pandemic. I no longer knew how to cope with such major life shifts, and the more I got in my head about what could go wrong, the more I freaked out.
A first day, week, and month
Eventually my first day in the office came and went, and the words I came home to tell my fiancé were these: “It was actually quite nice.” Up until that point, I’d channeled so much of my nervous energy into convincing myself that things were going to be dismal. I hadn’t even considered what would happen if things actually turned out to be “quite nice.”
My new office building was recently renovated and beautiful to be in, an immaculate space in the Mission steeped in daylight, and a stark contrast to my living-room-corner-turned-home-office of the last two years. Thanks to a designated office parking garage, I was able to drive into work my first day and re-experience the joy of a morning podcast, something that had been on pause along with my commute. The best part of that day, and every day that I’ve gone into the office since, was getting to be among the people. After so much isolation, gathering in person with a team again felt both invigorating and comforting. It softened the places in my body where I’d been tense with worry, and it helped me realize everything really was going to be OK.
While the job itself hasn’t been easy, I’ve learned that it’s the right kind of challenge, the kind I’d been craving all that time on dry land.
By week two, I’d been added to various creative projects and campaign planning meetings. Though my calendar was starting to look like one solid color for the majority of the day, I appreciated the opportunity to be involved in upcoming initiatives. The fear and imposter syndrome that had previously felt so pronounced began to subside as I realized that my contributions in meetings were just as valuable as the rest of the team’s. It wasn't long before I built an extensive to-do list with tasks ranging from finding new hires for my team to reviewing my department’s budget and creating strategic plans for digital advertising. Though overwhelming to look at on some days, seeing such significant responsibilities reminded me of the reason I took this job in the first place: I wanted to grow.
It’s been over a month since I started and while the job itself hasn’t been easy, I’ve learned that it’s the right kind of challenge, the kind I’d been craving all that time on dry land. I’ve also learned that in some cases the discomfort of a transition can lead you to that sweet spot—the one where living things plant themselves in order to thrive.