Leaving the Fast Lane

Nationwide's Donna A. James made
it to the corner office. But a health scare forced her to question whether the price she paid was worth it.

problem. They did everything with my heart and my circulatory system. They just couldn’t find anything. The doctor said, “Donna, it’s just a fluke and certain things happen.”

I got over the initial impact of that. But I tell you what, it made me think about life. And I had to ask myself: Is this what you really want to do for the rest of your life?
I wasn’t in a bad place: president of my own division, making a couple million dollars per year. I wasn’t complaining, but is it what I really wanted to do if this was my last day on Earth? It wasn’t. And so the next step was to comfortably step away.

Dealing with Ego
And at first you think there is no way. I sat down with my financial planner and we looked at “Can I step away from the money?” And you find out, you can. Then you go, “OK I got over that hurdle. Can my ego let me walk away?”

That was the biggest hurdle. It was much larger than the financial–much larger than I ever imagined it would be. I never really believed I was a person hung up on my position, but I was. It mattered to me what people thought. It mattered to me that I would no longer be looked up to as a result of the position I have. You are more than the job you do. You really are. Then I got really turned on by the idea of the possibility of stepping away.

What’s interesting is I had just come back from Atlanta, where an organization said they wanted me to join the board. I had to call them that Monday and say, “I need to step back. I reprioritized, and this is not a good idea for me right now.” They called me back later that week and said, “We appreciate what you said. Take your time and when you’re ready, let us know.” That resonated with me very strongly because it reminded me that my talents go beyond the position. It’s about the person.

Leaving is something people think about but don’t do or can’t do. And I don’t think it’s the money. The hardest part wasn’t the money. It’s the satisfaction you get out of what you do–the accolades, the applause, people looking up to you. That does something for your psyche and your soul that sometimes you underestimate and then you think, “Gee, if I walk away from this, it goes away.” But it really doesn’t, not if you’ve been a decent person.

A More Flexible Schedule
I spend as much time as I can down in Florida. We have our home there right on the Gulf. I read, I write, and I relax by walking on the beach, getting a massage, riding a bike, sitting on the balcony watching the sunset, drinking champagne. I just love it. I have actually discovered fun business fiction, like the work of Stephen Frey. He’s sort of what I call brain

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