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5 things I have learned a year after quitting McKinsey

From management consultant to slow-down ambassador

Exactly one year ago I quit my job as a management consultant at McKinsey to enter the whole new world of executive coaching. I didn’t want to be like every other coach. I wanted to come up with a brand new concept: 48 hour executive retreats. This is what I learned one year into the journey.


My idea came from three observations I made in my consulting years: Number 1, society’s idea of success is not necessarily the thing that will make you happy; Number 2, really inspiring leaders are a rare find; and number 3, few leaders deliberately take time to disconnect making it hard to stay focused, sharp and inspirational.

That’s why I organize slow down retreats for CEOs with one single objective: disconnecting and taking time to think about what really matters. The past 365 days were some of the best, and I feel I had to share five of the biggest things I learned… in a nutshell (word often used at my former life at McK).

1/ Money doesn’t motivate

If your main motivation to work is earning money, you need to review your operating model. People have various needs. Some of those require money and others don’t. To fulfil some of those needs, you need money. So the actual motivation isn’t the cash, but the need, like food and housing.

Most studies on happiness find that money is what psychologists call a hygiene factor. Too little will make you unhappy, but at a certain income level, more money will not make you any happier. Still, so many people around me are working their asses off to earn more and gain more status. They often have more cash than they have time to spend it, as they work long hours to earn that money, and spend it on expensive goods or activities that give them pleasure. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you understand that pleasure is not the same as happiness.

Pleasure is short term and depends on external triggers. Happiness is long term and found inside oneself. It’s a bit of a paradox. Not only do people waste precious time to earn more money, they often waste their health by being stressed and doing little physical activity, and even waste relationships to earn more money. All this, to realise at a later date that time lost, is lost forever. A superb book about this is Sex, Money, Happiness and Death by Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries.

2/ Time is your motivation

Procrastination is a disease almost everyone suffers from. Some more than others of course. It’s rooted in the fact that you have to do something you don’t like doing. In most cases procrastination leads to a feeling of unease, followed by a spike of stress when a clear deadline is involved. It becomes more damaging when you start procrastinating about following your dreams: delaying projects that you always wanted to do.

If I realised one thing in the past year, it’s the fact that time is one of the few scarce things in life that people have. When you’re done reading this, you know you just lost five minutes of your life (but hey what’s five minutes? :)). Why do so many of us live in an imaginary future? “I will do that when I retire.” “I will do that when I have enough money.” “I will do that when I have more time.”

Sorry, but there is no guarantee that you will even reach your retirement. I encourage every reader of this piece to make time for things that matter, to start working on your dreams today and to stop doing whatever does not make you happy. Life is short, that’s the only certainty in this fast moving world, so you better enjoy it and do what you would love doing and spend time with the people you love. An interesting talk is Regret Free Living by Bronnie Ware, where she shares what she learned from conversations with dying people.

3/ Control the agenda

When you ask someone, “how are you doing?”, nine times out of 10 the answer will either be: “Busy!” or “Not bad”. Let’s focus on the first: being busy. Being busy can be a very positive thing, if it is your choice to be busy. But there’s a risk as soon as being busy means you don’t control your own agenda anymore. You risk also losing control over your own life. Autonomy is a key driver for happiness. It means that you decide what you do, how you do it and when you do it. When you don’t have that decision-making power anymore, chances are you’ll feel like you’re in a rat race.

Last year I met Joost Callens, CEO of Durabrik, a Belgian construction company, who decided to take a five months leave of absence to walk the Camino de Santiago. He reorganised his organisation in such a way that for five months it could function without him, and it worked surprisingly well. It’s all about making choices, putting priorities and being daring. He is a truly inspiring CEO, I would invite you to listen to his story (in Dutch) yourself .

4/ Retreat and evaluate

What is success? When people talk about success they refer to professional success: earning good money, driving a nice car, living in a big house, having a beautiful husband or wife. These could be indicators of success, but I want you to distinguish the societal definition of success from your own personal one.

What makes your heart beat faster? This is a very important question to ask. I often meet very “successful” people who are unhappy and the problem is that they have been striving for society’s idea of success. If this doesn’t match their personal definition, well they’re going to be unsatisfied. Honestly, I truly believe that each and everyone of us has an authentic path. This means living a life which is in line with your values, filled with activities that are meaningful to you and surrounded by people you care about.

In today’s society it can be challenging to stay on this authentic path. Everything is going pretty fast, decisions need to be taken in a split second, and it is easier to be reactive than proactive. People often tend to react to opportunities that are thrown at them. Sometimes this can lead to good decisions, but often it leads to suboptimal decisions you did not fully own. Like accepting a new job that a headhunter has offered you. It might not be the job you would have looked at for yourself, but it gives you a good salary, a lot of responsibility and it looks good on your CV. Sounds familiar?

To be really proactive and take your life in your own hands you need to adopt the habit of every so often evaluating your life. This evaluation requires time, distance, and peace of mind (as in no social media or other technology distractions). Build in regular moments to retreat and ask yourself the following questions: What does success mean for me? How satisfied am I with my current situation? If it’s not a 10, then in which domains do I need to take actions? Keep in mind two very important rules while doing this exercise: Try not to think about what others and society want from you, but focus on what you want; and remember You always have a choice.

5/ Helping others helps yourself

I have always wanted to do good for the world and the people around me. I quickly realised that doing good also demands investing a lot of time if I do it the way I want to.. That’s why during my busiest years as a consultant I usually ended up appeasing my conscience by giving a euro or two to a beggar in the street and paying my monthly charity fees to UNICEF and Amnesty International.

I still do these things, and I find it so arrogant not to give a euro to someone asking for it. Yes, they might use it to buy alcohol or drugs and in that case you wouldn’t really help them, but they might also just use it to buy some food and you would actually be helping them to survive the day. Why do you not wonder what a waiter will do with the tip you gave him, but you do question what a beggar will do with it? If it doesn’t hurt you financially and there’s a small chance you could actually help someone, why not?

But to get back to the topic people often don’t feel fully satisfied by just giving money to help others. Even though giving money, can mean a lot. It’s all about finding the highest added value. If your best skill is giving advice to large corporates on strategy, well, why not do that most of the time and reserve 10 percent of your income from that activity for social causes.

I also understand that the whole giving money thing might not completely fulfil your need to help others, and you want something more tangible. Well, plenty of opportunities there as well. It requires you to invest more of your time, but in return you receive a higher level of happiness. I don’t need to say that it is scientifically proven that helping others makes you a happier person, so your time invested is certainly well spent.

I recently signed up to become a buddy with ArmenTeKort, which is an organisation focusing on multi-generational poverty. They match a less fortunate with a more fortunate person with the goal of helping the first by working on things like self confidence and networking. The fortunate buddies are all trained in order for them to be better at helping their counterparts. ArmenTeKort believes they can end multi-generational poverty in Belgium though this buddy system, which I think is brilliant.

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