"So, what's next for you?"
The question I dread.
The question I don't know how to answer.
The question I am asked at least once a week by well-meaning people who haven't seen me in a while when I run into them at the grocery store.
"So, what's next for you?"
Anyone who's ever taken a break from working, whether voluntarily or not at all, knows this question well. As I'm spending 2022 on a yearlong sabbatical for Grieve Leave, it's a question I'm very familiar with, and it's one I often avoid answering, altogether.
I've successfully avoided the question by sometimes not responding to text messages, by skipping out on some events, and by ducking into Harris Teeter aisles to closely examine canned fruit I don't need.
But it turned out that one event I recently skipped taught me an unexpected lesson about “what’s next” for me. And maybe it’ll resonate with you too.
In May of this year, I RSVPed “no” to my graduation ceremony for Leadership North Carolina (LNC), a statewide program for movers and shakers I was honored to participate in. When I applied, I was focused on seeking out leadership and professional opportunities to couple with the dream job I’d landed in our state government as a senior advisor. I was the youngest in the group of 60 intimidatingly-accomplished men and women from across the state. Through LNC, I made friends with other North Carolinians who all shared a common interest in making our state better. I loved every minute of it.
In my graduation attendance form, I wrote a note that I couldn’t make it to the ceremony because I would be out of town for my birthday…which was not exactly untrue. But I omitted a key reason that I wasn’t going to LNC graduation: shame.
Now that I'd left my dream job for Grieve Leave, I didn't want to answer that dreaded What's Next Question. It would've punctuated my entire night, as I hadn't seen my classmates in person since the Pandemic, and the idea of stumbling over my non-response made me anxious. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be moving and shaking with the LNC crowd anymore: these are the people that always have a "next," like I used to. These are the leaders of my state, like I used to be.
So. I wasn't there.
And guess what happened? I won a damn award! An award I didn't know I was in the running for. An award I didn't think I deserved. An award I didn’t show up to accept.
Here are the award criteria, straight from the Leadership North Carolina website: The LNC Stanley Frank Class Award is presented to a participant of the current LNC class whose demonstrated leadership has made a significant improvement to the quality of life, economic well-being, and/or sense of community in our state.
Why would I, a technically unemployed Leadership North Carolina participant, get this award? It didn’t make sense to me. I used to demonstrate leadership when I’d speak on behalf of our government…but not anymore. I used to spend every day in our government trying to improve the quality of life for the people of my state…but not anymore. If I wasn’t working, why would I deserve this?
Well, receiving this award taught me that even without a fancy title, I’m still doing the work. And it forced me to reevaluate how I, and how we, judge what makes a good leader:
· Taking care of my mental health is leadership. I've spent my career in public service, focusing on improving the lives of others. Today, I'm focusing on improving my own life by going on Grieve Leave. I am setting a precedent for myself and showing other people that it is necessary to take care of your own wellbeing. I can’t help other people if I’m not helping myself, first.
· Writing publicly about my grief is leadership. I am showing that it’s okay not to be okay after the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship, and I hope that by writing about and sharing my experience, I am helping others. It takes courage to be so open about what I'm struggling with in what often feels like an endlessly optimistic and positive culture.
· Not knowing exactly what's next, but still putting one foot in front of the other, is leadership. I used to think that having a one year, a five year, and a ten year plan was essential to being a leader. But I've learned that it takes strength and patience to recognize when a plan isn't serving you anymore. Leadership is being able to face every day ready to try again and be better than you were the day before. It doesn't mean having all the answers.
I’m realizing now that I am still a leader in my state and for my state, and in so many ways, Grieve Leave is the most challenging leadership role I’ve ever taken on. I don't know exactly what's next for me, but I do know that today I am a griever and I am a leader.
Thank you for this award, Leadership North Carolina. It means the world to me.
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