This is the first Weekly Letter I’ve written in a long time. Now I am breaking that pause with a befitting subject: the pause itself and how it busted my personal and inherited myths about work and life.
I found myself entering September of last year totally burned out. I had been working a full time job and juggling a demanding business venture to make custom fit womenswear to create jobs in my small community in West Virginia. I found myself totally exhausted and at a loss for how to proceed. I had hit on an interesting business model making custom fitted blouses for customers remotely that was surprisingly promising. Less waste with manufacturing, more money to pay sewers in the community as craftspeople, and the opportunity for women to fit into their clothing in new and exciting ways. I loved it. I loved everything about the mission, but felt run down by the work. Worse still, I had no time for the design or the pattern making, the pieces I loved that I needed to continue to invest time into to develop.
I remember sharing my conundrum with a business advisor with whom I shared that I was thinking of taking a break. This advisor told me that taking a break was tantamount to quitting. And so I kept going like a car running out of gas – wheels about to fall off – but I was determined.
And then ovarian cancer finally started to overtake my mom. I went home to California thinking that I just needed to get her back on track with a new diet regimen until, several weeks later – dumbfounded – I learned that we were in the last lap of her life together after her surgeon informed my family that my mom would not eat again. And I was forced to stop. My mom passed away. I had quit my day job back in September. By December I had no day job, no mother and had formally paused with my business efforts. I was forced to pause. Really pause.
Summoning the energy to keep going with the business was not an option. But it scared me. This mission was part of who I am. What happens when it isn’t part of my life? In the dark days of winter I became introspective. I met with a fellow woman in manufacturing, the owner of a beautiful sewing workshop down in Asheville, North Carolina – Sew Co. I shared my tales of woe: A bedraggled team of ladies working too few, very exhausting hours trying to make these blouses. Over hot toddies in a hipster bar down the road from her facility she offered to help: her company could make the blouses for me.
The holidays settled and then faded and I found myself applying to jobs and doing a lot of reflecting and recovering from what I had been through. Later on in January, fully 4 months after I had paused with my business, a clear picture emerged. I had been trying to do too many things at once with too few resources: 1) test out whether it is feasible to fit women clients virtually for made to measure blouses; 2) train local home sewers to make high quality blouses; 3) open and source equipment for a workshop; 4) compile the numbers to prove that it is worth investing money in number 2 & 3 of the above list all while working a full time day job. With my months away I began to see clearly that I was trying to do too many things at once in spite of the nagging feeling that I wasn’t doing enough and everything was taking too long.
I considered my manufacturing ally’s offer. Sew Co. could make the final blouses for us. I knew from visiting her workshop and collaborating in the past that they already had the trained personnel, the equipment and the set-up to tell me exactly what the cost of making the blouses would be far better than trying to estimate from novice sewers. And now it seems so wild that I could not see this earlier. As I write this we are in our early days working together and I am marveling at the fact that they are sharing so much of the work, and that they will continue to do so. My commitment to making sure they can pay their people well and succeed with our work together and the ways in which I have to level up are super energizing. In the space that creates for me I am making new patterns, taking trips to visit collaborators, and really taking time to explore the ways that I want to support myself.
The truth is that as entrepreneurs we often sit in this unique seat pioneering something that is novel, for which you are taking an uncharted path. I started down this path with the belief that entrepreneurship is where we will overcome so many issues around sustainability and inequity. I still do believe this. But it also means unlearning so many of the bad habits we have picked up as a society. For example, that it is a negative thing to take a pause. That it harrold failure, laziness, aimlessness and what have you.
What I know to be real for me after this experience is that the real change we need has to come from the heart. And sometimes we need to take a break to hear the guidance we need for our work to be great. The fallacy of the idea that we must keep going and moving and working no matter what – is that it helps no one and hurts and burns out lots of teams (and perhaps the environment and other bystanders) for us to be cruising full steam in the wrong direction. To do the big work that is innovative for people and the planet we have to reject the nonsense that says pausing is lazy, unproductive, un-American(!). Interestingly we seem to do this in service to the status quo. Without time to think we just keep going, doing what we are doing no matter the cost to ourselves and our environment. I encourage you to join me and pause when you need to so that our energy can work in service to something greater than what has come before, in service to a better tomorrow for people and the planet.