Losing (and finding) my identity

Journeying in Brazil

How I coped with exiting the job I hid behind 

Hi, I’m Greta. I’m a marketing manager. That was my opening line on meeting someone. And then I would go on to explain that I worked for the corporate office of an international hotel brand, working on branding and brand consistency management.

I wore suits to work, I spent the vast majority of my time at work, I was addicted to answering work emails and solving work problems. I had just started traveling for work, going to luxury hotels, getting picked up by drivers, having doors opened for me, being treated with an air of respect for my ‘authority’. And I liked it.

I liked going to my room and finding a welcoming note and chocolates from the hotel manager, I liked hotel breakfasts, especially in London where the whiff of opulence and celebrity was even stronger than that emanating from the organic, locally sourced fruit and granola I was nibbling at. It all made me feel special, important, wanted. Like I was finally someone.

Then I started to get the feeling that I wasn’t growing in my work, that as great as the glamour side of things was, I was not feeling like I was expanding exponentially any longer. I started feeling like I wanted more.

So at 29 I quit my job with the plan of going travelling with my partner for a few months, giving myself the gap ‘year’ I never had taken; only a more mature version of it. Exploring new shores for longer than the week or two available within my work holidays, learning about a more sustainable lifestyle and completing the reset that was already happening in my life (which some people would call an early onset midlife crisis).

Leaving Corinthia Hotels
My leaving do at Corinthia Hotels. It feels like a lifetime ago.

I quit in December and left Malta in January, heading for Malaysia for some much needed beach time, exploration and generally being a traveler. Not that I knew what that was really.

The first two weeks felt like a holiday. We went to beaches, we rented a motorcycle, we had crazy adventures, like when we lost our car key or when I found out that my internet Thailand visa research had neglected to highlight the fact that the Visa on Arrival policy only worked for a select number of ports that included this service. And the port we wanted to land in did not. It was fast, fun and full of novelty. It felt wonderful.

Having managed to obtain the missing Thai Visa we headed to Koh Tarutau. A beautiful place with beaches, beach huts, simple beach restaurants, and not much more. Life slowed down. Quickly I started noticing a sense of unease creeping on me at around 9am on weekdays. A feeling that I should be somewhere, that I should be doing something. Guilty thoughts that I should be in an office doing something useful rather than lying around on a beach reading or learning to mountain bike up cobbled lanes in the middle of the rainforest. I would literally feel like there was a knot in my stomach on weekdays, almost waiting for someone to call me and drag my ass back to the office, where I belonged.

Things got worse when we got to Australia where people spoke English and asked the dreaded question, ‘So what do you do?’. What did I do? I was traveling. I used to be a marketing manager of a luxury hotel brand and now I am traveling for a few months. I felt like that answer saved me from sounding like a lazy teenager out to party in hostels.

Learning about organic farming. A world away from the life I had been living just months before.
Learning about organic farming in Australia. A world away from the life I had been living just months before.

Fast forward a few months when we landed in Southern Oregon. More precisely in an intentional community called Full Bloom where we were facilitating a process of the members figuring out and creating a visual identity and guidelines for the use of that. Branding, brand guidelines, North America. Phew. I finally felt respectable again. I could talk about what I was doing whilst feeling accomplished and productive and worth the space I inhabited in this world.

Working with my partner Gayle proved challenging as we both tried to find the areas where we fit in the jigsaw puzzle of work and life. Working outside a structure felt completely different from working in my previous work where my role was structured, it existed and I could fit in it. There were people to guide me, to tell me what the priorities were, to give me feedback on how my work was going. This felt completely different. Gayle and I created the methodology together, fusing the experience of both of us to create a tailor made process for this situation.

Chèvre and fresh bread at the farmers' market in Oregon.
Chèvre and fresh bread at the farmers’ market in Oregon. And juggling writing, brand identity work with purpose and working with a partner.

Returning to Malta after a few months in Oregon we brought with us a project – creating Full Bloom’s website. This would implement all that we helped put together over the previous few months, putting together something that presented Full Bloom to the world. Something that would put our work out there for others to see, something that the community depended on in order for them to be truthfully represented online. It was a nerve-wrecking process but also a very beautiful one and the result speaks for both Full Bloom’s full dedication to the endeavor and to the beauty that comes from working on something that combines something you deeply admire with that which you love doing. I could not have asked for a better project to welcome me to full time freelancing.

All however was not fully rosy. With the Full Bloom project winding to an end, a strong identity crisis loomed on the horizon. Who was I and more urgently, what was it that I did for work? How could I narrow down what services I would offer in a way that I could communicate but which at the same time left me with enough flexibility to explore?

Being back in Malta was a challenge. Broke after travelling, living in a tiny room (though with the most gorgeous view you can possibly imagine) in a hot, exhaust-filled Valletta harbour and working in the same small space was nothing short of challenging. Add to that the difficulties of defining what it was that I did for work and more importantly who that now made me.

No longer a Marketing Manager for a hotel brand, I started using the title of freelancer, imagining that portraying the image of a casual, low paid former traveller still finding her feet. Which of course was how I saw myself at the time.

I spent about two years freelancing in Malta. I spent a lot of time and effort in defining myself and what I did, perhaps without really giving myself the luxury of being formless for a while, testing out what it was that I really wanted to spend a sizeable chunk of my time doing. What I felt that my best offering for the world was. The process was sometimes fluid, sometimes jagged because of this.

Greta, Gayle and Michela holding the We're In sign pre-Earth Garden.
Volunteering on clean up teams at festivals in Malta helped give me a sense of perspective during a time when I felt more than a little lost.

Through the jobs that I did, through conversations with friends, clients, contacts, I naturally started noticing my affinity towards specific parts of the services that I offered. I started feeling very attracted to the idea of helping people and companies to really portray themselves accurately online. I felt somewhat frustrated at the gap that I noticed between what I saw online and the real flesh and bones people behind that and what they actually did, who they actually were. And of course my writing, branding, design and website building experience gave me the right set of skills to make this happen.

I worked on a few projects with Gayle, enjoying the very complementary dynamic between us with her being a speedy structure building trailblazer and me being a slower, more writing and design-oriented side of things. Working together and being in a relationship though brought to light my willingness to work long hours, often getting lost in work without being truly productive overall. This took a toll on our relationship and we had to put in limits to our work life in order to have a non-work life beside it.

This addiction to working long hours without really having that much to show for it is something I struggle with from time to time. I feel like sitting at my computer and working, even when not doing billable work or much that is actually necessary, somehow redeems me. Particularly when my to do list includes challenging work that requires my most focused attention, my best efforts. Or when the work that needs doing is not something that really absorbs me fully. I guess it’s what most people at work experience between tasks. Except there is no one to pay me for the time between. Which of course makes long unbilled hours somewhat unsustainable apart from a huge waste of my time.

At the beginning of this year, I finally decided to really make the most of my location independent work and go nomadic. Brazil had been coming up for me and this article by Gustavo Tanaka was what really cemented the idea of going as I felt a huge amount of resonance with the ideas he spoke about.

Working remotely over the past four months has been refreshingly simple. It feels like work took a bit of a supporting role in my life as for the first time in my 33 years I took time to really learn about myself, to experience life fully and to explore and reflect on happenings through my writing. I’ve been a lot less present that I hoped I would be on my blog, but have started a Medium account with my more reflective writings and poetry. And have written much, much, much more in a series of notebooks that have accompanied me throughout my journeys.

Piracanga - greta-ma.com
My ‘office’ at Piracanga, an eco-village in Bahia, Brazil.

The practice of writing has not only helped me to truly understand myself and whatever situation I was going through but has helped me realise just how important writing is to me and how much I enjoy the process of translating my thoughts and feelings into words. I now know that writing is something that will always feature strongly in my life.

Partly through writing and partly through observation and conversations with others, I can now see how different my attitude towards what makes me, me is. I am happy and confident at introducing myself as just Greta without the need for a title to advertise how worthwhile it would be to get to know me. Information about what I do for work, where I come from, what kind of tings I love serve more to illustrate parts of me rather than creating a persona to hide behind. It feels good to not need one of those any longer.

Work-wise, I find myself drifting more and more towards artistic projects, towards writing, towards using my skills to create the more beautiful world my heart knows is possible (with thanks to Charles Eisenstein) whilst keeping myself fed, clothed and in comfortable spaces (at least physically). I’m still exploring what that looks like and sincerely hope that I will never stop searching for more resonance, more meaning and more fulfillment in everything that I do.

Writing at Piracanga. A daily practice that has helped me understand myself and also notice my intense love for it.
Writing at Piracanga. A daily practice that has helped me understand myself and also notice my intense love for it.

I know now though that whatever I choose to do for work or pleasure, my worth as a human being is completely independent from anyone’s opinion about it or rather my expectations around that. And that thought gives me great pleasure and an endless sense of possibility.