On leaving diplomacy
Updated: Mar 10, 2021
There's nothing like diplomacy.
This makes it hard to leave.
But what if you really feel that
it's time to do something else?
I get many comments from readers saying that they have loved their time in diplomacy, but that they feel that it's time to move on and explore other options.
Many also express some concern that, after a number of years in the foreign service, they fear that their skills would not be attractive to prospective employers. Changing careers can be scary, but - like many issues I raise at The Lonely Diplomat - you're not alone.
I'm eager to explore this issue of what happens when we feel that it's time for a career and lifestyle change. I'll explore this over the coming months.
To start the series, I asked my friend Angela Pickett if she'd be comfortable sharing her story about leaving diplomacy in search of a more workable balance for her and her family. You're about to read about her experience, in her words.
Seeing Angela make a career change inspired me to try something different too. I hope that you also get something from her experience and insight.
Over to Angela...
In a world where the average person will change jobs 5-7 times, the diplomatic service is unusual. Many people still view it as a career for life.
When we think about ex-diplomats, we often think about those that have gone on to be political staffers, politicians or run think tanks.
But what about those of us that don’t want to do that? What about those of us who want to step sideways, or dare we stay, down off the career ladder?
“I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic-book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers. And then I began to realize: Entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it, they might go off the deep end." Stan Lee
In 5 years since I left diplomacy, my career change has been messy. It’s been hard but it has been rewarding. I’m now a freelance copywriter helping small businesses and not for profits connect with their customers. And on the side, I’m writing a novel. It’s very different to being a diplomat but it is just as rewarding.
I have no doubt that there are many diplomats out there thinking:
‘If I don’t do this, what else could I do?’
This was a question that I struggled with during my second posting. There was no straightforward (or quick answer), but I feel confident that I made the right decision.
The start of a brilliant career
When I joined the foreign service as a graduate 20 years ago, we were told we were ‘the best of the best’.
When a couple of our group left early on, we were aghast. Who would leave a job with such status? Who would give up the change of an overseas posting?
Within a year I was on language training, and three years after joining I was in Beijing. I was meeting with leaders and artists and senior business people. I had a great apartment in one of the world’s most dynamic cities.
At the end of a great posting, I returned home. Work was okay, but I had a new relationship (he’s now my husband) to distract myself.
I got married, had two kids, bought a house. Despite knock-backs for promotions and postings, I was hanging on for the carrot – another posting. My patience was rewarded. With a two-year-old, a 3.5-month-old (and 11 bags) in tow, we left for Hanoi.
Juggling work with two small children was challenging. But I had more help than I would have had in Australia. Besides, it was what we did: we made the difficult look easy. It was an amazing experience and one that shaped our family.
The start of my career change
About halfway through my posting, I had a conversation with my boss that made me think seriously about my future.
I was doing a dream combination of trade and cultural diplomacy. Solving market access problems one day, running large scale events and exploring the new world of Facebook diplomacy the next.
I said to him that I still was doing things I had done on my first posting ten years before.
His response: ‘I’m still doing the same things I did here on my first posting 30 years ago.’
I started to question whether this was really the only job for me. Some of the day-to-day quirks of the organisation became increasingly frustrating. A friend and former colleague pointed out that perhaps if I was always posting on social media about not liking my job, maybe I should find a new one.
Another colleague made me realise that diplomacy was not the only career for me.
I did some career coaching. I decided that cultural event management brought the most joy and started a Masters in Arts Management.
We’d already talked about me taking leave after Hanoi. The kids would be starting school and my husband could focus on his career.
Then came the chance to take a voluntary redundancy. I knew I would have to take it.
I wasn’t sure what I was heading towards – or that I was ready to leave it all behind. But I was about to turn 40 and didn’t want to live my life wondering ‘what if?’ If I wanted to return to diplomacy, I knew I could make that happen.
An evolving career change
The last five years haven’t always been easy. The degree was my parachute, giving me the courage to leave my job after 15 years but it wasn’t the key to my next career. What it did give me was structure as I navigated life in a new town, with kids at school and a husband at work.
Before I finished studying, I established a consultancy after a chance conversation about my work in trade negotiations. I gave myself two years to make it work. It was great for building networks but it wasn’t profitable – or what I wanted to do. It taught me that I could try something and fail.
I worked for a winemaker for three years. As the only employee, my administrative role included marketing, analysis, logistics and finance. It was flexible and I learned more than years of small business study could have provided.
My recent move into copywriting won’t be my last career change. I’m still determined to add novelist to my résumé.
Would I do it again?
Yes, but there are things I would change. I wish I had done a little more research about possible careers and done some work experience. I’m glad we moved to the Barossa Valley. If we’d been in Canberra, there are times it would have been easier to just head back to the public service.
I’ve struggled with feeling that I am playing small: That I’m not making the most of my skills and experience. Seeing friends becoming ambassadors and promoted to the senior leadership roles naturally raises the question of ‘what if’.
But then I look at the lifestyle we enjoy and the fact I’m running my own business.
Are you ready for a career change?
Some of you might know exactly what you’d like to do next. But if you’re like I was and you’re already doing you ‘dream job’, it can be hard to imagine doing anything else. And if you’re in the middle of a posting (as I was), there is little time - or headspace - to really sit and think deeply about your future.
There were a few things that helped me decide to take the leap.
Get a career coach: Find someone you can speak with. They will help you see what skills you have and the areas you could apply them.
Read widely: there are lots of blogs and websites about career change.
Do some study: It doesn’t have to be a degree. There are loads of short (and often free) courses out there.
Try things out: You’re never too old for work experience. Take some leave and explore new opportunities.
There is life after diplomacy. It might not always be immediately apparent but your skills can be applied widely.
As diplomats, you have something on your side that is so important when it comes to career change. As a diplomat, you’ve moved countries, changed jobs, and reinvented yourself – possibly several times.
You just need to let go of your ego and be prepared to start over.
Apply the same sense of adventure that you’ve applied when starting a new posting. The rewards will be worth it.
* * * * *
Angela Pickett is a copywriter and aspiring novelist. After a 15-year-career as a diplomat with postings in China and Vietnam, Angela decided to make a “vine change” and moved to the Barossa Valley. With her husband and two boys, she’s building a freelance lifestyle with time to cook, travel and explore while providing a taxi service to her boys growing list of sporting activities. In her spare time, she sits on the board of a local philanthropic foundation, is the treasurer for a local basketball club and has established a writing group. And because food and wine is such a part of the lifestyle, she can often be found at Crossfit or parkrun.
Go to www.angelapickett.com.au for more about her and her work.
* * * * *
I want to thank Angela most profoundly and sincerely for sharing her story with us.
For me, her words in the final three sentences say it all. Trusting yourself and knowing that the skills and experience gained from working in diplomacy are easily transferable to a host of different careers is hard, but is necessary.
Thank you, Angela, for your courage and for being willing to share your experience.
* * * * *
I feel that Angela has provided some great suggestions about exploring your future options.
If you've been thinking about your future career and you've reached the decision to leave diplomacy, I suggest talking with people who have walked the path you're about to walk down.
Seek help and guidance. Some people may convince you to stay; others may encourage you to leave your job. Some will be supportive. Others will think you're crazy. As long as you're making the decision that's right for you and those most important to you and aligns with your values and principles, then you can't make a wrong decision.
So I ask three questions:
- what would you do if you weren't scared?
- what would you do if you knew you could not fail?
- what are your values and principles?
This post covered the central themes of diplomacy, competition and connection.
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Important notice: All views expressed above do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.