I love the idea of absolute immersion which Tynan described in his recent article, "Love Work." I intend to apply similar techniques to the next big job, project or passion that comes my way. But I am not ready just yet. When the time comes to make that leap, I'll be first over the edge, but for the moment I have found something else. I've diverged from the 'normal' but have not found or created the next road. In terms of a lifetime I am standing still. Taking a break. Stagnant. But guess what? You don't have to be running forward to smash complacency. If you are tired of the status quo, but unprepared to leap into a new life, this post is for you.
I'm a mechanical engineer, more or less. I love solving complex problems, but that love does not extend to the issues that come with the bureaucratic workplace. To that end, I'm done with the corporations. There are too many interesting problems in the world going unsolved to waste time and talent generating minute changes in stock values. That's all I really did at my last job. There was no sense of ownership in one's work, which for me led directly to having no sense of purpose. I need a sense of purpose.
So last June I turned in my notice and looked at my options. I had enough money to do whatever I wanted for the first time in my life. (I'm 30) No ties to anything. Basic freedom. The open road. It was overwhelming.
I would roll through half a dozen ideas a day, thinking each better than the first before coming back to zero. I have lived a pretty standard life; being faced with unlimited options is a foreign concept. "What would you do if you could do anything?" That's a powerful thing. Generally a rather decisive person, I was stuck with a decision life had not prepared me to answer. At least not immediately. I needed a stop gap.
So I packed up the car, moved from Seattle back to Tennessee, and started teaching. A one year appointment at a state university, instructing sophomore level engineering classes. You could call it a demotion of sorts. You could call it a step backwards, career wise. You could very accurately call it a 6 figure pay cut. I call it perfect, for three simple reasons:
1) The work is immensely challenging. I know the class material well, that bit is trivial. Figuring out how to actually convey the material, to teach, is a monster. I can't speak for other fields, but teaching in engineering is not just about providing subject matter. It's about establishing and fostering creative problem solving skills. Teaching something is also a powerful means to develop your own expertise. I have found my own analytical abilities skyrocketing as a result of my attempts to convey these skills to my students. I may never work in engineering again, but problem solving skills transcend job titles.
2) I used the position as a giant reset button on my personal life. Shortly after accepting the job I wrote out a list of rules. Number one was, "Put students first." I meant exactly that when I typed those three words, and have used it as motivation to get myself together to a degree that I would have thought impossible 3 months ago. I quit drinking. I flipped my diet around completely, losing 35 pounds in the process. I cut out pointless media consumption and replaced it with all the books I never read. I wake up ready to roar and go to bed satisfied with a day well spent and exited to tackle the next one. I spent a good bit of life in various states of depression, and as I type this I cannot recall the last instant where I was unhappy.
3) I have gained an incredible amount of control over my time. I had about 4 mangers of various calibers at my last position. Now I effectively have none. I'm left to handle my time and classes as I see fit. Every week, I get the bulk of my work done between Sunday and Tuesday, leaving the rest of the week available to help students and improve my teaching methods. Every bit of spare time beyond that is devoted to that age old riddle, "What would you do if you could do anything?" I'm getting there.
Boiled down to the grit: if the big life change you need eludes you, make a small one and crush that sucker with all you've got. Find the key motivator that lets you push through and make the most of your days. ‘Just the next job,” becomes a tool with which you may craft your life to suit your goals. When the time comes for the next big thing, you won’t be overwhelmed. You will be ready for the chase.
Then consider this:
Real Escape is a Japanese phenomenon, which is generally enough to get me in the door. Through my Japanese teacher I met one of the creators a few months back, and he described a real life puzzle game that sounded like a ton of fun. I was invited to go to their Doctor Mad event a couple weeks ago.
Going in, I had no idea to expect. I knew that there would be some sort of brain teaser and logic puzzle element to it, but that was all I knew. I want to give away as little as possible, so that you'll get the most out of it if you go, but it's essentially a real life computer game. There are no fancy graphics-- you're basically in a minimally decorated room with some stuff stuck to the walls, but the skills needed and the procedures of the game reminded me of and old-school adventure game like Monkey Island.
Suffice to say, I had a ton of fun. I've always wished that there were more non-drinking based social nighttime activities, and Real Escape definitely fits the bill. It's very entertaining, if you go solo you'll be put into a group that you'll get to know a little bit, and it's good for your brain.
It's also hard. Very hard. I sort of think that I'm a genius of logic puzzles and the like, but my team failed (unless you count me cracking the lock that the answer was in before the game started). In fact, only one of the ten or so teams actually completed the puzzle. And while I'd like to blame my team for our failure, the most interesting part of the experience was being faced with my own deficiencies.
Here's the scenario: I would wake at 7am, be at work by 8am, have an hour for lunch, then get home around 5pm. I would lounge at home for about an hour before starting dinner. Dinner would be ready by 6:30pm. I would be finished with dinner and and the kitchen would be cleaned by 7pm. I tried to be in bed by 11pm. That means I had a total of 4 hours to myself. Out of 24 hours, I had allotted 4 of those for me. That is under the assumption that between the hours of 7-11 I would not get a parent phone call, have to answer emails, or grade papers. About 83% of the day was centered around work and sleep. No matter how enjoyable I might find teaching to be, I could always find something else better to do with my time.
However, the thought of leaving my job simply to have more time to spend reading, watching movies, playing outside or traveling brought on a lot of anxiety. I felt naive and almost silly for thinking of resigning from my teaching position. For a couple months, I could not shake the thought of 83%. Bottom line, it doesn't matter how much you like your job. For me, it was still a job. It served as a means to an end. Ultimately, it kept me tied to a location and a routine, which at times made it impossible to explore the possibilities of my life.
Currently, I am living in South Korea. Granted, I have a steady job, health insurance, and a loft. You may be wondering what has actually changed aside from residing in another country. Well, at my current teaching position, I work the afternoon shift. Three days out of the week I work from 2:30-8:30 and the other two days I work from 5:40-8:00. Where I was working 200+ hours a month in the US, I am now working only 88 hours. I managed to cut my work time by more than a half, which also means that I spend less than half of my day doing work related activities. I went from 83% to about 33%. My loft is paid for and everything here, food, clothes, and entertainment is about 25% cheaper than in the US. I'm also constantly updated on upcoming travel opportunities. I visited Bali, Jiri Mountain (in Korea), Muui Island, and this winter I will be spending New Years in Tokyo, Japan. This is the beginning of how I half assed the life nomadic.