PLAN 40: How I Took Two Years to Get My Sh*t Together Before Turning 40 (and Why It Was Worth It)

Celebrating my 40th birthday by running a half marathon.  It's been a LONG run, but totally worth it.

Two years ago, on my 38th birthday, I wrote an entry in my journal, summing up my life at that point: “So, that’s where things stand: overweight, career stalled, struggling as a parent and unhappy as a wife.  It wasn’t always this way.  In 2003, when I was 30, I was featured in Crain’s Chicago Business as a “rising star” on its 40 Under 40 list.  I’ve still got two years left before I turn 40, so I’m giving myself that time to get things turned around.  And, to keep myself honest, I’m going to track my progress here.”

I called this project of getting my life back on “rising star” track, “Plan 40.”  And the plan is just about complete.  Here’s how things stand with one day left in my 30s.

The journal entries from two years ago are a bit depressing to read, but I’m glad I kept them.

July 21, 2011

Today, I am 38 years old.

I am five feet, two inches tall and weigh 160 pounds.

Two weeks ago, I started my own business.  I have zero clients.

I am also writing a novel.  I just started Chapter 23.  Planning 45.

My sons are 4, 3 and 1.  One has started school; the other two are still in diapers.  The youngest, who will be two in September, is a champion tantrum-thrower.  Sometimes, when he is screaming, I scream back.  I hate that I do that.  Sometimes, when he is crying, I cry, too, which makes my other kids cry.  That’s pretty awful.

So, statistically speaking, here’s how things have changed (or not.)

I am still I am five feet, two inches tall.  I now weigh 115 pounds.

My business now has 6 active clients and has done major project work for several others.  I earn about the same amount of money, working for myself with completely flexible hours, as I did working full-time in an office for a boss whose ability to churn through employees was the stuff of legend.

The novel is finished and will be published later this year.

No one in my house is in diapers anymore.  And, while I still lose my temper with my kids on occasion, the joy-to-agony ratio in parenting is MUCH improved.

The full story of how I did it appears, in three parts, on my personal blog.  But I thought I might post some highlights here, too.

Plan 40, as I decided to call it, had *many* components, but, if I had to pick one that was most important, it would be, oddly enough, running. I downloaded the Couch to 5K app and started its training program in July 2011.  On the first day, my 20 minute “run” consisted a few 60 second jogs, with walking breaks in between.  I hated it, but I did it.  And then, over time, it became a habit.

A little more than a year after that first, halting run, I ran my first race, The Title 9 K, in honor of the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title 9, the measure that brought equality to women’s sports in schools and colleges.

And, though my performance was nothing to write home about, finishing that race was one of the proudest moments in my life.  And it was ridiculously awesome to have my husband and kids there cheering for me at the finish.  I loved that they witnessed me doing something that was not ALL about taking care of them.  That race was a huge turning point: I began to feel a little less invisible.

Very accidentally, I’d found the key to repairing the many things that felt broken in my life.  I began working on myself (getting back to my writing, building my business, crawling back into fitness) in part because I wondered if maybe my marriage wouldn’t last and I thought I’d better be prepared for life on my own.

It was an unexpected gift that in finding my self (and self-confidence) again, I found my way back into being really in love with my husband.  I accepted what he’d been trying to hard to give me all along: the kind of love that celebrates “victories,” even when they are not headline-worthy.

I used to joke that I would never run races I couldn’t win.  What would be the point of coming in 8,312th place?

I used to dwell on all the things I couldn’t get done in a day of managing three little boys.

I assumed that everyone, including my husband, held me to the impossible standards to which I held myself.

So, on Sunday, July 21 — my 40th birthday — when I finished the Chicago half-marathon in the utterly unremarkable time of 2 hours, 16 minutes, and found him waiting, with our three awesome boys, cheering for me like I’d just won the Olympics, I felt a wave of joy and gratitude that we are sticking it out and raising our family together.  And that we are doing the very best we can.

Similarly, when I quit my job at a prestigious public strategy firm to go it alone as a media relations consultant, I didn’t really have a fully-formed plan.  I just knew that long hours, super-charged political machinations and ridiculous stress were killing me.

I didn’t have time to exercise and, what’s more, I ate (and drank!) to deal with my anxiety and exhaustion.  I felt bad about all that, which compounded with everything else, ate away at my patience and energy, so that even when I was having “quality time” with my family, I was definitely not the kind of wife and mother I wanted to be.  It had to stop.

I had an idea—that lawyers representing clients in high-profile matters could use some help dealing with the media—and I had a decent reputation and set of contacts as a journalist, but I didn’t have much else.  I couldn’t take clients from my old firm and I’d never done any kind of “business development” work.  Ever.

My husband, a nearly lifelong entrepreneur, convinced me that taking the leap was the right thing to do.  But he couldn’t teach me how to sell or market myself.  I had to figure that out on my own.

I made some stupid decisions (like spending way too much money on printed marketing materials), but, luckily, I also made some really good ones.

The first was that I kept my childcare arrangements in place.  Our fabulous nanny kept right on working for us four days a week, from 8:00 to 5:30.  At first, this felt wrong: if there wasn’t a job to do, shouldn’t I be at home?  But we were fortunate enough to have the money to pay her and, ultimately, there was no way to build a business without putting time into it.

Once I established the time and some work space (borrowed Monday through Thursday from a consultant who only used it on Fridays), I set about filling the time in the most productive way possible.  Figuring out what “productive” meant in this context was hard.  But the best sales manager I ever knew (a guy for whom I briefly worked as an administrative assistant a million years ago) used to say, “You can’t will the business.  It’s a relationship business and you can’t just will it.”  [Actually, he had a super-thick Boston accent, so what he said was actually something more like, “You caahhn’t will the business.”]

I did as much “networking” as possible, inviting people for lunch and coffee, making calls to former colleagues, seeking out introductions and all of that.  But that will only a fill an hour or two a day at most.

The rest of the time, I worked on getting smarter—catching up the social media skills I’d fallen behind on, learning the professional requirements that lawyers have to deal with, and committing to some small steps to get myself back to a place of self-confidence, from which I’d be able to sell my work effectively.  I connected with a Pilates instructor I’d worked with briefly after having my babies and made a weekly standing appointment with her.  I joined Weight Watchers and started attending weekly meetings there.  I volunteered for the Obama campaign.

In other words, I filled my days.  I booked appointments for myself everyday, even if they were not purely “business” related.  I had a reason to get dressed, look presentable and I had commitments to fulfill.

It wasn’t always “work,” but it was always productive.

I even started scheduling time each day to do some work on the novel manuscript I’d long been hoping to finish.  I didn’t always keep that appointment—it felt too optional; there was no real accountability.  So, at the recommendation of a writer friend, I checked out Nanowrimo, the National Novel Writing Month event, set for November.  A lot people called it the writer’s equivalent of running a marathon—in other words, kind of pointless, but very cool in terms of feeling like you’ve accomplished something.  In committing to write about 1700 words a day, every day, for a month (that’s a 50,000 word book), you can build some serious writerly fitness.

It took almost two years to get my business, built mostly by word of mouth referrals from people I already knew well, to the point where it is now: paying the equivalent of my former salary.  But, in doing so, I’ve been able to maintain the schedule I wanted and, most important, the balance I wanted.  I still keep those appointments to exercise and write, for example.

In truth, this has been the hardest, slowest part of the plan, but it’s also been the most rewarding.  Financially, of course, but also in the sense of affirming that my professional skills do have value and can still be used productively while raising a family and in role modeling for my boys that women (specifically moms) wear many hats in this world.

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