Leaving the towers of steel and glass.

First posted on LinkedIn, 5th February 2019.

The plaza outside The Leadenhall Building, seen from St Mary Axe.

On Thursday 31st January 2019, I left Leadenhall Street behind. I’ve worked on that road for ten years, for two companies. That’s not a surprising coincidence, given that I was working in the insurance industry, clustered around the heart of the City and still holding true to a 300 year history as a global hub.

The picture above contains both Lloyd’s of London, the premier and global insurance marketplace, and the Leadnhall Building, the headquarters of Aon UK Limited – one of the world’s largest insurance brokers. Out of sight to the left is a skyscraper housing Willis Towers Watson, another of the largest brokers. To the right, again just out of sight, are the headquarters of Ariva and Hiscox, both insurers. Behind is the famous ‘Gherkin’, of 30 St Mary Axe. Once known as the Swiss Re building, it also homes a number of insurance firms.

The insurance industry has provided me with a career for sixteen years, the majority of it within Aon. There, I held positions from stationary and letter opening boy in 2003, through to helping support the cultural change in the company as we moved to the headquarters in the 50 storey Leadenhall Building in 2016. Working with directors across the firm, I also saw home the project rolling out understanding and awareness of the Insurance Act legislation across the UK’s ~5,000 employees. Aon was, by and large, good to me – letting me rise through the ranks as my own skills would allow me.

But it wasn’t without a few serious bumps in the road. I think that one of them ultimately burned me out, when it came to the world of insurance. But the story of that, itself, is for a different day.

I hold two (relatively low level) insurance qualifications, and I like history. I particularly like the history of the City, and within it, the history of the insurance industry. For a long time I was happy working there in the heart of the insurance world, as I had finally realised a goal I once set, standing on a distant hill in Surrey, staring at the faintest of shapes on the horizon; that one day I would both live and work in that distant and then-mysterious place.

The importance of the City within London, and the wider presence in the country’s own history has always fascinated me. On my bedroom wall I have a map of London from around the year 1500, and a photo of London taken from space in 2015, both up there as a comparison and a reminder. Of where we’ve come from, and of where we might go. My time in that place was not without personal reward beyond simple paycheques. I once got to vote in the elections for the Lord Mayor of the City of London, representing one of Aon’s votes. And my crowning memory is probably a dinner hosted by the Worshipful Company of World Traders, cooked by the Worshipful Company of Cooks, held in the guild dining room for the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers. It was rather tasty.

Sunset on Leadenhall Street.

But I came to realise that while I love the City, and I enjoy living in London, the insurance industry no longer feels like the right place for me. It doesn’t feel like a place where I can enjoy the other parts of myself. I would get home after a work day, tired and drained from facing off against the pressure of under resourcing, ever present cost-cutting drives, stretch target budgets, and arbitrarily chosen tight deadlines, and I would ask myself what was this all actually for? What will remain, that I performed that day, in five years? Is my entire career built around the churn of daily, monthly and quarterly tasks, that ultimately mean nothing in the end?

I felt that I needed to step away from the industry, and explore other aspects of myself. In 2016, while working full time in my insurance job, I wrote a fantasy-fiction novel. It sits on Amazon with a 4.5 rating, and on Goodreads with a 3.75. That’s not bad – I must have some level of skill at creative writing. Probably unpolished, but still there.

Sometime after I finally burned out at Aon (a little too much after, to be honest), I moved across to Chubb, hoping that a fresh start there would help me find my way again. Change company, but not industry, was my plan: see what comes of that, and maybe a reboot will help relaunch the once-known enjoyment of working in the insurance industry.

Sadly, it got worse. It wasn’t the fault of Chubb as a company. In fact, it was one particularly good thing they did that finally made me see I needed to find somewhere else. A 2018 innovation challenge asked teams around the company to come up with product ideas in a global competition. I led a team focusing on the idea of esports insurance to the final eight out of a starting 140 ideas. In New York in early December we pitched our idea to the CEO and senior leadership in a Dragons Den-style presentation.

We didn’t win, but that whole experience was both awesome as a company initiative (I would definitely recommend it to others at Chubb), but also personally rewarding. I had an idea, I explored it, built a team, produced content for presentations, researched, learned more about esports, built a solid knowledge base and – mostly – managed to field the questions we were asked on the day. My colleagues all noted that I really lit up during that time, and was almost an entirely different person in those sessions.

It was intense. It was rewarding. It was creative. I was able to use a personal joy of gaming to drive a creative task, at my own direction and on my own inititative.

And that’s what finally got me. Coming back down from that high and the experience as a finalist, landing back in the daily churn and grind, I realised I was heading back towards becoming what I most feared.

In my novel The Devil’s Playbook (buy it, it’s really good) I specifically wrote one of the protagonists, Andy, as the person I feared one day becoming. At the start of the story he is washed up, stuck in a rut, losing his inspiration and creativity. I felt that way for a lot of 2017, and into 2018. The sequel to The Devil’s Playbook has languished as a 50,000-word first draft, untouched for over a year. And when I compared how much I loved the opportunity to be creative with how lost I felt at work… well, I had an answer.

I needed out.

I helped a friend review her dissertation in 2018. There were some fascinating materials she showed me, and her thoughts on the world of creative production management in London made my heart swell (that was the topic of the dissertation). I’m so proud of her, for she has also left the financial industries behind. There is more to life than a tasty paycheque, it showed me. Or rather; it reminded me.

Eventually, after a particularly soul-crushing few weeks at work in January 2019, a year in which I had promised myself to find happiness in myself once again, I quit my job at Chubb.

I’m now admittedly in a minor state of panic and job searching. I don’t have huge financial reserves, so I’m definitely on a clock. But I’m looking, finally looking, for a role that will be more rewarding. I’m turning in a direction that has been calling me for years, and I’m accepting that I’ll likely have to take a pay cut to do it.

I’m hoping I can use my operations management skills in a new industry, one with more creative flair. One where I can be surrounded by the enthusiasm and passion of creative people and try to learn from them. It will take a few years to gain more industry experience wherever I land, but just maybe I can find a way to make a living where I get to use my creative side, too.

Those friends who have seen me since I quit have, uniformly, said I look happier.

The City as the sun sets to the west, as seen from the south bank of the Thames.

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