At age 24, Hannah Palima was already being groomed to be a creative director in Manila's cutthroat advertising industry. Having entered the agency world upon graduating university at age 19, she—while modestly refusing to call herself a prodigy or success—was objectively doing very well for her age. In fact, being as skilled as she was, her first urge to give up the corporate life was hampered by unsolicited job offers, including one from a major company. So, she stayed. The financial security, the prestige, the sense of daily accomplishment, the friendships she had made with her coworkers—these made it difficult to walk away. But it was the safety net of having healthcare right as a global pandemic entered the Philippines that made it truly impossible.
Yet now, almost a year later, Hannah spends her time cooking hearty homemade meals, growing her garden, writing songs, playing Candy Crush, sharing digital zines on her newsletter, working on an occasional freelance branding project (companies still come a-knocking), and generally enjoying a slower pace.
Why, with the spread of COVID-19 as alarming as ever, did Hannah finally decide it was time to forge her own path?
Well, it seems the pandemic itself, and the draining grief we've all endured through it, is what gave her clarity.
Stress and the body
Having been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in her early 20s, Hannah is no stranger to acute bouts of depression. According to the American Psychiatric Association, there are different categories of Bipolar Disorder (read: it doesn't look the same for everyone). However, the illness is marked by extreme shifts in mood, including periods of deep depression. In other words, like most illnesses, it is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. So for Hannah, having to keep up with the demands of the corporate world in the middle of a deadly pandemic was eating away at her overall health. "The energy I had for anything was shrinking and shrinking. And even that diminishing amount of energy, I was devoting to work," she says.
"The energy I had for anything was shrinking and shrinking. And even that diminishing amount of energy, I was devoting to work."
Such a lifestyle can be toxic. According to the National Institutes of Health, one of the world's foremost medical research centers, stress has a major impact on our bodies. While not all stress is bad, long-term stress "disturbs the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems." Over time, this chronic strain on one's body is known to lead to more serious issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and depression. More cause for concern is that a 2017 study lists heart disease, hypertensive disease, and diabetes as among the top causes of death for Filipinos. Also, data from the Philippine Health Statistics shows that since the 1970s, the incidence of suicide has increased over 16 times in Filipino males, and over eight times in Filipino females.
More than a privileged whim to unshackle herself from the 9-to-5, Hannah's quitting was the right thing to do for her health.
"I know I'm lucky."
Ultimately, however, Hannah acknowledges that getting to walk away from a secure situation is an extreme privilege. "I know I'm lucky to be able to leave my full-time job," she says, adding, "I wouldn't leave if I didn't have a good support system or other [paying] projects lined up. That's not something everybody has." Living with her boyfriend, having the support of her parents, and continuing to get freelance gigs allows Hannah to have her basic needs met, while pursuing the things that help her maintain her physical and mental health.
Still, she didn't make this decision lightly. It took her over a year of interrogating her motivations, weighing her options, discussing it with her loved ones, setting goals for post-corporate life, and saving her money, before Hannah made her exit. And she's glad it took her time. Quitting when she first got the urge would have certainly been as unwise as it would have been counterproductive to her wellbeing. "It's not healthy to foster this idea that we can leave everything whenever we want," she says. Sometimes we have to push through even when we're in situations that aren't ideal.
The unexpected downsides of freedom
It's this very mindset of remaining committed, even when things get hard, that is getting Hannah through the unexpected downsides of liberating herself from the so-called rat race.
Despite being grateful for her new situation, it isn't what she pictured. Now that she has the apparent freedom to pursue the creative projects she once believed her job was a hindrance to—such as publishing the children's book she wrote in college, combining her love of cooking and language in food writing, and continuing to make music—she finds herself struggling to achieve the various "key performance indicators" she set for herself at the beginning of her journey. It seems the openness of her new schedule has given her as much time to work on her projects as it has given her time to doubt her abilities. And right now, the latter is cannibalizing her calendar.
Creative Hannah is committed to taking steps towards achieving her goals, despite the internal criticism and disappointment, and despite whatever evolutions those goals may undergo in the process. And she has the corporate world to thank for this discipline.
Sure, Corporate Hannah is disappointed that Creative Hannah hasn't gotten that book deal yet, despite all her sacrifices. But Creative Hannah is committed to taking steps towards achieving her goals, despite the internal criticism and disappointment, and despite whatever evolutions those goals may undergo in the process. And she has the corporate world to thank for this discipline. Each day, she acts on what she values: watering her garden, cooking meals for her small family, writing in her journal, playing and listening to music. Being responsible looks different today, but it's still valuable.
The great irony of her escape from corporate life, therefore, is that she didn't escape expectation. Whether she's in the boardroom or at the drawing board, she realizes, "There's pressure to perform a certain way anywhere." And so, perform she does. But this time, she's motivated by something deeper than traditional notions of success.
In her cubicle days, she came to the conclusion that purpose, success, and pay aren't necessarily correlated. "Your job doesn't have to be the thing that fulfills you," she says, acknowledging that people who remain in jobs they don't love aren't immune from making a positive impact on their family and other areas of their life. In the same vein, she has come to believe that the meaningful activities occupying one's time don't have to be one's source of income, in order to be deemed successful. She cites motherhood as one example, and also looks at her own situation: "Making art is work even if it doesn't necessarily pay."
Was it worth it?
So, what makes leaving a cushy corporate job worth the existential crises and financial fears that come with newfound freedom?
"Find something that is life-giving."
Well, in the throes of dealing with her Bipolar Disorder and contemplating leaving her job, her mom imparted some advice that stays with Hannah to this day: "Find something that is life-giving."
The professional fulfillment and other perks she received from her previous job may have satisfied a lot of her needs, but especially in the midst of the pandemic, it drained her in a way that was risky to her overall health. Meanwhile, she has meditated on her mom's words and decided that to her, "Something is 'life-giving' when it causes me to learn something or change the way I think about the world." Fortunately for Hannah, this season of taking small steps into the unknown—and all the ups and downs that come with it—is exactly that.
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