Most people who have met me in the last ten years are a little mystified to hear of my former life in the oil business. And they are right that my life now is far more integrated, my work persona and my private persona much more closely aligned. But I believe I couldn’t have got to here without going there first.
I meet so many people who are not sure if they are living the life they want. They have acquired a life. And maybe it is hard to see a way out. Many of the oilmen I knew seemed very trapped. Their lifestyles in the posh suburbs, kids in private schools, golf and tennis club memberships, holiday homes, similar or higher income friends… had locked them into a lifestyle that they couldn’t easily escape even if they wanted to.
I was always keen to avoid that kind of dependency – on my employer for sure, and probably on anything or anybody now I come to think about it. It helped that I had no desire to create that type of life for myself or my children. When they all rushed to the catch their trains to the suburbs at the end of the day, I got on my bike and pedalled across town to my bohemian neighbourhood. Far from keeping up with the Joneses, I felt slightly embarrassed at earning a decent salary – nobody else I knew did. Just about making ends meet as artists, writers, musicians, campaigners, activists… we considered a second beer in the pub a serious night out.
Which gave me a great freedom. I chose to join the oil industry because it was international and significant. It gave me huge opportunities to learn – about business to start with (I didn’t know anybody who worked in a large company), about London, about the linkages between power and economics and politics, about the extraordinary ethnographic laboratory that is 100,000 smart people in a complex organization. I was constantly expected to do things I had no idea how to set about, constantly challenged – intellectually, practically and in terms of my own values and priorities. Over the years I balanced that in different ways. Taking a year out to run a charity supporting projects in Ethiopia, taking drawing classes, training as a massage therapist, studying yoga, studying witchcraft even (keep that quiet, too close to the bone as a woman in a man’s world!). Maybe my decision to start a family was also part of that urge for a balance between intellectual and directive action and more subtle ways of being.
But in the end, when it was time to go, I just knew it. I’d had 17 fascinating years, worked in 50 countries, got to influence some significant decisions. I felt that I had, on the whole, done so without compromising my principles – even though being the ‘grit in the oyster’ is not always an easy role to live with. I had stimulated some changes of policy for the better – and laughed a lot. At them and with them.
I decided to leave when a few factors converged. A change in the chair from someone I respected and often agreed with, who was prepared to answer his own emails and follow his own instincts – to someone who managed an entire lunch with me and only 2 other people without acknowledging my presence even once.
Of course I had other concerns too, it was more than just a lunch faux pas. I felt I had been there long enough. That I needed to leave then (in my late 30s) or I would find myself chained to the organization and unable to consider a new direction. I’ll never know if that was a fair assumption or not. I do know that at no moment since I left have I wondered if I did the right thing. For sure a lot of people thought me insane. A single parent with three children under 6 walking away from prospects and good income into the unknown? But in a way I felt I owed it to my children too. I wanted them to know the real me, not just the corporate me. And the idea of being able to see the occasional school play and stay living in the same neighbourhood as they grew up also meant something to me.
I grew up as a working woman in that world of big oil. found my way around the world and understood some of its dynamics – for better or for worse. That has helped me enormously in the kinds of projects and work I get involved with now. I was trained to assume there is always a solution, acquired courage in the face of seniority or power, developed a fiendish resilience and an ability to stick to my principles and think on my feet. I value what I learned, I’m glad I was there, and I’m glad I am no longer there.
I wish you the very best of luck with your choices. May they also bring you what you most desire in life.