Tahmid’s Story – Ethnic minority beginnings, burnout and career change

Work-Life Balance Profile #4 – Tahmid Chowdhury

It seems serendipitous that my latest Work-Life Balance Profile should be ready for posting today, at the tail end of National Inclusion Week 2020. In it, Tahmid Chowdhury touches on how coming from an ethnic minority background has influenced his work/life choices. He also talks openly about his experience of burnout and the steps he took to regain his balance.

Crucially, in my interview with him, we addressed an issue that may apply to others in the early stages of their careers, with few responsibilities and lots of drive to succeed: when no one is there waiting for you, or telling you, to stop working, how do you decide when – and why – it’s time to give yourself permission to take a break?

Tahmid Chowdhury

Work : Life Ratio

“Not Applicable”

Outside No.10 Downing Street, invited as part of Black History Month 2019

“Do you need a number?”, Tahmid asked in response to the question I begin each Work-Life Balance Profile interview with: what figure would you give to your work:life ratio? He explained that he has stopped thinking about his life in those terms, preferring instead to distinguish between what he does and doesn’t enjoy doing.

Driven and self-motivated, Tahmid says that he would likely be “bored” if he wasn’t so occupied by his work. He essentially has two careers on the go – one as a full-time Civil Servant, the other as a newly qualified Transformational Coach. He feels passionate about them both for their respective impacts on society. A devoted campaigner against social injustices, Tahmid is also involved in numerous initiatives for social improvement and cares deeply about helping others and making a difference. So, the lines between his “work” and “life” are definitively blurred.

With no caring responsibilities, Tahmid appreciates the freedom he has to spend his time according to his will, and, as well as throwing himself whole-heartedly into his work and personal development, he also makes time for the things that he enjoys, like watching Test cricket, learning languages and practising yoga.

Since Coronavirus forced him to permanently work from home, Tahmid has been staking out in Brussels. A self-proclaimed introvert, he hasn’t suffered from living a more isolated existence than before and finds engaging with others virtually just as fulfilling as socialising in person, if not simpler.

Last year, Tahmid was on the verge of burnout and took drastic measures to change his lifestyle and mindset. Though he rejects the notion of a “work-life balance”, he says: “I would like more balance in my life to spend more time doing the things I enjoy and find fulfilling, rather than the “nitty gritty” work that is incumbent on me”. Overall, however, Tahmid says that he feels fortunate to be able to try out all the things he does and is mindful of keeping perspective and being grateful for what he has.

Work. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

Tahmid realised that burnout was looming when he began noticing an unhealthy work pattern become routine, dominating all other aspects of his life. At the time, he was working as a government official in a controversial policy area with high ministerial and press interest. The job was exciting in its dynamism, but challenging and pressurised, with heavy workloads and tight deadlines.

The politics surrounding his work dominated the newspaper headlines – and most dinner table and pub conversations too, for that matter. So, there was little escape from work, even if Tahmid sought it. Which he didn’t really. He found that his work defined him, he was proud of it, and he talked about it a lot. Even if he tried not to.

Still in the early stages of his career, Tahmid felt that he had a lot to prove, mostly to himself, and he was ambitious and determined to make a success of his chosen career as a Civil Servant. He was energised by his job and threw himself into it, working long hours and taking on additional responsibilities. Yet, after work, he found himself at a loss. He would come home exhausted, order take-away food, check his work phone, and go to bed.

Before he knew it, this pattern had become his lifestyle. Thoughts of work began to interrupt his sleep, and he started to notice that he was gaining weight and becoming unfit, having stopped making the time for any exercise.

Tahmid reflects that the reason for such compulsive behaviour was not so much due to a sense of ‘workaholism’, but due to having nothing else substantial to fill the void. He worried that without work he would be bored and that little else in his life could match the stimulation he got from his job. From what Tahmid described, going home with that mindset to a quiet flat in the City after a long day’s work sounded quite stark and lonely.

Professional knockbacks had hit in close succession, which made Tahmid feel disillusioned with the hierarchical nature of large organisations and made him question whether he wanted to spend his career constantly chasing the next promotion. He felt like there was surely more to life.

A spontaneous decision to take a break and go abroad on holiday last Christmas turned out to be the pivotal moment he didn’t know that he was looking for.

Travelling around Rome, pre-Coronavirus

Dare to be different

Tahmid’s strong work ethic is something well ingrained in him. He grew up in a traditional Bangladeshi home, where religion and education were important in equal measure. His father, a successful businessman, worked hard to provide for the family and Tahmid and his siblings attended a fee-paying school. His mother was a traditional stay-at-home housewife. The expectation was that children should respect their elders, and arranged marriages were par for the course.

From an early age, Tahmid was aware that he didn’t see eye to eye with his parents’ approach and he gradually distanced himself from his family to forge his own path. Yet, finding his “own path” was no simple feat.  As one of very few people from an ethnic minority background growing up in a predominantly white middle-class environment, Tahmid was always conscious of his otherness, describing himself as “the odd one out”. His parents reinforced an “us and them” mentality, warning him that he couldn’t really be friends with white people.

Tahmid says he consequently spent a lot of time “in my own mind” and planning for the future. He was driven to do what he wanted and moved away from home at the earliest possible opportunity. On reflection, he says that he wishes he’d “enjoyed the ride more”. It was only once he went to university that he became more comfortable in his own skin; he says that it was at this point that he started to like himself, and felt able to rationalise what made him who he is, and to take control of his life’s direction.

Feeling inherently different – from both his own family and the wider society around him – seems to have instilled in Tahmid a remarkably strong sense of self. His own harshest critic, he is far less concerned with pleasing others and describes himself as outspoken and upfront with people, unafraid to speak his mind or provoke controversy. He is reflective, curious, and has an abundance of mental energy, which perhaps explains why he derives such pleasure from immersing himself so wholly in the things that interest him.

Throughout our discussion, Tahmid’s resilience to knockbacks emerged as a running theme. Overcoming his personal struggles to accept himself for all his otherness seems to have enabled him to develop an exceedingly thick skin that is hardened to criticism.

One example that stands out was a dressing down he received from a boss while he was interning soon after graduation, where he was told that he was “not very good at anything”. Whilst some impressionable young graduates may have felt dejected by such a statement from a figure of authority, and spiralled into self-doubt, Tahmid’s belief in his own capabilities was resolute. He says he knew that he was good and that he would be of value to another team. And he ploughed on.

Later, when he faced hurdles for promotion or disappointments at performance reviews, his self-belief held fast. He wasn’t up for playing office politics, and when faced with rejection, he let any criticism roll off him like water off a duck’s back, his self-assuredness never wavering.  “I’m not a robot”, Tahmid replied when I questioned him about this extraordinary, and somewhat stubborn, ability to maintain self-belief in the face of harsh criticism and disappointments. He went on to explain that as his own harshest critic, he doesn’t need external validation to recognise his self-worth, guided as he is by “an internal moral compass”.

This stands somewhat in contrast to the “growth mindset” that his coaching training has since exposed him to. Yet, Tahmid is impatient to make an impact on the world around him. And he figures that if hierarchy slows things down, he’d rather go at it alone.

Again, the pivotal break he took last Christmas afforded him the breathing space and perspective to rethink not just his unhealthy working pattern, but also his desire to continue scaling the heights of the career ladder. And it got him searching for something more.

Yoga on the beach during Tahmid’s pivotal Christmas break

Work, Life – Take Two

I fear that I’ve somewhat built up Tahmid’s Christmas break last year to read as some kind of exotic, far-flung retreat to a secluded tropical paradise. Exotic and far-flung it was not. Nor was it a particularly extended period away. But his Christmas break to a wintry Spain provided enough of a change of scenery and break from work to interrupt what had become a monotonous and unfulfilling lifestyle.

And it gave Tahmid the space and time he needed to reflect meaningfully on his career and what career progression meant to him. It also provided him with time to consider alternative options and it was during this break that he decided to take a risk and enrol in a course to become a coach.

The impact on his wellbeing has been transformative and he says that he now feels a lot happier and more fulfilled. Beyond taking steps towards investing more time in what he enjoys, training and practising as a coach satisfies his desire to make a positive social change – and it enables him to do it on his own terms. He says, “I have more control if I do something for myself”. And this is a motivating factor for a person who gets frustrated and impatient at “old school” practices.

Tahmid’s compulsive work ethic is reminiscent of the approach described by Darren Jacobs in Work-Life Balance #1, where, similarly, money is not predominantly the motivating factor.

For Tahmid, the prized reward is recognition. Credit hasn’t always been granted to him when he feels it has been due, which cemented his disillusion with hierarchy. Of course, earning lots of money would be nice, he says, but if he manages to do that, his dream would be to channel it into a social foundation or some other social improvement initiative.

To some, juggling one career alongside all else that life throws up is plenty, so for Tahmid to feel that he has found greater balance through doubling up his career portfolio is saying something. Discovering a new skill has, however, reinvigorated him and he feels energised to have found what he felt was missing in his life. It shows in his demeanour and he says that he is in better health and shape than he’s ever been.

These are still early days in Tahmid’s dual career and only time will tell what he may have to sacrifice in the future to maintain his balance if and when other demands on him increase. Nevertheless, he has learned the hard way what having poor balance in his life means for him, and that is not something he is likely to forget in a hurry. He stepped back from the edge of that precipice once; he seems intent and well-equipped to never let himself get to that point again.

If any of the issues raised in this post relate to your situation, feel free to “like” it and comment below. If you’re interested in being featured in the Work-Life Balance Profiles series – or would like to nominate someone you know to share their story – please get in touch. Subscribe or follow this blog, A Fine Balance, to receive further updates.

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