For most of my career, the main clients of my companies have been government organizations. And, in many cases, the work we did for said clients had to be performed at one or another of their buildings, rather than in my companies' home offices.
Most of these organizations had, and continue to have, strict rules about information security, which extended to the security of their physical locations and the rules they implemented regarding access to those facilities.
What did this mean in practice?
It meant you couldn't count on having internet access. (We probably kept O'Reilly Publishing in business.)
It meant you never had a functioning cell phone. Good luck with your texting.
It meant you couldn't get packages or anything else delivered to your office (which the porch thieves certainly appreciated in the holiday season).
It meant putting up with the occasional delay getting into the parking lot while the guards checked your car for explosives.
It meant--the horror!--unrecorded steps (fitness trackers were prohibited) and silent workspaces (iPods were prohibited as well).
It meant never leaving the office for lunch, since the hassle of leaving and coming back would take a good 30 minutes on top of whatever time it took to go to a Chipotle and pick up a salad bowl.
In short: for me, "going to work" involved an array of hassles that the average office job didn't require.
However, for me, this was just normal operating procedure. After many years of putting up with these restrictions, and working solely with people who were all putting up with the same (or more) hassles, they faded into the background...no more an active consideration than the length of my commute. And in some of these assignments, I really enjoyed the work I was doing; in most cases, I really enjoyed the people with whom I worked as well.
We were accomplishing things I was proud to be a part of; we had fun while doing it; and would find ourselves staying longer hours for no real business reasons...we just liked "the office," in the thematic sense of the word (the way "my church" doesn't refer to the building, but to the people, the community, and the spiritual message).
So the folderol and security nonsense? It was a bit of an irritant, but there are much worse things to have to deal with.
This past Monday, I had to go to a meeting that happened to be at one of my old customer sites. I spent six or seven years working there in the 2000s, but haven't been back for any reason in almost five years. When I went through the access gate, the guard gave me my visitor badge and asked, "So, do you know where you're going?"
An interesting question.
Physically, I did; but mentally and emotionally, as we'll soon see, I did not.
One valid answer to "Do you know where you're going?" was "Yes, back in time," because I was meeting up with people before the official meeting. Due to the "no functioning cell phone" rules, there was no way for us to get in touch with each other to say "I'm here/I'm running late/Change of plans" etc.
We had to use the same tactics we used as kids--"Meet you at 7:00 at the Orange Julius, and if I'm not there by 7:15 call my mom on the pay phone or just go to the movie without me." It's kind of like those old consulting-company interview questions ("If you had to meet someone in such-and-such a city on such-and-such day, and you had no way of contacting them, how would you do it?")
Somehow, we all channeled our inner children and managed to meet up successfully. One of my long-time colleagues started by asking me about my visit to what was once my daily place of business.
"So," he said, "how does it feel to see the old girl again?" (Meaning the building. I guess buildings are female.)
"You know what?" I said. "I didn't expect to feel this way, but here's how I can best describe it:
This was an honest, but very surprising, answer. Surprising to me, I mean. Anxiety is about the last thing I would have expected to feel.
I mean, the reason I was in the building was to talk about a Tableau project with the specific customer for whom it was being developed; I knew the topic, I was eager to get feedback, and I knew he was already having success with what we had already delivered. By any rational assessment, the meeting was going to be at worst a requirements collection session, and at best a lovefest. What was there to be anxious about?
As it turned out, my emotional reaction was not at all related to the upcoming meeting. (Which, spoiler alert, actually went very smoothly.) But going back to the same location where I had spent most of the past decade brought back sense memories of that particular time in my life. And, to get real real, while I had a lot of professional satisfaction and success in that era, my personal life during those years was a disaster.
In the years I spent working at that specific customer location: people in my immediate family suffered extensive hospitalizations, addiction battles, and mental health episodes; meanwhile, I went through a separation and contested divorce (ever testified in court? I have), had major surgery, and nearly went broke paying for it all.
Now, I know there's no causal relationship here, of course. But: all of these issues began right around the time I started working at this location; and by the time they had all resolved, I was at a different company and work location. No wonder my lizard brain has decided, in the intervening decade, to associate this physical location with emotional and mental stress.
When I think back rationally and intentionally on my time at that location, it is mostly with fondness; because of the work I did while I was there, and the people I met; and the professional growth that happened as a result of it.
As a matter of fact, taking the job at that site in the first place was a risk. I was leaving software development to jump into the management track, but with no knowledge of that customer or prior project management experience. But, the risk paid off for me: in the short term, I developed leadership skills and a knowledge of that customer organization; in the long term, it formed the basis for my current career, since it was at this assignment that I grew interested in, and eventually skilled at, data visualization.
But "thinking back on that time" is controlled, intellectual, and rational. That's a very different experience than "drive into the parking lot and walk into that building, unchanged as it is, and immerse yourself in its sights and sounds." And in the moment--in the environment that took me back in time--it really sucker-punched me. It took a several-year absence for me to realize just how much better my life has become since 2010--and, incredibly, in 2010, I was reluctant to leave the place!
All of this is to say a few things.
1. Change is scary but inevitable. I liked where I was, or so I thought; but in retrospect it was changing for the worse underneath me, slowly. Once I became my own agent of change, my life improved.
2. It's difficult to truly assess your situation while you're in it.
3. You can't go home again; but you can go to the place that once was home, and learn more about what "home" means (like "office," or "church").
4. The next time I go back to that building for a meeting, I'll be far less anxious. I'll be grateful for what it gave me, relieved not to be in the same situation as I was back when that building was my daily destination, and eager to see what role it will play in this new, healthier, better phase of my life.
Ever forward, my friends. I wish for your holiday season revelations to be less anxiety-inducing (or anxiety-induced) than mine. I may not know where I'm going--sorry, security guard--but at least now I know where I came from, and I'm confident that I'm headed in the right direction.