Is it okay to drop out of work?

February 1, 2001

Helen Stevens has been what many people would call ‘a corporate high flyer.’ She’s a mover and shaker, a key figure in the corporate development of the Internet in Australia. She’s set up three high profile Internet companies in three years, drives a sports car, and lives in a trendy inner west apartment with water views of Sydney Harbour. She’s been married twice, but has never let her personal life, or anything else for that matter, get in the way of her career. By all accounts, and also by her own admission, she’s a successful woman. The type of woman who proved that the glass ceiling is really just a flimsy piece of glad wrap that tears easily if you poke it for long enough. A role model for your daughters.

Two weeks ago Helen, in her mid thirties, walked into her office and notified her staff that she was eight weeks pregnant and was flying to Fiji in two days. For good. After over ten years in the fast lane, she is giving it all up for motherhood and a humble life with her long- distance love of the past two years, a Fijian diving instructor. Everyone was supportive and congratulatory, if not a little shocked. It was strange to see this ambitious entrepreneur succumb to the lure of love and babies on a tropical island. This, from a woman who has wheeled and dealed it with the best of them.

“I have always been very career orientated and success has driven me for the past 10 years. It’s not so much the money, although that is always nice, it’s more the personal challenge of starting a project from scratch and watching it grow into a successful business,” she admits. From one professional success to another, Stephens proved that she had the winning formula. Her life was good. Very good. But at 36, she stopped and asked herself that proverbial mid-life question, ‘What is it all for?’ “I guess there comes a time in your life when you have made a success of your career but something is lacking, it hit me about 6 months ago and I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing? I have no life’. I wondered where the bright eyed girl of my 20’s had gone.” Whilst life as a corporate high flyer did come with a lot of perks – the thrill of the challenge, the money – it also meant that Stevens had little time to cultivate let alone maintain a truly fulfilling personal life. Her partner lived in Fiji, a long way from Sydney’s CBD. “You get to the stage where you think, ‘Why don’t I have a personal life? What is the point of all this? Why does everyone else get to go home to their boyfriends and husbands? It’s a pretty lonely existence when you come home and take your laptop to bed with you each night.'”

Stevens decided that the solution was to drop out. To immerse her self in a personal life and regain some sense of what really matters. ‘I personally needed time, I was at a stage where I valued a career more highly than a personal life and that’s not good. There needs to be a balance, so that’s what I’m doing now, dropping out and looking for a better balance and putting life back into perspective.” No one was more surprised by the decision than Stevens herself. “If someone had told me two years ago I would be doing this I would have laughed in their face, it was never part of the big picture”: In typical Steven’s style, she relishes the thought of this new challenge. And challenge it most certainly will be. Life as a mum on a holiday island. No sports car, no bottles of Riesling at the Quay Bar on a Friday night, no job. For a workaholic and a city girl like Stevens, this will probably be the most difficult challenge of her life. “My next big project is giving birth to my baby and enjoying time out with my partner. It’s a total 360 degree turn for me.” Whilst Stevens will remain a director of her company for the time being, there’s no doubt that her old life will soon be a distant memory. “It’s very scary what I’m doing now, I feel like I’m stepping into the unknown. I don’t have a business plan in my hand to guide me along the way. I don’t have any meetings scheduled or strategic partnerships to work on. It’s a whole different ball game.”

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