“Where do you see yourself in a year time from now?”

Out of the blue, this bolt from the sky fell upon me, catching me completely unprepared. The question you don’t expect from your boss. The worst thing was, I knew the answer well enough.

A little before that exact moment, I was hoping the afternoon wasn’t going to offer anything other than a one-way ticket home. Squeezed into a tiny table at the back of a cafe outside the underground station, my boss was holding a debriefing session after a client meeting we’d just had. I would have wished for a little more small talk, just to drag the clock hands further forward allowing me to make my way home and disappear for the rest of the day.

All around me, the world seemed to be a very grim place to exist. The London January weather leaves you with no hope for a ray of sun. The clouds were thick and evenly spread all across the sky and a sudden rain shower could have taken my mood under the carpet – knocking me down for good that day.

The client presentation went in the worst possible way: neither well, nor badly. The average way. Nothingness added to nothing. Possibly, another sign to add to previous ones collected during the past six months, telling me it was time to leave.

However, things were going as I initially hoped and the time to gain entrance to the underground was fast approaching; but then, as with a lazy sailor who tries to get through a relatively calm and boring passage, all the while dreaming of home shores, who starts sensing the waves getting bigger and bigger against the hull, I started suspecting that something was going to happen that would not let me go back to my harbour, my home, that easily– and that nothing, nothing would stay the same after that.

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Like the tide that erases everything you draw with your feet in the sand, a wave was getting ready to erase everything I had done for the past six months. Without understanding exactly what was about to happen that afternoon to break the inertia I had put myself into, I looked outside the window, mentally preparing to run for shelter from the incoming storm and its threatening waves.

Then, that precise question, the mother of all questions. The rotten cherry on top of that dull day I was certainly not looking forward to hearing:

“As your six-month probation period is coming to an end, I have to ask you this: where do you see yourself in a year time from now? Do you want to stay in the company”?

Even though I knew the answer to that question, in cases like this, there is a weird mechanism somewhere in our brains that kicks into action to prevent our hearts from speaking the truth without any sort of filter, so we avoid saying things that might have a negative impact on our immediate future.

There is a subtle satisfaction in looking for the right time and place to tell the truth, after building it up for days thinking about the right words to say, the preparation of the moves to make, the countermeasure to adopt in order to get the best possible result out of this kind of difficult situation.

Like a wannabe 19th century military strategist, I was all about seeking the best field to fight my battle face to face with the inevitable truth – that it was time to leave that job, and honestly, that coffee place was not the one I imagined for my final stand.

Immediately, my brain started projecting scenes of my miserable future life without a full time job lined up, where uncertainty would have reigned over my existence, in a world that doesn’t forgive those who decide to take a break from a job they do not like; “produce, and keep producing, don’t stop working”, they say.

Even worse, my mind was predicting a future where I could have needed to consider going back to my parents’ home, who would have cared for me as they had in the old times: cooking – washing – ironing – the “all-inclusive treatment”. A complete nightmare for my sense of pride and my independence. This is how my mind was tricking me – scaring the hell out of me by simply showing how I was seeing things.

Babbling through the first minutes of shock that question provoked in me, I uselessly tried to work my way out of that self-induced trap. The more I was talking, the more my brain was trying to prevent me from telling the truth, the deeper I was digging my own grave in that coffee shop. Judging by my opponent’s perplexity over the meaningless sounds I was uttering, I wasn’t going to achieve a victory or even an honourable draw, I was hurtling towards the reality of losing that battle.

A prompt change of tactic was much needed; all of a sudden, a fresh injection of personal pride let my heart take over the conversation, and started to lead the conversation. A heartbeat, then another one, and another one in a quick succession started to increase the quantity of blood going through my whole body, making me feel alive again and courageous enough to face the storm in front of me. My heart took control over my mind, and I felt that was the right time to let it do it.

All of a sudden, some magic words started resonating in my head; words that I heard during my first work experience when I was 18 while going through a very tough personal time:

“Remember that life is like a train journey, made up by several stops. You can always get off this train at the next stop, if you would prefer to wait for another one that can take you somewhere else, where you can be happier or more satisfied. Feel free to always leave at the stop you prefer, and never stay on a train whose direction you don’t like anymore”.

That was my heart speaking. Yes, finally.

Eric Parks via Unsplash

That question which previously put me in a state of shock was also the occasion I had been waiting for: the opportunity to leave that train I’d ended up on six months before, in which I never felt comfortable and couldn’t see the direction I was heading. In these situations that can happen to anyone, when the heart starts leading, there are no constraints or layers of protection to prevent you from saying what you really think.

When you leave the heart in charge, then rest assured you will get to tell the truth and feel liberated after that. At a cost, of course. The cost of having to face the consequences of what you say, even more when those can mean a future filled with uncertainty and insecurity; but a future you can try to design in a way that can better fit your aspirations and dreams.

So, it really was time to do the right thing and get off that train. The lack of leadership and charisma proved to me by short-sighted management, the absence of a true team spirit, and the prospective of poor personal and professional development were good enough reasons for me to leave, and to start re-thinking my life, letting a fog bank of uncertainty wrap its way around my life, so I would have to fight to see the sun’s light in my life again.

The die was cast, and there could not be any possible way back. Although this sounds paradoxical, this tactic left my interlocutor utterly surprised by the sudden impetus of sincerity that he was witnessing. Instead of looking perplexed at that wave of negative feedback I was providing, his words of appreciation for my honesty were the signal I was waiting for to prove that, rather than sheltering myself in what my brain was trying to sell me as a safe place, speaking with the heart was driving me in the right direction.

Refreshed by the result of my personal battle between my brain and my heart, that long-awaited time to leave the coffee shop and keep sailing towards home finally arrived. While we approached the underground station, a mix of excitement and insecurity for the future to come spread all along my nerves, from head to toe. While chitchatting along the way, both of us hoping that the journey would have lasted the least possible amount of time, I was daydreaming again. Questions and doubts were racing through my brain, while the copious number of stops taking us to the city centre from the end of the line slid by mundanely.

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Outside the train carriage windows, the dark sky was controlling the atmosphere just before the tube continued its journey under the ground. There were no stars for me to look at, the clouds were still covering them, but I did not need them. I did not want them to guide my way towards the next possible destination. All I wanted was for that train to go faster past the stops, to finally deliver me where I belonged: a new station and a new chapter of life.

The following day I delivered my resignation notice to HR.

End of the battle.

The beginning of a new journey.

Cover image courtesy of Jack Pease Photography via Flickr