Pen signing papers

When it feels like you’re signing your life away…

On a typically hot Texas afternoon in June 2005, I sat in a stuffy office across from an even stuffier attorney. He shuffled papers around, scooting in his chair behind a massive desk, and breathed heavily as he squinted at the computer screen to his left. I chewed the cap of my pen, tapping jittery shuffles and drawbacks under my chair. I hoped the sweat stains weren’t showing through my shirt. It was sweltering in this tiny space with poor insulation, but more than that, I was nervous. This meeting was happening so that I could sign the papers to incorporate my new business.

I’d spent several months scratching out a business plan: my vision was a non-competitive dance studio based in a growing suburban area, a place where students could learn and grow in a high-quality, low-pressure environment. A place where I would have a job—ahem, career—and could offer the same to others. Signing the papers that day made it all real.

Eyes starry, I studied and wrote and researched and built. Creating this business was a relatively new goal but one I clung to once the idea struck. Pursuing it, I was all in. During the day I half-heartedly slogged through my job as a secretary, and then a coordinator, for the distance learning office at a university (before the days of distance learning were ever-present!). On my lunch breaks I read Nolo books at the library. During the evenings I took an accounting class online. Weekends, when I wasn’t teaching dance, I became devoted to classes at the local Small Business Development Center, networking with bankers and real estate brokers and bookkeepers. I absorbed what I could and bookmarked the rest, then jumped off the cliff with prayers and no parachute. Ready or not, on the day I signed the corporate documents, I was airborne.

My world after that point, colored by obsessiveness, became all about work. I loved the hustle, thriving in the urgency and anticipation of creating my very own home for young dancers. That fall I signed more papers: an SBA loan, a commercial lease, insurance coverage, construction checks. After several delays in the buildout process, I opened the studio’s doors in the spring, breathless about what I’d done. I was 25 years old and so eager, so scared, so optimistic—none of which abated, even as I gained experience. I felt like a novice—an imposter. A performer.

Over the next 16 years, the studio and I grew—and languished and grew some more—in tandem. I gained deep wrinkles around my eyes from smiling so much; rough gray strands in my hair from the pervasive stress. The studio’s enrollment ballooned at times and plummeted at others; I expanded its space in a misguided decision and contracted it when I learned how to do better. I grew to love hundreds of kids, loving them as if they were my own flesh and blood. I employed many wonderful people, and others who were not a great fit. I learned a ton about managing finances, risk, taxes, and safety. I took great pride in the weight of responsibility that lies in working with children in an industry that does not always act so responsibly. It was a heavy weight on my obsessive mind. There’s so much more storytelling from these years, from the rewards of teaching to the mistakes of entrepreneurship—and vice versa—but those will have to wait in favor of this one.

Every business plan has to have an exit strategy and my studio was no different. Even from those beginning days, I knew someday I would want to transition out, and around years eleven and twelve, I began to think about how that might go. I had started to feel constrained by the business; my obsessiveness with it was turning unhealthy. My sensitive nature felt scrubbed raw by the self-imposed, impossible demands of daily life: never leave emails unread or unreplied to because that’s not professional; always please the client even if it compromises your own values; teach every class with perfect attention because you must never let someone down; stand up for your policies because they are right; don’t hurt people’s feelings because conflict is painful; never have typos because that means you’re lazy; clean up messes before people can see because you don’t want them thinking you’re business is gross; don’t let anyone see you unhappy or angry because that is unacceptably human.

These things, in and of themselves, are not dance-studio-ownership problems. They are me-problems and required me-solutions. And so around year fourteen, and then in the year following the pandemic, it was clear that to be the best, healthiest version of myself, it was time to sell. The studio, too, needed to become its best, healthiest self, which meant new leadership and fresh perspective.

Making this decision was both easy and hard. I knew in my heart that while I loved many aspects of being a studio owner and living the dance studio driven life, there was more to me than this existence. The philosopher in me (my bachelor’s is in philosophy—that’s another fun story) began questioning my purpose. My career, while successful in many ways, began to feel different. Now, I operated with a jangled nervous system—a daily cycle of hustle and grind and girl-boss attitude, and then a physical and emotional crash after driving in the red zone for too many days, weeks, months, years on end. Could I have fixed that piece of myself and continued with the status quo? I didn’t think so. The crux of the issue was bigger than my habits.

I loved the feeling of being interconnected to my business; of finding such deep joy in the meaningful work of teaching kids, of being immersed in the world of dance in a way that felt authentic and special. There is nothing else like it. But that interconnectedness—that love—for me, became unhealthy when I realized the stress I was putting on myself to achieve success with it. Really, what I needed wasn’t to strive for more success as a studio owner. What I needed was to strive for more life satisfaction—more balance, more well-being—and what would that look like? Perhaps a less myopic, more holistic life. I didn’t know exactly what that would mean for shifting my life’s work, but I could feel that it was the right thing to do. Which meant exiting.

It’s a weird sensation in your body, to have had your identity so intertwined in your business and yet know that selling it is right, that it’s something you want and that it will help you breathe easier, and still have your heart feel like it’s being cleaved in two by your own hand. That there is a new leader, that your employees and clients are not “yours” anymore, that your beloved community is now at arm’s length, that the kids you’ve known and loved for years and years will move on, that you’re no longer an essential figure in their daily lives. It’s wonderful and wrenching all at once. It’s beautiful to witness the changeover; hard to step to the sidelines. It’s a dream come true to build a legacy, but a knockout to the chest when you realize you’ve done all you can in those shoes and they just don’t fit right anymore.

I had that brimming-tears-about-to-flow feeling wash over me time and again during my last few months of studio ownership. Anytime I think about it, even today, I have a lump in my throat. I loved the studio with my soul, and at the same time, I needed to break free from it, as if I were finally seeing myself as an independent person outside of our relationship. In my heart, I knew this was what I was meant to do: I was meant to create this business, bring it into this world, and parent it from infancy to adolescence. Nurture it for what became an exciting and sometimes excruciating time in my life. Struggle through the failures and ride the momentum of the triumphs. Stretch myself as a leader through a year and a half of a worldwide pandemic. Wipe out the debt and create a stronger business model. Set it up for fresh success so that someone else—someone like Kayla, its new owner—could crystalize the best parts and build on the legacy.

Since that sweaty June day in the attorney’s office, the studio was my number-one focus. I lived and breathed it, thriving on that energy of what’s-next-what’s-next-what’s-next. That mindset became my default state, for good or for ill. The community I built became my second home as much as it did for many of the students and my dedicated staff members. After all the ups and downs, after growing and expanding and downsizing, the studio was still my safe place. I felt secure there, cocooned and supported. Perhaps too safe; it makes sense that exiting felt like freedom. Freedom that proved to be a little wobbly, but a chance to spread my wings in a way I hadn’t done since opening the business in the first place. Being a studio owner became a dream job, in a way—a career I didn’t even fully realize how much I would love. I knew it was the right time to move on, but how would I evolve?

The answer came in understanding. And reflecting.

To borrow a phrase from Susan Cain’s book Quiet, when she discussed her own transition in careers, I realized I was plagued by variations of this ongoing thought during my studio owner days: “I’m doing this [career] to advance work I care about deeply, and when the work is done I’ll settle back into my true self.”

This was faulty thinking, if not heartfelt and full of good intentions. As the work is never done, I had to decide when it was done for me. Which was when my capacity for it dropped too low to replenish. When I realized I was irresponsibly relying on it to fulfill too many of my needs. When my health needs screamed “prioritize me!” and I became powerless to “power through.” Being a studio owner was a complex and personal project. The dance studio was a fulfilling place to fortify my purpose—but not a forever place to do so. Now I understand I can have more than one career. Imagine that! I can feel my shoulders relax even as I type this.

Cain goes on to explain the surety in her life’s work now, as a wife, mother, and author: “I look back on my years as a Wall Street lawyer as time spent in a foreign country. It was absorbing, it was exciting, and I got to meet lots of interesting people whom I never would have known otherwise. But I was always an expatriate.”

This is perhaps the clearest description of my letting go, of missing the studio with every cell in my body but not wanting it back, of always feeling a little mis-fit as a studio owner. Perhaps I wasn’t an expatriate exactly, but my long-term visa was up. I am grateful for the journey—and the immersion in that destination—but now it’s time to explore a new place. Now I can see the way that experience made my present possible; I can be a better coach and mentor because of that life.

My career has evolved to suit my way of being. My quieter sensitive nature, my love of learning and helping. And this is part of what I love now in supporting young people to reach their dreams: that I can help them discover which experiences will be gains, even if they aren’t a perfect fit yet. Growth is the goal, and as my mentor taught me, healthy things grow and growing things change. The evolution will happen, and it will be so worth it.