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I just finished reading your "Where Are the Women?" article. It is amazingly timely and relevant. I have a one-person consulting firm, which was spawned from four years with a boutique firm. I had always moved up quickly, worked the 60+ hour weeks, and managed — so I thought — to do everything. I do not have children, and my husband travels quite a bit, so I do not have all of the family pressures that many of your interviewees expressed. Your article, however, really touched home.

Recently, I decided to roll my business into a small, complementary business with some wonderful people. After the first day, I knew something was wrong, and by the end of the third day, I decided to pull out before anyone was too invested and clients were co-mingled. I literally had a physical reaction to returning to an office — even a very small one. I realized that I am one of those testosterone-driven women who love to compete and gives it all, so as to not let down the team. I can't turn it off. When I only have my clients depending on me, I still have something left at the end of my day for family and friends. When I have clients, staff development, and a business depending on me, there is nothing left at the end of the day. Like many men, my identity had become tied to my work. It took being away from that environment for two years, to be able to recognize the changes that had gradually shaped me over the past twenty. Had I not taken the independent route, I'm sure I'd still be back in a 12-hour day mode, solving business problems in my dreams.

Some good friends from college celebrated my decision. They were honest enough to tell me that I was a much more interesting and fun person over the past two years than I had been for the previous 15 or so. It was a powerful validation for my decision. It was not about missing first steps and birthday parties or a trying to save a failing marriage — there was no great precipitating event. I hate to use a cliche, but for me, it was about finding myself, when I never knew I was lost. It took walking away and coming back before I realized the changes I had made, and that I liked them. Effectively, I have removed myself from an unhealthy environment — one not caused by a bad employer, a male-dominated environment, or cutthroat colleagues, but one caused by my competitive drive and an attempt to gain some control over my environment. I was responsible for my lack of a life.

I'd like to say that I am a self-actualized woman, but really, it was just dumb luck that I had a visceral response to the changes and paid attention. I'll always enjoy hard work and the mental challenge. I have simply chosen to live my life, rather than be driven by someone else's idea of what success should be. Making this choice was a bigger risk than any I had taken. Fortunately, the rewards have far exceeded any corporate benefits I could receive. I believe that our culture makes it easier for women to take this kind of risk, but if my male friends are any indication, more men are stepping off the fast track, even if that simply means starting something of their own, where they set the rules and the pace, and hire people who share their values.

Liz Coker
Aspenwood Consulting

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A version of this article appeared in the February 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.